Saturday, October 1, 2011

Woolland Bros. Ltd.

The firm of Woolland Brothers began modestly in 1869, when Samuel and William Woolland, from Bridford in Devon, took over a draper's shop at No. 2 Lowndes Terrace. Though the shop was apparently aimed chiefly at the needs of servants, it soon attracted notice in the trade press for its 'exceptionally good' window display:

'The fancy window was dressed close up to the pane, and divided into tiers, with a long ticket right across the width, dividing the several classes of goods — piles of ribbons at the bottom, then a long stretch of flowers, scarves next, two or three rows of gloves, and rows of broad striped linen cuffs in conclusion; in the next window a bottom of blocked dress goods, with a row of light grenadines looped up along the front, cambrics at the back and side, the lobby being occupied in one pane with cuffs and lace goods and in the other with hosiery.'

Over the years the shop expanded into the neighbouring houses, until by 1892 it had taken over the entire eastern half of Lowndes Terrace (from 1903 Nos 95–107 Knightsbridge). The Woollands — three bachelor brothers, Samuel, William, and Moses, and their spinster sister Mary — were then living round the corner at No. 17 William Street.

By this time the original drapery business had diversified to encompass household linens, soft furnishings, outfitting, haberdashery and accessories; and its clientele had become high-class, even aristocratic. The Duchess of Portland was spotted there in 1893, 'patronizing the after season sale'.

In 1896 began the first phase of a program of complete rebuilding, which continued into 1900–01, the final phase, covering the sites of houses at the rear of Lowndes Terrace in William Street (including No. 17). The new store was designed by Henry L. Florence and erected by W. Cubitt & Company. Of fireproof construction throughout, it was built on a steel frame and faced in Portland stone, with a profusion of carved baroque ornamentation and copper-covered domes at the corners. Other than on the ground floor, where there was a continuous run of plateg lass display window, it had all the appearance of a traditional masonry building, with a conventional pattern of fenestration .

In the early 1900s Edward VII's mistress, Alice Keppel, would bring her two young daughters down from Edinburgh four times a year to shop at Woollands. Sonia Keppel recalled:
"In those days, the 'Juvenile Department' at Woollands was situated on the third or fourth floor. Grimly, the lift man shut his concertina-gates on us, and very, very slowly we ascended to our appointment with 'No. 10'.

'We never discovered whether 'No. 10' had had Christian baptism and a name of her own. To Violet and me, she remained a numerical cipher that sucked pins. Always she was bent double at our feet, measuring our skirts, slithering round on her poor, old knees."
Up-to-date at the turn of the century, by the 1930s Woollands had come to seem old and cramped. No further rebuilding took place, although in 1913 the firm had acquired the freehold, not only of the store, but of almost the entire block between William and Seville Streets, including the houses on the north side of Lowndes Square (these last, however, were disbarred by covenant from being put to business use). In 1949 Woollands was acquired by the Debenhams group, already in possession of its next-door rival, Harvey Nichols. For some years Debenhams maintained the distinctive character of each establishment, but by the mid-1960s the co-existence of the two large stores had ceased to be viable, and in 1967, the site having been sold for redevelopment, Woollands closed. The premises were demolished two years later for the building of what is now the Sheraton Park Tower hotel.

By Paul Green

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