17 June 2012

The Town's First Department Store: Warwick House

Illustration taken from larger of whole street.
Jenni Coles-Harris, 2011

Warwick House was Birmingham's first department store and the first palatial building in the town; it was completed in 1839, the design being by Suffolk born architect, William Thomas.* It shop was built in the early Victorian era and would have been a dramatic insertion into Georgian and Regency New Street, where it was erected and towered above the three mid-Georgian terraces that stood between it and the Pantechnetheca. It had been commissioned by draper William Holliday and his then partner Mr. Merrett and sold all manner of fabrics, ribbons, ready made and tailored clothing and also carpets.*

The original site had been that of two old cottages, described some years later from the memories of Eliezer Edwards; 'one abutted upon the footway, and the other stood some thirty feet back, a pretty garden being in the front. The latter had been occupied by Mr. James Busby, who carried on the business of a wire-worker at the rear. The ground floor frontages of both had been taken out. A roof had been placed over the garden, two hideous small-framed bay windows fronted New Street, and a third faced what is now “Warwick House Passage.” The whole place had a curious “pig-with-one-ear” kind of aspect, the portion which had been the garden having no upper floors, while the other was three storeys high. The premises had been “converted” by a now long-forgotten association, called the “Drapery Company”, and as this had not been successful, Mr. Holliday and [...] Mr. Merrett had become its successors'.*

Warwick House, when built, was numbered 28 to 30 New Street, it was extended by double sometime in the early to mid 1850s in the same style as the original building, removing two of the small Georgian terraces at numbers 26 and 27 (and perhaps the third at number 25). It was a massive establishment, the 1851 census includes four pages of live-in workers and the display windows were immense for the period; imagine going to the cinema for the first time when you had only ever seen a small box television. The design was still classically influenced with the composite columns but William Thomas topped the building with an incredibly ornate attic floor topped with pinnacles.

Illustration by Jenni Coles-Harris, copyright 2011.
*References available on request.

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