In the 20th century, Bradfordians were in love with a certain type of shopping outlet – the department store! Bradford’s first opened in 1814 with the final one closing in 1995. But what brought the beloved British institution to the high streets of Bradford and what is the story behind them?If you mention a department store to anyone, the names which are likely to come up are Harrods or Selfridges. But Bradford’s first department store predated Harrods by twenty years and Selfridges by nearly a century.
Market Street was the hive of trade in Bradford City Centre in the 1800’s and 1900’s. But one business, in particular, showed this street off to the rest of the UK and that was Brown and Muffs. The business was set up by Mrs. Elizabeth Brown in 1814. She was a 37 year old widow and decided that with her husband’s legacy she was to open a drapers store at 11 Market Street. She had links with the drapery business through her brother and uncle – so it was a mainly family business. By 1822, the shop also included a book shop and public library. In 1828, she went in to partnership with her son, Henry who helped in the shop for many years as a young boy, renaming the store Brown & Son. But, in 1834, Elizabeth retired from the business leaving it to Henry completely before she passed away just a decade after. When his mother died, he decided to go in to partnership with his brother-in-law Thomas Muff and therefore Brown and Muffs was born!
Following the arrival of the railway in Bradford in 1846 business in the city boomed as people flocked from all over to Brown and Muffs. This was complemented later on in the 19th century with the arrival of the Venetian Gothic Wool Exchange (1867) and the Italianate Swan Arcade (1880.) In fact in 1856 there were almost 80 businesses in the area alone, including three public houses, six hairdressers and multiple grocers, jewellers and solicitors. Brown & Muffs as it then became known thrived in to the well known Bradford institution that it became, rivalling Harrods for its reputation in luxury goods. In the 1856 Trade Directory, the business was described as a drapers, hosiers, tailors and hatters. Though a reasonable percentage of the population in Bradford couldn’t shop at the luxury store due to its prices – in 1847-48, the Bradford Poor Law Union was supporting 16,000 people with poor relief (nearly 20% of the population at the time.) The store was fondly remembered by the ordinary worker for its fabulous window displays.
In 1870, due to street improvement plans, the original Brown and Muff building w
as demolished and a new one was built, designed by the renowned architects Knowles and Wilcock. This building still stands today.
In 1878, the store layout was as follows: Ground floor – counting house, oilcloths, hosiery and drapery; First floor – clothing, wool, shawls, mantles, upholstery and tailors room; Second floor – carpets, large dining room for salesmen; Third floor – stock room and kitchen, Fourth floor – feathers, flocks and other articles used for bed furnishing.
In 1905, Brown Muff & Co Ltd was officially incorporated as a private limited company, with Henry, Charles and Frederic Muff alongside George and Richard Walker as shareholders. The company began to expand even further with new departments and properties, including a beauty parlour in 1927. It was affected – like most other businesses – in the early 1930s by the Great Depression but towards the end of the decade, it moved away from its high-class image for a more populist approach, emerging from the depression with considerable optimism. This approach was continued throughout the war and well in to the 1950s – when in 1950, they opened an electrical goods store opposite at 55 Market Street. Six years later, they opened up at Howard House before restructuring their main building in 1958 when the food department was first opened selling delicacies from around the world, otherwise unavailable in Bradford.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Brown Muff & Co continued to look for development opportunities. In 1960, the company enjoyed its best ever year financially with record profits and turnover. Stores began to open up in Skipton in 1961 and Bingley in 1963 just before their 150th anniversary, with a move in to Doncaster in 1975. The company’s success brought the interest of House of Fraser to Brown Muffs, which was now dubbed “the Harrods of the North,” which was looking to extend its store network. By May 1975, House of Fraser owned a 27.2% holding of the company’s shares.
But the 1970’s spelt a disaster for the company. There was an unfortunate massive downturn and the company began to lose substantial amounts. Shareholders were advised to sell out to Birmingham-based department store Rackhams owned by the House of Fraser Group. In 1977, it won the bid for full control of the company.
It was one of the saddest days in February 1978, when the book closed on Brown and Muff and the signs were changed ending the 164-year reign of one of the most successful institutions ever to be in Bradford.
The big name didn’t do the store any favours and the store was forced to close in 1995 closing down finally over 180 years in business. It was a sad end to a Bradford enterprise that had meant so much. Rackhams lasted just 17 years before closing down for the final time in 1995. The store was then split into units now occupied by KFC, Boots, Caffe Nero and many other businesses.
Another famous department store to rise from Bradford was Busby’s. It all started out when Ernest Busby opened his store on 5th October 1908 on Kirkgate. On its very first day of trading, there had to be a police officer on guard as the queues were so long. Busbys closed the Kirkgate store on Easter Sunday 1930 to make the big move to Manningham Lane, which opened on 26th April 1930. The landmark shop started with 40 staff in Kirkgate but by the time of the move to Manningham In World War Two, six employees lost their lives. Tributes were paid, when in 1957, Ernest died aged 87. A friendly merger, seen as a way of securing Busby’s future, was agreed in August 1958 with John Bedford, chairman of Debenhams.
Christmas at Busbys was a well known event around the city because of their Santa Claus and spectacular window displays. But in 1973, Debenhams announced that they were to rebrand all of the stores it owned with the Debenhams branding. Everything to do with Busby’s disappeared including its red and black logo showing four marching and helmeted Coldstream guards. And in 1978 the store finally shut down as the big name once again did nothing for them. However, there was still a feeling in Bradford that the store would reopen but whoever thought this knew they were wrong the year after. Sadly, in 1979, a massive fire ripped through the building devastating all the marvellous Victorian Gothic architecture. It had to be demolished and now the Manningham Lane Retail Park stands on the site which holds some of the best memories of Christmastime in Bradford.