Fabric of Liverpool; Daysix David Charters Examines the History of George Henry Lee's Store

Article excerpt

Byline: David Charters

MEMORIES are always being stirred in the crazy brew of this city's folk history.

And, in its own way, George Henry Lee's has a proud place alongside the Liver Building, The Cavern, Goodison Park, Anfield and the two cathedrals.

Indeed, to some the department store was a secular cathedral, in which one worshipped good taste and "refainment", where the menu in the restaurant offered "aspic de foie gras" and people of standing sipped tea from bone china cups.

Those who had risen fast crooked their little fingers in a genteel manner to show everyone else that they, too, belonged to the middle-class.

For those were the days of the instant off.

Down the decades, countless thousands of feet have sunk into the generous pile of carpets laid lushly like a bishop's croquet lawn over the floors of this shop, which grew up with Liverpool, sharing her sorrows and triumphs.

"The shop was part of Liverpool's fabric," a company spokesman says.

But, in the ceaseless hum of daily life, how many eyes missed the splendours of the building, the stained glass windows, the sculpted cherubs, the numerous carvings on the exterior?

Now, as it approaches its final year on the present site at Basnett Street and Church Street, the store's management is collecting together items and memories from its glorious past, when shopping was a gracious occupation, when supermarkets knew their place and high streets were hushed on Sundays.

GEORGE Henry Lee, home of school uniforms and prams the size of carriages, was shopping for some people.

Of course, it has been John Lewis since 2002, but for Liverpudlians of a certain age, it has always been and always will be George Henry Lee's.

But time tramples sentiment and in March, 2008, during Liverpool's year as the European Capital of Culture, the shop will re-open in Grosvenor's Paradise Street development. Then it will, unquestionably, be called John Lewis, after the famous Partnership, which has owned the existing store since 1940, with the slogan "never knowingly undersold".

Contrasts colour life.

And that was particularly true in this port, which crept up the hill from the beckoning waters of the Mersey to become one of the great symbols of Britain's imperial might.

But, in the dripping and fetid courts on those long-gone days, you could hear the cries of babies sucking on the dry breasts of mothers, wearied by hunger and yearly childbirth.

You could also hear the tringtring from the bell on the door to the bonnet shop belonging to Henry Boswell Lee.

Soon the young women sitting straight in their finery on stools before the looking-glasses would be giggling, gasping and ribbing each other, as attentive assistants brought them a succession of hats in all the latest fashions.

Innocent and hopeful young faces flushed in the flattering reflections. Mr Lee bowed courteously.

"When out of doors, the properly dressed lady will find that bonnets are still considered the correct formal wear," he would advise.

"They can be decorated with ribbons, feathers or flowers."

Bonnets were all the rage then. A pillbox was favoured for visiting with coloured ribbon or velvet. The advertisements said that one would go well with sleek hair. But lace frills were ideal with a straw cartwheel. For home, the well-groomed young lady should pick a small cap made of guipure, taffeta or velvet.

Trans-Atlantic trade and the burgeoning Empire had made Liverpool. From a small port, it grew with astonishing rapidity during the 19th century. This was a place for ambitious young men.

With ambition comes wealth and a desire to look the part. Enter Henry Boswell Lee.

By 1835, he was a merchant in straw plaits for boaters and bonnets. His first shop was on James Street and then he moved to Hunter Street. …