Celebrating the rich history of Cavendish House, Cheltenham
PUBLISHED: 09:36 26 February 2019 | UPDATED: 15:31 09 November 2020
Once known as the Harrods of the West and home to a thriving food hall, Cavendish House may have an uncertain future but also enjoys a glorious past
With all eyes on the opening of the John Lewis and Partners store in Cheltenham recently, perhaps we should give Cavendish House a bit of attention. No one really knows if House of Fraser is going to continue trading in the building which has been the site of a department store for 200 years.
The struggling House of Fraser chain was taken over by Mike Ashley’s company, Sports Direct, in August and he has vowed to turn the department store chain into the ‘Harrods of the High Street’ and to keep most of its stores open.
But has Cavendish House had its heyday? There are currently lease negotiations taking place and surely the new John Lewis and Partners store will pose a threat. Along with this, the future of the high street isn’t looking good with the trend towards online shopping. Despite all the negatives, we decided to take a look at the rich history of store which has been such a prominent part of Cheltenham for so many years.
Did you know the Cavendish House was once owned by Harrods? Or that it used to have a food hall? Or that staff used to live on the premises and that its traditional iron railings were melted down for the war effort?
It all began in 1818 when a drapers store (a cloth seller,) was founded on what was to become Cheltenham’s Promenade The shop was called Pooley and Smith and since then the premises never looked back. Pooley and Smith prospered in their ‘Promenade Villas’ and eventually came to the attention of William Debenham, a successful London storekeeper.
In 1937, when Queen Victoria came to the throne, Mr Debenham acquired a stake in Pooley and Smith’s drapery and persuaded them to change the name. Debenham ran a large store in London and because it drew a lot of its business from nearby Cavendish Square, he named the store Cavendish House. Expansion began and business boomed and in 1844 the store announced ‘New and Extensive Premises’ with adverts for ‘Dinner and Evening Dresses’ and their special arrangements made to show, ‘the effect of every colour by candle light.’
In George Rowe’s Illustrated Cheltenham Guide of 1845, he writes about the ‘handsome elevations’ of Cavendish House the ‘silk Mercery Est of Messrs. Debenham, Pooley and Smith, where are exhibited the richest and most elegant variety of materials.’
The store continued to expand and in 1851 Clement Freebody, who had married Debenham’s sister, was made a partner of the London store and then assumed control of the Cheltenham store. By then it was a, ‘silk mercers, linen drapers, hosiers, lacemen, milliners, dress makers, upholsterers, carpet wharehouseman, bedding manufacturers.’ Provision was made for staff to live on the premises.
Some two years later the store had 24 departments and a ‘dynamic’ Mr Hewett joined the firm. By 1883 he had taken sole control of the business and formed it into a private limited company. At the time it was reported that, ‘Never within our recollection has Cheltenham appeared so gay, so brisk, so animated as in the present season.’
In 1892 a Mrs Talbot Coke visited the town and wrote, ‘A Day in Cheltenham’ after she had strolled along the Promenade admiring the Crimean War guns and the, ‘prosperous looking shop windows, the pretty villas and the general air of refinement and order.’
However, she says, ‘I did not come to Cheltenham to write about guns but to see the, ‘revised version of the delightful establishment owned by the Cavendish House Company.’ She wanted to see the ‘daring originality’ of the windows. After passing through the furniture departments, she gazed, ‘admiringly on a choice of European and Oriental carpets and rugs, ‘which I should have honestly, never expected to find out of London.’
In 1898, the department store was converted to electric light which at that time was a sure sign of the company’s success and it continued to thrive into the next century.
In the Gloucestershire Echo in 1935 an advert promises that, ‘There’s always something going on at Cavendish House; something to be seen that’s a little newer, more beautiful, more interesting maybe, than you will find elsewhere. There’s always the courtesy of the staff, their helpfulness and the same earnest desire to meet your every requirement.’ The Restaurant at Cavendish House also used to be the, ‘ideal rendezvous for Lunch, Tea or Coffee.’
After further expansion, by 1938, the store had a floor area of over 163,000 sq ft – more than 100 times the size of the original shop. Despite all the expansion, extensive alterations to modernise the store took place from 1962 and were completed in 1966 including a new façade.
Later on, the store was to become known as the ‘Harrods of the West’ and in 1972 it became part of the Harrods group but in 1975 it left the group and joined the House of Fraser. This is when there used to be a thriving food hall selling hand-made cheddar cheese wheels, quails eggs and fresh Wye Salmon.
It was quite sad to read a feature in Cotswold Life 1973 which celebrated the store, ‘Built on a century and a half of experience and service to the people of Cheltenham, Cavendish House is undoubtedly, ‘A Store of History’ and, indeed, a store of the future which will continue to provide the very best of merchandise in the finest surroundings.’
It was even more sad to then wander the deserted aisles of Cavendish House and think what’s to become of such a historical building.
Sources: George Rowe’s Illustrated Cheltenham Guide, 1845, A Day in Cheltenham by Mrs Talbot Coke, 1892 and Cotswold Life 1973 feature, ‘A Store of History.’