It sold just about everything, but mostly toys and sports equipment, and prided itself on offering lower prices than any of its competitors.
In September 1930 a new department store opened in Oxford Street with a frontage over 100 meters wide. The Observer reported that it received more than 100,000 visitors on its first day and was “tremendously popular”, but within months it had closed, making it one of the biggest failures retail outlets ever recorded. What was surprising was that it was a branch of Gamages, who for many years had run a very successful department store of a very different kind, a far cry from the West End in Holborn.
Gamages was started by Albert Walter Gamage who in 1878, aged 21, rented a small hosiery shop at 128 Holborn and came to own most of the Leather Lane block in Hatton Garden.
From the start, its policy was to undercut everything else, offering virtually everything a typical customer would need for less than its competitors could afford. A good early example was a hairbrush with wire bristles, which cost one shilling and sixpence (0.09p) while in other places it was two shillings and sixpence (0.13p) .
Gamages had brought together a large number of departments, it must be admitted, in a rather dilapidated way. They included downstairs gear, photography, camping, pets, a huge toy area, and plenty of sports equipment. At the end of the 19th century, Gamages presented itself as “the largest sports and athletics equipment supplier in the world”. They were particularly proud of their watchmaking section, saying that every watch for sale had undergone rigorous testing at every stage of production.
You could buy a car from the auto department – where Albert Gamage’s body apparently lay as it was when he died in 1930 – or choose a cheap bike from the dizzying number on display or from the Gamages catalog which sometimes numbered up to 1,300 pages. , with a lion’s share devoted to bicycles. The store also had a conjuring section, which I remember visiting when I was a kid.
The Holborn store continued to operate despite the disastrous business in Oxford Street, where the emphasis was on high-end fashion and women could talk to friends by phone while having their hair done. Afterwards, they can head to the store’s 400-seat restaurant or its rooftop garden to play miniature golf. But it was launched at the start of the Great Depression and Simon Marks of Marks and Spencer next door decided to keep all its prices below five shillings – a fatal blow.
The final irony is that the site of that stillborn West End Gamages is now occupied by – wait for it – Primark, a hugely successful latter-day iteration of the cut-price model pioneered by Holborn Gamages. This original Gamages finally closed in 1972. It was one of the first true department stores and a revered family name.
This article is 15 of 25 written by Vic Keegan on Places of Historic Interest in Holborn, Farringdon, Clerkenwell, Bloomsbury and St Giles, kindly supported by the Central District Alliance Business Improvement District, which serves these areas. London’s policy on ‘supported content’ can be read here.