Debenhams: Looking back at 242 years of history

Debenhams has been a mainstay on UK high streets for 242 years, but is now set to shut its doors for good.

In 1778 William Clark opened a drapers store on 44 Wigmore Street in central London, selling expensive fabrics, bonnets, gloves and parasols.

The business had a modest start in life, with Mr Clark continuing to run the single store until meeting a potential investor.

William Debenham formed a partnership with the store owner in 1813, pumping funds into the business which then became Clark & Debenham.

Five years later it opened its first store outside the capital, in Cheltenham, and started to dramatically expand.

The business became Clark & Debenham, after William Clark opened a drapers store in 1778 on 44 Wigmore Street in London. Mr Clark had initially opened the shop selling expensive fabrics, bonnets, gloves and parasols, before it was renamed

The business became Clark & Debenham, after William Clark opened a drapers store in 1778 on 44 Wigmore Street in London. Mr Clark had initially opened the shop selling expensive fabrics, bonnets, gloves and parasols, before it was renamed

The business became Clark & Debenham, after William Clark opened a drapers store in 1778 on 44 Wigmore Street in London. Mr Clark had initially opened the shop selling expensive fabrics, bonnets, gloves and parasols, before it was renamed

Glamour model Gemma Atkinson launches an Ultimo store within Debenhams in Belfast in December 2007

Glamour model Gemma Atkinson launches an Ultimo store within Debenhams in Belfast in December 2007

Glamour model Gemma Atkinson launches an Ultimo store within Debenhams in Belfast in December 2007

Shoppers are seen charging through the doors of a Debenhams department store on the first day of the sales in 1977

Shoppers are seen charging through the doors of a Debenhams department store on the first day of the sales in 1977

Shoppers are seen charging through the doors of a Debenhams department store on the first day of the sales in 1977

Penny Lancaster models Ultimo lingerie at Debenhams on Oxford Street in October 2002

Penny Lancaster models Ultimo lingerie at Debenhams on Oxford Street in October 2002

Kim Kardashian launches her 'True Reflection' fragrance range at a Debenhams store in London in May 2012

Kim Kardashian launches her 'True Reflection' fragrance range at a Debenhams store in London in May 2012

Penny Lancaster models Ultimo lingerie at Debenhams on Oxford Street in October 2002 (left), while Kim Kardashian launches her ‘True Reflection’ fragrance range at a Debenhams store in London ten years later in May 2012

When Clement Freebody invested in the firm in 1851 it was renamed Debenham & Freebody, and continued to grow by snapping up smaller rivals and expanding its wholesale operations.

Acquisitions continued into the next century and in 1905 Debenhams Ltd was formed.

After the First World War ended, the retailer merged with Marshall & Snellgrove, and in 1920 purchased Knightsbridge retailer Harvey Nichols.

Seven years later the Debenham family exited the business as it was listed on the London Stock exchange.

By 1950, Debenhams was the largest department store group in the UK, owning 84 companies and 110 stores.

In 1985 Debenhams merged to become part of Burton Group, which soon rebranded as Arcadia, before splitting away 13 years later after a period of rapid store expansion and the launch of its first international franchise sites. 

William Debenham (above) formed a partnership with drapers store owner William Clark in 1813, pumping funds into the business which then became Clark & Debenham. Five years later it opened its first store outside the capital, in Cheltenham

William Debenham (above) formed a partnership with drapers store owner William Clark in 1813, pumping funds into the business which then became Clark & Debenham. Five years later it opened its first store outside the capital, in Cheltenham

William Debenham (above) formed a partnership with drapers store owner William Clark in 1813, pumping funds into the business which then became Clark & Debenham. Five years later it opened its first store outside the capital, in Cheltenham

Shoppers browse for bargains at a Debenhams department store at the start of its sale on December 27, 1977

Shoppers browse for bargains at a Debenhams department store at the start of its sale on December 27, 1977

Shoppers browse for bargains at a Debenhams department store at the start of its sale on December 27, 1977

Crowds of shoppers pack into the Debenhams on London's Oxford Street for the post-Christmas sales in December 1982

Crowds of shoppers pack into the Debenhams on London's Oxford Street for the post-Christmas sales in December 1982

Crowds of shoppers pack into the Debenhams on London’s Oxford Street for the post-Christmas sales in December 1982 

Bargain hunters burst into Debenhams department store at 9am on December 27, 1977 for the start of the winter sales

Bargain hunters burst into Debenhams department store at 9am on December 27, 1977 for the start of the winter sales

Bargain hunters burst into Debenhams department store at 9am on December 27, 1977 for the start of the winter sales

Following demerger from the Burton Group, Debenhams was listed on the London Stock Exchange until 2003, when it was acquired by Baroness Retail.

Baroness, backed by private equity firms CVC Capital Partners and Texas Pacific Group, started to strip the company’s assets, including a £450 million sale and leaseback of 26 properties and internal cost-cutting.

Three years later, Baroness almost tripled its value as it was floated on the stock market, but the retail group was now weighed down by a portfolio hamstrung with expensive rental agreements.

Nevertheless, Debenhams continued to grow, acquiring nine stores from Roches in the Republic of Ireland in 2007 and Magasin du Nord, the leading department store chain in Denmark, two years after. 

The company also had a partnerships with Michelle Mone’s Ultimo bra company in the 2000s, which led to a series of photoshoots with glamour models inside its stores. 

In 2014, after a decline in company profits, retail tycoon Mike Ashley bought 4.6 per cent of the company’s shares.

People queue outside Debenhams on Oxford Street ahead of the sale opening on December 27, 1978

People queue outside Debenhams on Oxford Street ahead of the sale opening on December 27, 1978

People queue outside Debenhams on Oxford Street ahead of the sale opening on December 27, 1978

Sir Ralph Halpern is pictured in Debenhams Oxford Street in November 1985 after his latest acquisition for the Burton Group

Sir Ralph Halpern is pictured in Debenhams Oxford Street in November 1985 after his latest acquisition for the Burton Group

Sir Ralph Halpern is pictured in Debenhams Oxford Street in November 1985 after his latest acquisition for the Burton Group

Businessman Sir Ralph Halpern, pictured at Debenhams Oxford Street with store manager David Elliott, in November 1985

Businessman Sir Ralph Halpern, pictured at Debenhams Oxford Street with store manager David Elliott, in November 1985

Businessman Sir Ralph Halpern, pictured at Debenhams Oxford Street with store manager David Elliott, in November 1985

The Debenhams store at Luton in Bedfordshire is pictured in July 1987

The Debenhams store at Luton in Bedfordshire is pictured in July 1987

The Debenhams store at Luton in Bedfordshire is pictured in July 1987

He steadily increased his ownership of the department store business, expanding it to 29.7 per cent by 2018.

However, the business had now felt the full effect of difficult high street conditions and sky-high rents, resulting in a £491 million pre-tax loss in 2018.

By April of 2019, the retail giant entered administration and delisted from the stock market.

It undertook a major restructuring, designed to restore it to its former glory, but now appears likely to disappear for good after Christmas, after entering liquidation.

Now, Debenhams is to start a liquidation process after JD Sports confirmed it had pulled out of a possible rescue deal, putting 12,000 workers at risk.

The 242-year-old department store chain said its administrators have ‘regretfully’ decided to start winding down operations while continuing to seek offers ‘for all or parts of the business’. 

Michelle Mone opens the Ultimo lingerie brand's first concession at Debenhams in Liverpool in 2015

Michelle Mone opens the Ultimo lingerie brand's first concession at Debenhams in Liverpool in 2015

Michelle Mone opens the Ultimo lingerie brand’s first concession at Debenhams in Liverpool in 2015

A Debenhams fashion campaign in 2010 featuring Shannon Murray who had been using a wheelchair since her teens

A Debenhams fashion campaign in 2010 featuring Shannon Murray who had been using a wheelchair since her teens

A Debenhams fashion campaign in 2010 featuring Shannon Murray who had been using a wheelchair since her teens

Lingerie designer Aliza Reger (centre) with models to launch the new lingerie department in the Oxford Street store in 2013

Lingerie designer Aliza Reger (centre) with models to launch the new lingerie department in the Oxford Street store in 2013

Lingerie designer Aliza Reger (centre) with models to launch the new lingerie department in the Oxford Street store in 2013

Debenhams chief executive Belinda Earl and finance director Matthew Roberts at their store in London's Oxford Street in 2002 ahead of annual results which saw the company's profits rise to £153.6million from the previous year's £146.1million

Debenhams chief executive Belinda Earl and finance director Matthew Roberts at their store in London's Oxford Street in 2002 ahead of annual results which saw the company's profits rise to £153.6million from the previous year's £146.1million

Debenhams chief executive Belinda Earl and finance director Matthew Roberts at their store in London’s Oxford Street in 2002 ahead of annual results which saw the company’s profits rise to £153.6million from the previous year’s £146.1million

A person walks past a boarded up Debenhams on Oxford Street on April 16 during the first coronavirus lockdown of the year

A person walks past a boarded up Debenhams on Oxford Street on April 16 during the first coronavirus lockdown of the year

A person walks past a boarded up Debenhams on Oxford Street on April 16 during the first coronavirus lockdown of the year

It is understood that the collapse of rescue talks were partly linked to the administration of Arcadia Group, which is the biggest operator of concessions in Debenhams stores.

Debenhams said it will continue to trade through its 124 UK stores and online to clear its current and contracted stocks.

‘On conclusion of this process, if no alternative offers have been received, the UK operations will close,’ the company said in statement. 

Debenhams has already axed 6,500 jobs across its operation due to heavy cost-cutting after it entered administration for the second time in 12 months.

Arcadia tumbled into insolvency on Monday evening, casting a shadow over its own 13,000 workers and 444 stores. 

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