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Life, loves and losses of a retail magnate
BORN in small-town America in 1857, he founded one of Britain’s greatest commercial institutions, bought and sold a renowned local beauty spot, lost millions in love affairs and was finally laid to rest on the south coast.
Harry Gordon Selfridge, the man credited with originating the saying “The customer is always right’’, first came to the UK in 1906 after amassing a fortune in the retail trade in the United States of America.
During his life, Selfridge spent wildly, living in some splendour in Hampshire which became the centre for his lavish lifestyle.
When Selfridge arrived in London he was unimpressed with the quality of existing British stores and decided to invest £400,000 in building his own department store in the unfashionable western end of Oxford Street.
The new shop, Selfridges, opened on March 15, 1909 and set new standards for the retail business.
His wife died in the influenza pandemic of 1918, leaving the widower to become embroiled in numerous romantic liaisons, including affairs with both Jenny and Rosie, the Dolly Sisters, a dancing duo and stars of the vaudeville Selfridge also indulged himself with a hectic social life, including lavish entertaining at a grand house in the capital’s Berkeley Square.
At the height of his fortune he also leased Highcliffe Castle, now in Dorset but in those days part of Hampshire. In addition he also purchased the whole of Hengistbury Head, where he planned to build an extravagant castle-shaped property overlooking the sea.
This plan never materialised as a survey revealed that the land would be unsuitable for such a large scheme, so in 1930 Hengistbury Head was sold to the local authority.
In the early days Selfridge’s store was an enormous success. Goods were made more accessible to customers, while there were also elegant restaurants with modest prices, a library, reading and writing rooms, special reception rooms for French, German, American and “colonial’’ customers. The shop also boasted a first aid room and a “silence” room, with soft lights, deep chairs and double- glazing, all intended to keep customers in the store.
During the 1930s Selfridge watched his fortune rapidly decline and then disappear, a situation not helped by his free-spending ways.
In 1941, he left Selfridges and moved from his lavish home and travelled around London by bus.
In 1947, Selfridge died, aged 83, in straitened circumstances, in southwest London, and was buried in St Mark’s Churchyard at Highcliffe, next to his wife and his mother.
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