One can only imagine the excitement in the sleepy village of Highcliffe when word got around just who was going to lease the local castle. No less a person than Mr Harry Gordon Selfridge, the man who taught us how to shop.
Selfridge had arrived from the USA in 1906, after working his way up from stock boy to junior partner at one of the grandest stores in Chicago. During his London visit he became convinced he could do better and spent £400,000 building his eponymous Oxford Street store.
He was right. On that first day in 1909, Mr Selfridge – accompanied by string quartets and palm trees – welcomed 90,000 customers before lunchtime. They were ministered to by 1,000 staff and, when bored of shopping, could attend the library or the tea-garden.
“The customer is always right,” was his motto and he is believed to be the person who started informing us how many shopping days there were to Christmas.
Things may have been all bright on the retail front but the storm-clouds of war were gathering over Europe. And when they arrived they brought with them a new and terrifying menace – Zeppelins.
It was too much for Mr Selfridge, he looked around for a safer place for his wife, Rose, and their children and found it beside the sea in Highcliffe where he rented the castle from its owner for a princely £5,000 a year.
The family threw themselves into the war effort. Daughters Rosalie and Violette became Red Cross volunteers and worked at Christchurch Hospital and Mrs Selfridge became heavily involved in the care of wounded American soldiers. Many of them were treated at the home she established in Christchurch, the Mrs Gordon Selfridge Convalescent Soldiers’ Camp.
The war finished but, for the Selfridge family there was personal tragedy to overcome – Mrs Selfridge died in the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918. The Echo reported on May 16 that year: “The pretty village of Highcliffe and its vicinity has, in the death on Sunday of Mrs H Gordon Selfridge, lost a valued friend, whose kindness of thought for others, and abounding charity, will be much missed.”
The paper highlighted her work establishing the home for American soldiers. “This was erected on the recreation ground, and there, for many weeks past, our gallant Allies have found a home, reaping the full benefit also of the invigorating sea breezes which make the site ideal for such a purpose.”
Before her burial, Rose’s body lay in state in the castle hall, covered by a silk sheet upon which Selfridges employees had sewn 3,000 red roses. In the following months, Violette took over her mother’s work.
In 1919, Mr Selfridge bought 700 acres of Hengistbury Head from Sir George Meyrick and planned to build a castle there complete with 250 bedrooms, four miles of walls and its own theatre.
But it remained a pipe dream, and instead, he spent £25,000 in 1925 on improvements to Highcliffe Castle, despite only being a tenant.
In May 1926, the Echo rhapsodised about a fete there. “The charming grounds of Highcliffe Castle have been the scene of many brilliant functions, but no gathering has been more popular or more successful than the garden fete held at this delightful retreat yesterday through the kindness of Mr Gordon Selfridge,” it said.
More than 5,000 had attended the fundraiser, whose highlights included a beauty contest and a dancing competition.
But Selfridge’s wealthy lifestyle could not last. He was frittering away his fortune on high living and mistresses and, in 1939, with debts of £250,000, he was forced to resign from the board of Selfridge’s.
At the time of his death in 1947 he was living on £2,000 a year in a flat in Putney Heath and was buried, close to his wife, in the churchyard of St Marks in Highcliffe underneath a low, plain, headstone.
However, with the lavish ITV production, Mr Selfridge’s star has risen again, brought to life with great enthusiasm by American actor Jeremy Piven.
Like the character he plays, he’s fallen in love with the UK and has even managed to spend some time on holiday in the New Forest – close to Selfridge’s old Highcliffe stamping ground.
“I love it,” Piven insists. “The cool thing is that I matched up perfectly with Harry Selfridge. I was an American making my way here, as was he, so we were kind of mirroring each other. I didn’t look too far for inspiration.”
However, his part has lead to some amusing moments, including one where he was shopping in Selfridges. “People here are very respectful,” he says. “But I did have this woman come up to me and ask whether there was any way I could talk to my workers, because she had a manicure and pedicure at Selfridges and it hadn’t held up. That was cute!”