HE was the American who revolutionised the British way of shopping.
The tumultuous life of Harry Gordon Selfridge is the subject of a major Sunday night drama on ITV.
Selfridge spent much of his life in Highcliffe, where he lived in a castle and laid plans to build one of his own. He is buried in the village’s St Mark’s Churchyard – but by the end of his life, his standard of living had declined considerably.
Selfridge left school at 14 and soon began a 25-year rise through the ranks at one of Chicago’s biggest department stores, from stock boy to junior partner.
He is credited with coining the phrase “The customer is always right” and being the first to warn customers that there were “only” however many “shopping days to Christmas”.
After visiting London in 1906, Selfridge became convinced he could create a better department store than the ones he saw. He spent £400,000 building a new shop in Oxford Street.
On its opening day in 1909, Selfridge’s welcomed 90,000 customers by lunchtime. They were awed by a shop which welcomed them with string quartets, palm trees, libraries and a tea garden, with 1,000 staff.
It was thought to be a fear of Zeppelin raids that drove Selfridge to move out of London during the First World War and rent Highcliffe Castle for £5,000 a year fully furnished.
His eldest daughters, Rosalie and Voilette, became Red Cross volunteers and worked at Christchurch Hospital.
Selfridge’s wife, also called Rosalie, was heavily involved in war work, and especially 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 near Christchurch.
Selfridge lost his wife to the influenza epidemic of 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 on which Selfridges employees has sewn 3,000 red roses. In the following months, Violette took over her mother’s work.
Gordon’s mother, Lois, died at Highcliffe in 1924 and was also buried at St Mark’s.
Despite being widowed, Selfridge continued to live lavishly. In 1919, he bought 700 acres of Hengistbury Head from Sir George Meyrick and planned to build a castle there.
He intended his castle to have 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 competition 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 £250,00, 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.
- Highcliffe Castle’s gift shop is stocking the book Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge by Lindy Woodhead, which formed the basis for the TV series Mr Selfridge. The gift shop is opening during January weekends for the first time, from 11am-3pm each Saturday and Sunday. The castle opens for the new season on February 1.