TWO series of the ITV1 drama Mr Selfridge have interested millions of people in one of the retail trade’s most colourful characters.
But, so far, one important strand of Harry Gordon Selfridge’s life has been missing from the programme – his time at Highcliffe Castle.
Between 1916 and 1922, the castle was the family home to which Selfridge retreated after a week’s business and womanising in London.
And it was at Highcliffe that he laid plans for what would have been the biggest house in the world, on Hengistbury Head.
An exhibition running at the castle until September records his life and his time in the area.
Selfridge was born in Ripon, Wisconsin, leaving school at the age of 14 to begin rising through the ranks at the department store Marshall Field and Company in Chicago.
He visited London in 1906 and was inspired to spend £400,000 building a department store in Oxford Street. The store was an immediate success, welcoming 90,000 customers by lunchtime on its first day.
A trip to Selfridge’s was about more than shopping. The visitor could enjoy live music, palm trees, libraries and a tea garden.
With his business prospering but the First World War raging, Selfridge decided to rent Highcliffe Castle as a family home, for £5,000 a year fully furnished.
The castle’s volunteer historian Ian Stevenson, who has researched Selfridge’s life, said: “There was worry about Zeppelin raids. The family were living in central London.
“He decided he wanted the family to be somewhere safe.”
Selfridge’s life at Highcliffe was much more sedate than his weekday life in the capital, where he was having an affair with the singer Gaby Deslys.
“While he was here, that affair fizzled out a bit, but he spent a lot of money on her,” said Mr Stevenson.
Selfridge had campaigned vigorously for America to join the war. As the casualties mounted, his wife Rosalie established a convalescent camp for US soldiers at what is now Highcliffe Recreation Ground.
The couple’s daughters – another Rosalie and Violette – became Red Cross volunteers and worked at Christchurch Hospital.
Mrs Selfridge died in the influenza outbreak of 1918.
The Echo reported that Highcliffe had ‘lost a valued friend, whose kindness of thought for others, and abounding charity, will be much missed’. Her body lay in state in the castle hall before she was buried at St Mark’s churchyard.
Selfridge remained in Higchlfife, enjoying the life of a celebrity and country gentleman.
“He integrated with the local community,” said Mr Stevenson.
On Whit Monday 1926, he hosted a fete which attracted 5,000 people to the castle.
“It was probably the biggest event that had ever taken place here. People came on charabancs,” said Mr Stevenson.
“The huge attraction was Selfridge himself.”
Selfridge so loved life on the south coast he bought a large area of Hengistbury Head from Sir George Meyrick and began work on plans for a castle of his own – an enormous clifftop home with a 450ft central tower. The architect’s drawings can be seen in the castle’s current exhibition.
Mr Stevenson said: “He wanted to believe it could happen, but I wonder. He had this wonderful plan drawn but it was going to be horrendously expensive – the biggest home in the world.”
Ralph Blumenfeld, the editor of the Daily Express, described it as ‘the most beautiful architectural effort in modern history and I feel it will remain in the region of dreams’.
The cost would have been enormous at an estimated £3million – around £86m-£90m today. Highcliffe Castle manager David Hopkins said: “If he could draw investors in to help, he would have a part of it. I can imagine he may never have thought he was going to pay for it but he could have the vision and draw these people in.”
The plan never got off the drawing board, and Selfridge was to fritter away his fortune, until at the time of his death in 1947 he was living in a flat on Putney Heath.
His love of Highcliffe is reflected in the fact that he is buried, along with his wife and mother, at St Mark’s.
Modern Dorset has reason to be grateful to him. When it became clear his dream home would not be built, he sold Hengistbury Head to Hampshire County Council – but stipulated that it would have to be preserved as public open space.
n Highcliffe Castle’s exhibition about Selfridge runs until September 7. Admission to the castle and exhibition is £3.35, with accompanied under-16s going free.