John Lewis, Oxford Street

18 September 1940

By Ronan Thomas

John Lewis & Co Ltd - at 278 Oxford Street on the corner with Holles Street - was hit by incendiaries in the early hours of 18 September 1940. 200 people were sleeping in the store’s basement air raid shelter. In the same raid, bombs damaged four other department stores on Oxford Street: Selfridges, Bourne & Hollingsworth (today’s Plaza Shopping Centre at No 120), Peter Robinson (today’s Niketown at No 200-236) and DH Evans. John Lewis's suffered catastrophic fire damage.

Just before 12.15am, the store’s West House – completed in 1897 and facing Oxford Street - was struck by a German oil incendiary bomb, showering the building with a mixture of burning oil and petrol. Fire rapidly took hold and was spread by the wind across Holles Street, destroying the interior of John Lewis's East House (a 1928 extension today occupied by British Home Stores, Royal Bank of Scotland, the London College of Fashion and the Carphone Warehouse).

Heavy piles of burning debris fell into Holles Street and into Cavendish Square at the rear of the store. No casualties were reported among the staff or in the basement shelter but three firemen arriving at the scene were reported killed by an additional falling high explosive bomb. Oxford Street was sealed off: 30 fire engines tackled the blaze; crews struggled until 20 September to bring the flames under control. St Marylebone Civil Defence records show that fire broke out again on 25 September. By then, John Lewis’s was almost entirely burnt out, its East and West Houses reduced to fire-scorched shells.

In the following days, writer and wartime BBC broadcaster George Orwell walked past the smouldering John Lewis bomb site and noted the disconcerting sight of shop window mannequins piled up outside. Fellow journalist Kingsley Martin later described the remnants of John Lewis’s as “like the ruins of a Greek temple”.  A small tin was found containing the staff's tea money - welded to its metal base by the heat of the fire. John Lewis staff salvaged what was left from the ashes. Seemingly undaunted by the loss of their store, department managers set up trestle tables in front of the site to sell goods directly to passers-by. Three weeks later, part of John Lewis’s East House was reopened for business.

In October 1940, the store’s General Manager noted in a letter that although:

"all woodwork and everything else inflammable has been destroyed completely…we shall be able to deal in the regular way with all orders by post addressed to us at Oxford Street. The staff of our Furnishing Departments will wait upon customers in their own homes up to thirty miles from London and at greater distances if the order is substantial”.

Salvage teams were kept busy at John Lewis’s until 23 November 1940. But the original buildings were now beyond repair. They were subsequently demolished as dangerous structures. Colour footage of the levelled site was filmed by St Marylebone Chief Air Raid Warden A.E. Reneson Coucher.

Later in the war, the store continued to do its bit for the war effort, hosting a series of popular public exhibitions in its basement air raid shelter. John Lewis - a presence on Oxford Street since 1864 – remained a bomb site until 1954. The store was completely rebuilt by architects Slater & Uren during 1958-1960.

For more on the raids on Oxford Street on 17-18 September 1940 see:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/london/hi/people_and_places/history/newsid_8937000/8937074.stm

For film of John Lewis & Co Ltd during the Blitz see Rare Colour Film Footage pages (Part 5 of The St Marylebone Society Collection)

 

 

Photo:John Lewis's before the war (West and East Houses)

John Lewis's before the war (West and East Houses)

Copyright John Lewis Partnership Archive Collection

Photo:Incendiary Damage to John Lewis (West House), 18 September 1940

Incendiary Damage to John Lewis (West House), 18 September 1940

Copyright Westminster City Archives

Photo:St Marylebone ARP Message, 18 September 1940

St Marylebone ARP Message, 18 September 1940

Copyright Westminster City Archives

Photo:Fire-damaged John Lewis (West House), 18 September 1940

Fire-damaged John Lewis (West House), 18 September 1940

Copyright Westminster City Archives

Photo:St Marylebone ARP Message, 18 September 1940

St Marylebone ARP Message, 18 September 1940

Copyright Westminster City Archives

Photo:Rebuilding work on the John Lewis site

Rebuilding work on the John Lewis site

Copyright John Lewis Partnership Archive Collection

Photo:Exhibition area on the John Lewis site

Exhibition area on the John Lewis site

Copyright John Lewis Partnership Archive Collection

Photo:General Manager's letter describing the bombing

General Manager's letter describing the bombing

Copyright John Lewis Partnership Archive Collection

Photo:St Marylebone ARP Message, 19 September 1940

St Marylebone ARP Message, 19 September 1940

Copyright Westminster City Archives

Photo:St Marylebone ARP Message Form, 1940

St Marylebone ARP Message Form, 1940

Copyright Westminster City Archives

Photo:St Marylebone ARP Message, 1940

St Marylebone ARP Message, 1940

Copyright Westminster City Archives

John Lewis & Co Ltd Department Store

This page was added by Camilla Bergman on 16/06/2010.

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