Debenhams: The famous store's 242-year rise and fall

ITV News Consumer Editor Chris Choi reports on the legacy of the high street chain Debenhams

Debenhams’ time as a staple of the British high street is coming to an end after 242 years.

Beginning with a tale of two Williams, the business quickly expanded – first to Cheltenham and then, eventually, to more than 90 countries.

Its last stores will close on Friday and Saturday for the final time as it encouraged shoppers to take advantage of remaining heavy discounts.

The brand will live on online but the sprawling shops, with their racks of clothes, electrical items, kitchens and outdoor products will be no more.

Here’s a look at the rise and fall of the UK’s biggest department store group.

The early years

Debenhams began life as a drapers store in 1778 at 44 Wigmore Street in London’s West End, where William Clark sold expensive fabrics, bonnets, gloves and parasols.

In 1813, William Debenham offered an investment in the firm, which then became Clark & Debenham and marked the beginning of the Debenham family involvement.

Things started to happen for the firm as they expanded into Cheltenham in 1818 with a store matching the design of the original exactly.

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According to the store’s own account, the following years saw great prosperity thanks to the Victorian fashion for family mourning – by which widows and other female relatives adhered to a strict code of clothing and etiquette.

At the midway point of the 1800s, Clement Freebody put up an investment, which changed the store’s name to Debenham & Freebody.

Offices would open in South Africa, Australia, Canada and China over the course of the next five decades.

Debenhams came from humble beginnings to eventually opening a store in Oxford Street, London. Credit: PA

Growth in the 1900s

In 1905, Debenhams Ltd was incorporated and in 1919 it merged with Marshall & Snellgrove. One year later, it purchased Harvey Nichols.

In 1927, the Debenham family ended its time with the business and the following year it became a public company.

Growth continued, and by 1950 Debenhams was the largest department store group in the country with 84 companies and 110 stores.

A fireman at the scene after a fire in the Luton store. Credit: PA

But it wasn't all smooth-sailing for the retail giant.

Stores were targeted in the 1980s by animal right activists protesting against the fur trade, setting off fire bombs in three outlets.

Years later in 2012, Green MP Caroline Lucas alleged an undercover police officer planted the bomb in one of the stores and the Metropolitan Police reopened the investigation in 2016.

In 1997, the first international franchise store opened in Bahrain.

Following de-merger from the Burton Group in 1998, whose association lasted since 1985, Debenhams was listed on the London Stock Exchange until 2003, when it was acquired by Baroness Retail Ltd.

Debenhams returned to the London Stock Exchange in May 2006.

Boxing day sales were once a big draw for shoppers. Credit: PA

In September 2007, the company bought nine stores from Roches in the Republic of Ireland.

In November 2009, Debenhams acquired Magasin du Nord, the leading department store chain in Denmark.

Debenhams made headlines again in 2016 when a pensioner died after being locked in the toilet of a store in Kent.

Financial troubles

After decades of growth, the warning signs were clear when sales started to slide in 2013. The company announced a profit warning, amounting to a 26% plunge, and shares dropped 12%.

Shortly afterwards in January 2014, Simon Herrick, the company’s chief financial officer, resigned after the profits warning.

The historic retail chain is now set to close its doors for good. Credit: PA

There were some encouraging figures in 2015 as Debenhams enjoyed its first rise in annual profits for four years, up 2.9% in underlying pre-tax profits.

But the following years would not see a turnaround in the retailer’s fortunes.

In October 2017, Debenhams reported a collapse in annual pre-tax profits, tanking 44% to £59 million in the year to September 2.

The sad demise has been coming for some time. Credit: PA

A year later, shares plunged 17% after KPMG was called in to help draft emergency plans to save the high-street giant. Plans were unveiled for 50 shops to be closed, threatening 4,000 jobs.

On December 1, 2020, Debenhams announced it is winding down the business, having already axed 6,500 jobs across its operation due to heavy cost-cutting after it entered administration for the second time in 12 months.