Gaze up (or down) the stunning Brewer staircase at Heal’s
The history of the Cecil Brewer staircase and Heal’s flagship store at Tottenham Court Road.
London is full of some pretty spectacular staircases, many hidden from view from the general public. In my opinion, one of the capital’s most lovely ones is located in Heal’s furniture store in Tottenham Court Road.
Heal’s has a long history on Tottenham Court Road, having had a store on the street for over 200 years. Heal’s was originally founded by John Harris Heal (1772-1833), a feather dresser from the west country. He opened his first store in Rathbone Place in 1810, before relocating to 203 Tottenham Court Road in 1818. The store soon won over Londoners with its feather mattresses, which were significantly more comfortable than the typical straw palliasses that many were sleeping on at the time.
When John died in 1833, his widow Fanny (1782-1859) and their son John Harris Heal Jnr (1810-1876) took over the business and renamed it Fanny Heal & Son. In 1840, they moved the premises to the current site at 192 Tottenham Court Road with a new purpose-built store. The new building was designed in a Venetian Palazzo style by architect James Morant Lockyer (1824-1865) and was completed in 1854. Now incorporating No.s 186-198, it became known as one of the largest stores in the capital.
By 1916, Heal’s was under management by John Jnr’s son Sir Ambrose Heal (1872-1959), who had joined the family business in 1893 after completing an apprenticeship as a cabinet maker. He wanted to modernise the business for the 20th century and enlisted his cousin and best friend Cecil Brewer (1871-1918) and business partner Arnold Dunbar Smith (1886-1933) to design a new store. The original building was demolished to make way for the new store, which was was built between 1914-1917. Brewer erected his namesake spiral staircase at the back of the store in 1916, ready to take visitors upstairs to the new Mansard Gallery. The helix of lights tumbling from the ceiling were added after World War II. The concrete and wooden staircase was refurbished in 2013 and a Bocci chandelier was added, completing its picture-perfect look.
If you look closely as you ascend the staircase, you may notice a bronze sculpture of a cat. Known as the store mascot, the cat has been perched on a windowsill of the stairs since they were built. One interesting story involves 101 Dalmatians writer Dodie Smith (1896-1990), who worked at Heal’s toy department for 10 years in the 1920s and had an affair with Ambrose Heal. She confessed in her autobiography to selling the cat, with an unimpressed Ambrose later writing to the customer to cancel the sale with a note reading, “Heal’s mascot. Not for sale.”
Although Heal’s hasn’t been a family business since 1983, it’s still trading in furniture and homewares on Tottenham Court Road over two centuries later. The store was Grade-II listed in 1974 and it’s magnificent staircase is still used by customers to access different departments.
- Heal’s, 196 Tottenham Court Road, Fitzrovia, W1T 7LQ. Nearest stations: Goodge Street, Warren Street or Tottenham Court Road.
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