The Swan & Edgar building in Piccadilly Circus | One of London’s lost department stores
The history of the Swan & Edgar department store in Piccadilly Circus.
The decline of the department store is a frequently mentioned casualty of the ever-changing retail industry. A host of department stores in London have been closed down over the decades, with the buildings left behind leaving little trace of the retail giants which one inhabited them. Once household names such as Pontings, Pratts, Bourne & Hollingsworth, and Gamages, have been consigned to the history books. Among these lost London department stores was Swan & Edgar, whose flagship building still exists, looming large over Piccadilly Circus.
Cumbrian-born William Edgar (1791-1869) met George Swan (d.1821) in the early 19th century. At the time, Edgar was running a haberdashery stall in St James Market, while Swan had a shop on Ludgate Hill in the City of London. They went into business together in Ludgate Hill, before moving to 20 Piccadilly in 1812. Business was soon booming and they made over £80,000 in their first year. Nine years later, Swan sadly died, but his business partner Edgar honoured his memory by continuing to trade in their joint name. Swan & Edgar moved to 49 Regent Street in 1841. By 1848, business was going so well, the store expanded to numbers 45-51 Regent Street and the corner of Piccadilly Circus.
Edgar ended up outliving his business partner by over four decades, passing away in 1869. He lived the last two decades of his life with his wife Frances and their five children at Eagle House on Clapham Common’s South Side. The Georgian building was mostly demolished after Frances’ death in 1889, although parts of the south wing exist today as mews housing. The couple are buried in one of the ‘Magnificent Seven’ cemeteries: West Norwood Cemetery in south London.
Although both founders had died, their names continued to live on through the department store as it continued trading. An 1883 advert boasted the huge range of articles offered for sale, billing the store as “wholesale and retail silk mercers, drapers, furriers/ Mantle and costume makers and seal skin merchants/ Novelty and economy in dress/ All articles of fashion of the latest styles and reliable quality”. The department store’s popularity was boosted by the opening of the nearby Piccadilly Circus tube station in 1906 and became a popular meeting place for friends and lovers to rendezvous. In December 1901, the managing director Walter Morford (who had been in the role since 1895), ended up in trouble with the police over the store. People complained his moving window displays were causing congestion on the pavement, with sometimes hundreds of people blocking the pavement to look at the action. Morford ignored several police summons, complaining he had spent over £100 on designing the windows to attract customers.
The 1910s saw some turmoil for the store. The Suffragettes targeted Swan & Edgar as they launched their window-smashing campaign tactic in November 1911. Six years later, the store’s façade was damaged in the last Zeppelin bombing on London during World War I. In October 1917, a 300kg bomb was dropped on Piccadilly Circus, leaving seven people dead and wounding 18 others.
During the late 19th century and early 20th century, Regent Street was given a huge makeover. The original shops and buildings designed by Georgian architects John Nash (1752-1835) and James Burton (1761-1837) were demolished and replaced by new buildings between 1895-1927. Architect Sir Reginald Blomfield (1856-1942) set the style for the new look Regent Street with his design for the Quadrant. World War I delayed completion of the project, which was finally finished in 1927.
Along with the rest of the Regent Street shops, the redevelopment also meant Swan & Edgar was due a makeover. The Victorian building was demolished and replaced with the existing one you see today. It was designed by Scottish architects Louis David Blanc (1877-1944) and John James Joass (1869-1955) (see the RIBA archive sketch here). Blanc was known as a retail architect and worked on Harrods, DH Evans and Kendals of Manchester, while Joass was one of the architects who designed Whiteley’s in Bayswater. There are conflicting dates for the building of the new store online. Although it appeared to have been designed around 1919, the plans weren’t physically realised until the mid 1920s. Building firm BAM said it completed construction in 1926. An advertisement from 1927 describes the “new Swan & Edgar building” and details having over “50 Merchandise and Service Departments supply every need for men, women and children”. Like many current department stores today, it also had a restaurant. During the 1920s, Piccadilly Circus underground station was also being updated, with architect Charles Holden (1875-1960) incorporating show windows for Swan & Edgar at ticket office level – these can still be seen today, albeit currently empty. In 1927, the store was taken over by the retail group Drapery Trust, which was acquired by the Debenham Group in 1928.
Swan & Edgar carried on trading through World War II, but its large façade did carry advertising for the war effort. A photo taken in 1941 (left) features a banner on the store appealing for volunteers for the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) – the women’s branch of the British Army. Swan & Edgar was still a popular meeting place in the 1940s, as this British Pathe footage of a policeman in 1946 shows. In 1962, the store celebrated its 150th anniversary – an impressive feat for a department store (see an image of the store during its anniversary year). Debenhams remained owners until Swan & Edgar closed its doors for the last time in 1982 – after 170 years of trading in Piccadilly.
The building lay empty for a few years until it became the flagship UK store for Tower Records in 1985. I used to love shopping there for CDs in the late 1990s and could lose hours perusing and listening to albums. By 2003, it was bought by Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and became a Virgin Megastore. It remained Virgin until 2007 when it was replaced by Zavvi, who went into administration two years later. Today, it exists as an online-only store.
In 2010, the building reverted to its original use as a department store as Dutch fashion firm The Sting took over the lease. However, it closed in 2018/2019 after struggling to make a profit. No.55 continues to be a handsome building with a prime location in the tourist-hub that is Piccadilly Circus. However, being such an expensive piece of real estate, it’s not surprising retailers have struggled to cover costs of such a huge building. Let’s hope the next resident of 55 Regent Street can give the building a new lease of life and be successful.
- The former Edgar & Swan building is at 55 Regent Street, Piccadilly Circus, W1 5RF. Nearest station: Piccadilly Circus.
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