Christmas at Liberty

Seasonal wreath, Liberty London Don’t think I haven’t noticed that people are talking about Christmas.  In our local, The Olde Ruptured Duck, decorations started to appear weeks ago and nearby houses are lit up like, well, Christmas trees.  I’ve seen things on TV too, since about October: y’know, shops and what-not, each flogging their own version of seasonal perfection – a sofa that is guaranteed to arrive before the Big Day, cute little fairies that add sparkle to – gosh, almost anything, I should imagine – more marmalade for Paddington, the cheapest and most pleasant ways to become obese, achieve total oblivion – and so on. The message is that, whatever else you may have thought, Christmas is all about buying stuff.

Liberty London, shop window, Christmas 2014I love Christmas; I really do.  And, like any other stereotypical male, I am absolutely thrilled at the very prospect of Christmas shopping.  It’s not just the pleasure of shopping for its own sake, wonderful though that is; it’s the added anticipation of simultaneously sharing that sublime experience, from car park to cash register, with thousands of other people, each and every one of them brimming over with peace and goodwill to all, which transports me to unimaginable heights of ecstasy…  So a few years ago, we went to Liberty’s of London – or Liberty London as they seem to prefer now.

Liberty - one of the UK's iconic retail brandsLiberty London is one of those iconic, long-established, British shop brands, like Harrods, Fortnum & Mason and Grace Bros, which have so far managed to remain unique.  Given the way that Britain’s high streets and retail habits have changed, particularly in recent decades, it is a singular achievement for these places to have survived at all.  Liberty London is particularly renowned for its fabrics and floral prints, but also enjoys a reputation for the slightly exotic and individual.  This used to be reflected in their website, which once claimed it was, “where rich heritage combines with the cutting edge and avant garde.”  Rather beguilingly, it went on to purr, “We welcome you into our eccentric, indulgent and utterly charming world and invite you to get truly lost in Liberty.”  I know the website said these things, not because I look at it regularly for my floral print fix, but because I wrote about our Christmas visit shortly afterwards and used the website to get some quotes at the time.  Checking again for this article, I could no longer find those somewhat mellifluous phrases and discovered, with a degree of distress I can’t begin to describe, that Liberty London’s website now looks pretty much like any other retailer’s website. Could this be a sign of the proverbial thin end of the wedge?  Though, to be fair, it does still quote Oscar Wilde claiming that, “Liberty is the chosen resort of the artistic shopper.” Phew!

Liberty London, mock Tudor, weathervane, MayflowerLiberty’s founder, Arthur Lasenby Liberty (1843-1917) was the eldest son of Arthur Liberty, draper and lace manufacturer of Nottingham and Chesham, and Rebecca Lasenby.  Our Arthur was educated in Nottingham (a city famous for its lace), left school at sixteen, worked in a lace warehouse and then found himself working for Farmer & Rogers’ Great Shawl & Cloak Emporium in London’s Regent Street.  He was put in charge of their oriental business and decided to break out on his own.  Borrowing £2,000 from his future father-in-law, and with a staff of 3, in 1875 he leased half a shop at 218a Regent Street, calling it the ‘East India House’.  Within 18 months, Liberty had repaid the loan and leased the other half of the shop.  He was an instinctive niche retailer; growth was rapid and Liberty’s business became associated with the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau movements.  He was knighted in 1913 and died, a wealthy man, at his home, Lee Manor, Buckinghamshire.

Liberty London, interiorSadly, Liberty did not live to see his fabulous new premises open in 1924 on Great Marlborough Street, at the junction with Regent Street, where it remains today.  Built in mock-Tudor style, the Liberty London building sticks out from the surrounding buildings like a pink hearse at an undertaker’s convention.  The timbers used in its construction came from two Royal Navy ships, HMS Impregnable, launched as HMS Howe in 1860 and the Navy’s last wooden-wall ship, and HMS Hindustan, a battleship dating back to 1841.  Apparently, Liberty’s shop front along Great Marlborough Street is the same length as HMS Hindustan was – 185’.  Don’t ask me why.

Liberty LondonInside, Liberty is as unlike every other shop in London as it is on the outside.  It seems mean-spirited to call it an up-market department store, though that’s sort of what it is, offering homeware, clothing, accessories, beauty products and, of course, haberdashery and fabrics.  It’s all on 5 floors, which creak alarmingly underfoot and, at the best of times, it seems to me like a cross between a conventional shop and a bazaar, contained within an intimate wooden labyrinth.  It is invariably busy, but as soon as we’d made our way in for the Christmas visit, it seemed to me that personal safety, let alone personal space, was at risk; the place was heaving.  I was tempted to enter into the spirit of the season and suggest there was obviously no room, or that a wise man would find someplace else to go; however, there was a kind of majestic inevitability about carrying on – though staying calm was another matter.  Liberty’s fragrant staff floated across the floors, smiling encouragingly; everyone else had the look of piranhas at snack time.  The cacophony of noise blended predominantly English Home County with virtually any other accent you care to think of; but though many of the voices’ owners could have successfully auditioned for the First XV, there appeared to be surprisingly few deliberate injuries.  Head Office and others of the gentler sex seemed to be perfectly at ease with all of this, picking up things and fingering them absent-mindedly, before moving on in a kind of robotic tackle-proof trance; on the other hand, being only 6 foot tall and a mere 14 stone in weight, I felt slightly intimidated and more than a little confused.  What I really needed was a Kevlar suit and a ball of string so that I could find my way back outside.

Liberty London, Christmas baubleUpstairs in the Christmas shop, there seemed to be an unofficial one-way system in operation.  To attempt a U-turn was hazardous, if not impossible – so if you missed something, you really needed to go round again. In reality, you had to go round at least twice; the first time when you realised you couldn’t stop without causing a multiple pile-up, and the second to get into the right lane in order to peel off to see display that caught your eye.  Those that did not manage to work this out were still there at closing-time, circling helplessly, and had to be gently escorted from the premises, gibbering incoherently.

Liberty London, Christmas decorationIt must be enormous fun, putting together a Christmas shop – and I think most stores make a pretty good fist of it, actually.  Liberty London certainly does – the place glittered.  I gathered from reading some background to a Channel 4 documentary series, ‘Liberty of London’ – which, inexplicably, I kept missing (I think it clashed with basket weaving in Cantonese) – that Liberty London starts planning for the festive season in January and it receives more than a ¼ million visitors from all over the world.  Apparently, it stocks 100,000 baubles, 3,000 fairies and 1,000 novelty dogs.  Should you ever be asked, now you know.

Liberty London, polar bearWe were barely able to resist the urge to buy an imitation gold framed miniature portrait of Her Majesty the Queen to hang on the Christmas tree at £15.95, or a very practical almost man-sized stuffed toy polar bear for £995 (probably too big for the loft, to be fair).  Instead,  we settled for a bauble that reminded me of a Fabergé egg.  On the way down, we had to inspect the world-famous fabrics and womenswear department (and who can blame them?) There, I spotted a dress mannequin covered with a bright, floral, design; the absurd price-tag was £1,300 – far too much for a mannequin, I thought. And then, I don’t know how, we found ourselves outside in the relative sanity of Regent Street on a late Saturday afternoon in December.

Alas, our bauble perished last Christmas, victim to a particularly boisterous game of tiddlywinks.

For much, much, more information, visit Liberty London via their website.  It will tell you three other interesting facts about the business:

  • The weathervane on the Liberty building is an exact model of the Mayflower, which took 102 English pilgrims to New England, USA in 1620;
  • Dotted around the store are the shields of Shakespeare, Henry VIII’s six wives and many more;
  • The wise words underneath the clock at the Kingly Street entrance read “No minute gone comes ever back again, take heed and see ye nothing do in vain”.

No explanation is offered for any of the above; expecting there to be logical reasons for things probably explains why I’m not an architect.  By the way, I wonder what happened to Farmer & Rogers? I don’t suppose there’s much demand for cloaks these days, even great ones.

Liberty London, Christmas bauble

47 thoughts on “Christmas at Liberty

  1. pollymacleod

    What a wonderful fun post Mike, I love your humour. Beautiful photos. It is a lovely building.
    When it goes quiet in the snug I can impress everyone by quoting how many baubles, fairies and novelty dogs Liberty London stocks.
    I am a royalist but even I would not have one of those tacky portraits of HM. But that Faberge bauble, now that is gorgeous, shame it got broken – a boisterous game of tiddlywinks eh, mmm. I might see if they have them online for next year. I would love to visit but I just can’t do crowds nowadays, I end up wanting to scream at everyone to go away!!
    Best wishes to you and Mrs B for a very happy Christmas and a happy and healthy 2018

  2. Mary Sullivan

    Mike, thank you so much for the very wonderful story/history of Liberty. I have always loved it since childhood when my mum, the dressmaker, purchased lovely Liberty cottons to sew into such pretty dresses for me. When back in London I always try to visit there. . . . . .also Selfridges and Harrods of course – just looking is overwhelming, and I definitely have to be reined in when thoughts of buying commence!!!! “Not another suitcase” says my always patient husband!

    Have a really wonderful, blessed and fun Christmas – all the best for the coming year. Thanks for stopping by and leaving your kind words.

    Mary – who always enjoys ‘a bit about Britain’ of course!

  3. Clare Pooley

    This gave me a giggle, Mike – thank-you! Like many of your readers, I have never been to Liberty but I did manage to watch the programme about the store. I’m sorry you lost that pretty bauble!
    I hope you and Mrs B have a wonderful Christmas and a Happy New Year! xx

  4. jmnowak

    I hate shopping and your experience at Liberty’s would send me to the wall! Haha!
    Imagine if the Mayflower had had sheets of floral fabric, do you think America would be more liberty-minded today?! (Ouch…)
    I’m glad you survived the experience, Mike, to write another day. I would miss your most enjoyable posts and giggle-making humour if you hadn’t. Merry Christmas and cheeri-pip! *smoochy kiss on the cheek from your biggest fan from Downunder.
    (Will read your previous post later.) Janina xox

  5. lowcarbdiabeticJan

    I’ve never visited Liberty … perhaps I should!
    Great post again Mike.

    Many thanks for all your informative posts this year.
    Wishing you and yours a great Christmastime.

    All the best Jan

  6. marmeladegypsy

    Your bauble was beautiful — I’m sad it came to a bad end. I would have been very tempted on that ornament of the Queen, but then I named my cat after her so you know I’m a fan.

    Loved this fun post, Mike — the history, the humour, the same sense of crazed confusion I get when shopping (which explains why I piece it out over the year and try to make whatever I can!). Great photos, loads of fun. I do love a good Christmas shop but it sounds like you need a traffic management degree to get through this one!

    So, to you and Mrs. Britain, a Merry Christmas. I hope all that shopping is done and you can simply enjoy a lovely season. And by the way, I’m having a 10th anniversary drawing — there’s a link to the drawing post in any current post but it closes on Christmas. I hope you’ll stop by and toss your name in!

  7. hilarymb

    Hi Mike – thanks for all your delightful posts … loved reading them and this one too. Liberty’s is special isn’t it – hope you get to see the tv programme(s) on it … it was very interesting and yes they start in January! Happy Christmas and a successful New Year – cheers Hilary

  8. Andrea

    As interesting as this place sounds, there is absolutely no way I would take on a crowd like that. That was very, very brave of you and I’m glad that escaped without injury. Too bad about the bauble though, seems a shame after all that was put up with to get it.

    Have a very Merry Christmas!
    Andrea

  9. wazoo4u

    Being an American sewist and quilter, Liberty London is the Holy Grail of fabric. I have a decent stash of the pricey stuff and have made two quilts with it. I never knew this interesting history of the brand or the store itself. Don’t worry, ALL men are like you…here in the USA, too! Merry Christmas.

  10. derrickjknight

    Your usual blend of fun and fact. When we lived in Soho, Liberty was a short walk away – quite useful at sales times and for photographing window displays at Christmas – I commend you for noticing that that is all around us at the moment. 🙂

  11. Lesley

    Been there but I don’t remember ever buying anything. It was part of the London experience of my youth. I caught the TV shows (repeats) but remain in awe of such a difficult store to work , due to relatively small size and old age, yet make it pay.
    I never knew about the weathervane being the Mayflower, my Dad always said one of the family was on board – as a stowaway or servant.
    Lovely post thank you. Seasonal Greetings!

  12. Coastal Ripples

    Thank you Mike for kick starting my morning with a little bit of humour. Out of the Christmas season I love Liberty’s. I tend to avoid London this time of year. Vague memories of trying to get out of Knightsbridge tube station with three young children against a tide of humanity. The stuff of nightmares. Give me armchair shopping on the Internet any day. Glass of wine by my side, feet toasting by a crackling fire! Happy Christmas to you and yours. B x

  13. mekslibrarian

    While I was frequently visiting friends in London in the 1990s and saw a great deal of museums and galleries and parks, I never managed to go to Liberty’s, believe it or not! I think I’d enjoy a leisurely afternoon there, probably without spending any money, as none of what I can see there is in either my price range or would suit my home style.
    Anyway, good to know they still exist!

  14. artandarchitecturemainly

    I have never had a Christmas, been to a party or bought/received gifts. But Liberty was the most special business. The shop that Mr Liberty opened in 1875 must have been a delight, as were the products he sold. Lucky with the timing yes, but how clever to associate himself with the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau movements.

    I would have been his #1 customer!!

    Happy holidays.

  15. Nancy Astromsky

    Loved reading about Liberty. I made my fifth trip to London in June. At 79 I was thrilled to shop Liberty with my three daughters and two granddaughters. Minneapolis has nothing like Liberty. I treasure the sachets and Little’s I found there over the years.
    Your posts are very enjoyable.

  16. MJ

    I treasure the pieces of Liberty fabric I bought years ago. Too nice to cut up for quilt making, but maybe now is the time, before i die and leave it behind to end up in a thrift shop where no one knows about Liberty quality.
    In the USA, Liberty would mean nothing….thanks for sharing your humor. I’m like CherryPie and try to avoid shopping in December crowds. But your January sales…got to think about buying a ticket over for those, just once. I do miss the polite London crowds. Weird, no?

  17. Blue Sky Scotland

    Although as a single male I skillfully manage to avoid Christmas altogether every year that does look good. Love all the colours and the Tudor style buildings down there.

  18. CherryPie

    Fabulous photographs to go with your wonderful commentary.

    You words have reminded me why over the years I have increasingly avoided visiting shops in December, apart from essentials – like food.

  19. 1066jq

    Liberty has long been on my list of stores I want to visit. I quit Harrods years ago because the crowds made me fear for my life. But crowds and all I still want to see Liberty.

  20. Maria

    A wonderful post! I’m an Aussie woman who first visited the Liberty store in 2008 and purchased a very small quantity of that floral fabric ( and rather expensive) that Liberty is well known for. Then back again in 2014 I threw frugality to the wind and purchased a lot! Lol. I did enjoy those documentaries on the store though, particularly learning about the US man who came in as CEO to turn the business around…must have worked then, it’s still operating.

  21. Helen Devries

    I liked Liberty, though when young I used to suspect it had something to do with the hated liberty bodices which made life hideous. Like Jenny Woolf, my visits in later life were usually during the sales to avoid the risk of collapsing on seeing the prices…..but their stuff was of a good quality.
    Sounds as if it was as well you had a good woman with you or you might have been one of the poor wandering ones trapped in the Christmas shop….

  22. Darlene

    Some interesting history. I once bought a dress at Liberty in York, England and wore it for years, then gave it to my daughter who also wore it for a number of years. I’m sorry to hear Liberty has become more like other department stores. Your post was very funny.

  23. Cynthia

    What a good laugh. I’ve never been inside and though I’ve seen the outside, never knew such fascinating history and fun facts. I have been in an IKEA store when it first opened and had a similar experience of having to return for a second round to see what I had missed on the other side of the aisle as I was herded through the first time. And contemplating if t was worth it to go back around once more to get a rug I had decided too late I wanted to purchase. (I didn’t.).

  24. Judy@CranberryMorning

    This was sure a fun read. I loved it and of course laughed at your witty way with words. I would definitely have bought the Her Majesty ornament if the decimal point were one place to the left. But good grief! Your tale of Liberty drives my fingers to type Amazon.com.

  25. Jenny Woolf

    I used to love shopping in Liberty although I have to say I mainly went in their sale. I got some utterly amazing stuff there at bargain prices and better still they used their own designers to create some amazing fabrics and tiles. However, recently I have found, as their website suggests, that it is becoming more like other retailers. I believe that sadly this has greatly increased their profits! Ah well. . But the store is still amazing and beautiful and well worth a visit – quite unique!.

  26. Clazz - An Orcadian Abroad

    Haha, Mike! This post cracked me up; a perfect account of a British man Christmas shopping, I think! That gold-framed Queen portrait is ridiculous. I’ve never been into Liberty, not sure if this post has made me want to but it does look pretty amazing.

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