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Debenhams: a look back at the 242 years of the historic British retailer

Lauretta Roberts
01 December 2020

Debenhams has been a mainstay on UK high streets for 242 years, but today it was confirmed that it is set to shut its doors for good in what has been a dark 24 hours for the British high street.

After rescue talks with its last potential buyer, JD Sports, collapsed it confirmed that liquidators had been appointed and its 124 remaining stores would close, with 12,000 jobs now on the line.

The straw that broke the camel's back for the chain was the fall into administration of Sir Philip Green's Arcadia Group which operated numerous concessions across Debenhams. Until the fate of Arcadia became clear, no buyer was likely to step in and save it, and Debenhams had run out of time.

While its liquidators scramble to realise as much value as they can from the business, we take a look back at its long history at the heart of Britain's high street.

The 18th and 19th centuries

In 1778 William Clark opened a drapers store on 44 Wigmore Street in central London, selling expensive fabrics, bonnets, gloves and parasols.

The business had a modest start in life, with Mr Clark continuing to run the single store until meeting a potential investor.

William Debenham formed a partnership with the store owner in 1813, pumping funds into the business which then became Clark & Debenham.

Five years later it opened its first store outside the capital, in Cheltenham, and started to dramatically expand.

When Clement Freebody invested in the firm in 1851 it was renamed Debenham & Freebody, and continued to grow by snapping up smaller rivals and expanding its wholesale operations.

The 20th century

Acquisitions continued into the next century and in 1905 Debenhams Ltd was formed.

After the First World War ended, the retailer merged with Marshall & Snellgrove, and in 1920 purchased Knightsbridge retailer Harvey Nichols.

Seven years later the Debenham family exited the business as it was listed on the London Stock exchange.


The Debenhams store at Luton, Bedfordshire, which burned down in 1987

By 1950, Debenhams was the largest department store group in the UK, owning 84 companies and 110 stores.

In 1985 Debenhams merged to become part of Burton Group, which soon rebranded as Arcadia, before splitting away 13 years later after a period of rapid store expansion and the launch of its first international franchise sites.

The 21st Century

Following demerger from the Burton Group, Debenhams was listed on the London Stock Exchange until 2003, when it was acquired by Baroness Retail.

Baroness, backed by private equity firms CVC Capital Partners and Texas Pacific Group, started to strip the company’s assets, including a £450 million sale and leaseback of 26 properties and internal cost-cutting.

Three years later, Baroness almost tripled its value as it was floated on the stock market, but the retail group was now weighed down by a portfolio hamstrung with expensive rental agreements.

Nevertheless, Debenhams continued to grow, acquiring nine stores from Roches in the Republic of Ireland in 2007 and Magasin du Nord, the leading department store chain in Denmark, two years after.


Debenhams Oxford Street

In 2014, after a decline in company profits, retail tycoon Mike Ashley bought 4.6% of the company’s shares.

He steadily increased his ownership of the department store business, expanding it to 29.7% by 2018.

However, the business had now felt the full effect of difficult high street conditions and sky-high rents, resulting in a £491 million pre-tax loss in 2018.

By April of 2019, the retail giant entered administration, in spite of Ashley's numerous attempts to control it, and delisted from the stock market.

It undertook a major restructuring, designed to restore it to its former glory, however it was placed into administration once again at the start of the first COVID-19 lockdown in the UK.

A search for a buyer began with Ashley once again expressing early interest but eventually stepping away claiming he had been "frozen out of the sale process". Others said to have been circling included India's Reliance Retail, Next, M&S and The Hut Group (which wanted its website) but no deal was made.

At the last minute JD Sports emerged as its surprise potential saviour but before its deal could be completed, Arcadia collapsed causing JD to walk away.

After almost 250 years it now appears likely to disappear for good after Christmas, after entering liquidation.

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