Our younger readers might not be acquainted with Cole Brothers, but for generations this name was recognisable across Sheffield.
Better known now as John Lewis, the beginning of this department store goes back to 1847, when John Cole, silk mercer and hosier, opened a shop at No.4 Fargate. He was later joined by his brothers, Thomas and Skelton Cole.
The shop expanded along Fargate and around the corner into Church Street, the main block rebuilt in 1869 with two extra storeys added. Later, the premises of Thomas Watson and Sons, grocers, were procured, and the bookshop occupied by Thomas Widdison was added in 1892.
To accommodate its growing business, works and stables were acquired at Pinfold Street in 1861, later enlarged by the addition of the old Canterbury Music Hall in 1889.
Skelton Cole died in 1896, John Cole two years after in 1898, the same year that Cole Brothers became a limited company.
The Pinfold Street works were soon inadequate and subsequently sold, with new premises on Norfolk Street bought from Harrison Brothers and Howson in 1901.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, two Cole sons – Thomas and Thomas Skelton – were in charge, leading the store through a period of change.
In 1909, the first women were employed in the shop and offices, its first motor delivery van was obtained in 1911, and the first cash registers were installed during 1916.
The Cole family were fervent Methodists and instilled disciplines within the business. Up to World War One, it was daily practice for staff to say prayers before trading began, but change was about to come.
‘The London shop invasion begins,’ said one Sheffield newspaper when it was announced that Cole Brothers had been sold to Harry Gordon Selfridge, the exalted storeowner, in October 1919.
The glitzy American, immortalised recently by ITV’s Mr Selfridge, had already acquired a dozen department stores across Britain, including shops in Liverpool, Leeds, Watford, St. Albans, Peterborough and Windsor.
The addition of Cole Brothers to Selfridge Provincial Stores was a surprise, and one that promised to bring the department store new riches. The London house had been modelled on American lines and was described as supplying anything, from a needle to a haystack.
Thomas Cole and Thomas Skelton Cole retired from the business, but the family retained an interest with the appointment of Arthur U. Cole and Maurice Cole as directors.
Almost immediately, the shop premises were extended and restructured, Harry Gordon Selfridge’s drama and flair embraced by his son, Harry Gordon Selfridge Jr, the man tasked to manage the provincial stores.
Newspaper advertisements were lavish, publicising Cole Brothers as ‘One of the Selfridge stores,’ and consequently increasing sales.
The golden age of Cole Brothers lasted until 1940, when war and loss of family control over Selfridges, caused Harry Gordon Selfridge Jr, to return to the United States. The Selfridge Provincial Stores were sold to the John Lewis Partnership, which rather abruptly found itself 15 stores better off overnight.
While many Sheffield department stores suffered during the Sheffield Blitz, Cole Brothers survived unscathed, remaining at Fargate and Church Street until the 1960s when it was announced that it was moving to a new shop as its old premises were outdated.
A site was bought from Sheffield Corporation at Barker’s Pool, once occupied by the Albert Hall until destroyed by fire in 1937, and at one time earmarked as new law courts.
Designed by Yorke, Rosenberg and Mardall, the white-tiled building was opened on 17 December 1963. Spread across five floors, the new Cole Brothers store contained sixty departments, with access to each level from a multi-ramp carpark, accommodating 400 cars.
In 1974, offices were moved into Barker’s Pool House, later connected by a landmark bridge, and a warehouse was opened at Tinsley. The store also moved its sport and toy departments to a site in Cambridge Street in 1977-1978.
The 1980s and 1990s saw a decline in Cole Brothers fortunes, not helped by the opening of Meadowhall, but a refurbishment and ensuing rebrand to John Lewis reversed its fortunes.
Alas, retail is suffering now, with department stores particularly hurting, and despite reassurances there is an air of uncertainty over John Lewis’ future in Sheffield city centre.