The monthly @chrisnickson2: “The Grand Pygmalion”

The Grand Pygmalion

So the Trinity shopping centre has opened, all shiny and new, and undoubtedly a consumer experience. Certainly the location has form when it comes to shopping. Those going through the doors are very close to some real Leeds spending history.

Back in 1884, at the corner of Boar Lane and Briggate, Alexander Monteith opened what was then a massive emporium, a department store back when that kind of thing was a true novelty. It was four floors of most anything that a population with a rapidly increasing income could wish for, with huge plate glass windows and displays on the ground floor. One of the signs read ‘Monteith, Hamilton & Monteith Ltd.’ But the other, which wrapped around the corner, was the one that gave the place its name – The Grand Pygmalion.’

It was retail therapy on a grand and glorious scale, the Harvey Nicks of its day. What did they sell?  Everything from mantles to sunshades,  millinery, corsets, ladies’ boots, gentlemen’s hosiery, bedding, carpets, china, children’s costumes, haberdashery, bedsteads and much, much more. And with about 200 assistants on the shop floor, help was never far away (possibly a far cry from today’s big shops), and the goods were shown with ‘consummate taste and effect.’

The Grand Pygmalion remained a fixture on Boar Lane until 1927, when John Monteith, Alexander’s son, retired from business, when the business was sold. Older readers will remember it as the location of C&A. And when you’d finished there, you could pop across Boar Lane to Mr. Richard Boston’s Great Fruit, Game and Fish Market, which offered fifty kinds of fish, thirty-six types of vegetables and one hundred sorts of fruit.

But what about those on a more modest budget? They had the giant Co-operative store on Albion Street. The Leeds Industrial Co-operative Society had been founded in 1847 by workers at Benyon’s flax mill, who clubbed together money to buy land and build a flour mill for members, the Leeds Mill and Store Society, with dividends paid to members on the co-op manner. Within thirteen years Leeds had the biggest co-operative society in England and soon moved into retail.

The store on Albion Street wasn’t its first. That was on Briggate and opened in 1856. Soon, though, it outgrew that and moved to some extremely impressive premises on Albion Street, offering all manner of items long before the Grand Pygmalion came into existence. The Co-op became such as force that it eventually had buildings on both sides on Albion Street. In these days of lengthy, global supply chains which seem lacking in accountability, the Co-op’s ideals seem incredibly impressive. Not only did it own its own farm, it had builder’s yards, a carpentry workshop, brush works, boot factory and a coal wharf on Neville Street, along with coal depots at all the Leeds stations. The Co-op sold everything and very likely made it, too. By 1900 it had seventy branches around the city. It was shopping for the people, its prices reasonable, and always offering that dividend to members.

So, for those who think that Trinity is ushering in a gold age of retail for Leeds, with ‘aspirational’ Eastgate still to come, think on. That gilded time began many, many years ago. And to put it all into perspective, the same year that the Grand Pygmalion opened its doors, a certain Mr. Marks started his Penny Bazaar (‘Everything A Penny!’) in Leeds Market. The lad might have a future…

Chris Nickson is the author of the Richard Nottingham crime novels, set in Leeds in the 1730s. He’s currently at work on a murder mystery set in Leeds in 1890 and featuring Inspector Tom Harper of Leeds Police.

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One Response to The monthly @chrisnickson2: “The Grand Pygmalion”

  1. southleedscommunityradio says:

    Reblogged this on southleedscommunityradio and commented:
    Life in Leeds

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