Wednesday 23 October 2019

Rolling back the retail years

Arnotts, Dublin's iconic department store on Henry Street, marks 175 years in business by delving into their records to create a compelling museum of memories, writes our fashion editor

Model Twiggy at the store in 1966. Photo © Arnotts
Model Twiggy at the store in 1966. Photo © Arnotts
Miss World, Reita Faria visiting the store in 1967
Fashion shoot in the AW 2006 season
The exterior sign of the iconic store
The Sunbeam 'undergarments' counter
An artist's impression of the proposed Northern Quarter encompassing Henry St, Liffey St, Abbey St and O'Connell St
Mrs Ella Nesbitt, wife of former MD Ronald Nesbitt, at an Arnotts AGM in the 1990s
A view of ladies' cloaks section in the refurbished store after the 1894 fire
Bairbre Power

Bairbre Power

Exactly 124 years ago this very weekend, Dubliners woke up on May 4, 1894, to the news that the city's best known department store, Arnott & Co on Henry Street, had burned down overnight.

The disastrous blaze razed the store which ran from 11-15 Henry Street. Staff, including 157 men who lived on the top storeys in dormitories, escaped with their lives. Typical of the boss's get-to attitude, they were back in business within five days with a temporary store in the Round Room of the Rotunda Hospital.

At the time, the department store sold everything from furniture and fashions to furs, and it went on to recover from the fire and survive the 1916 Rising (which unfolded just up the street), the civil war, the depression, and trading ups and downs over the years.

Now as it marks its 175th anniversary celebrations, the spotlight falls on the enterprising pair who started it all back in 1843 - and what timing!

Miss World, Reita Faria visiting the store in 1967
Miss World, Reita Faria visiting the store in 1967

It was two years before Ireland was plunged into a famine, and George Cannock and Andrew White sold up their wholesale woollen and linen drapery business on Cork's Washington Street to start trading as Cannock & White at 14 Henry Street.

When White died in 1848, Scotsman John Arnott, from Auchtermuchty near Glasgow, invested £6,000 in the business.

So, what do we know about the man whose name is inextricably linked to the retail memories of generations of Irish families, whether it was buying their first shoes, or the dreaded school uniforms or going to see Santa and visit the annual Lego exhibition?

Tenacious and with a good eye for business, John Arnott moved to Cork aged 20 and made his money in a large drapery store in the city. He also had interests in flour milling, baking, brewing and ship building. He mixed business and politics and served three terms as Lord Mayor of Cork, was knighted in 1859 and represented Kinsale in parliament as a liberal.

A major chapter of Irish retail history was made in 1865 when Cannock retired and the Henry Street store got Arnott's name over the door. There were more stores to come. In the 1960s they opened Boyers store on North Earl Street and opened an Arnotts on the southside at 102/3 Grafton Street. When model Jean Shrimpton - who had worn the first mini skirt to the races in Australia - visited that store in 1966, there was a near riot to see her legendary legs. In the end, they set up a decoy using Mrs Ella Nesbitt in a similar shade coat. Ella was wife of Ronald Nesbitt who retired as MD of Arnotts in 1979 and who wrote a fine history of the store up to 1993. He came from a long line of Nesbitts with influence at the store, starting with Alexander at the turn of the 20th century and ending with Richard who had such high hopes for the development of a Northern Quarter for the 21st century.

For years Arnotts ran a wholesale business supplying independent stores around Ireland, and it had a fleet of sales staff criss-crossing the country. Arnotts also had subsidiary companies making hats, clothes and brassieres under the 'Ballet International' brand. Indeed, it had its own line of Arnotts' 'Everest' mattresses.

An artist's impression of the proposed Northern Quarter encompassing Henry St, Liffey St, Abbey St and O'Connell St
An artist's impression of the proposed Northern Quarter encompassing Henry St, Liffey St, Abbey St and O'Connell St

In 1949, Arnotts saw the departure of the impressive 56ft high copper-domed tower on top of the store, but its base is still there.

Over the years the store welcomed visiting celebrities from the young Maradona to model Twiggy, in 1966. The following year, the reigning Miss World, Indian medical student Reita Faria, visited the store. Little did she realise she would go on to marry Irish doctor David Powell and come to live in the city seven years later.

There are literary connections, too. Did you know that Arnotts featured in Ulysses?

Arnotts is not just a Dublin retail tradition. For decades, people from the country descended on the capital and the department store for the traditional 'holy day' outings. Sifting through the old newspaper adverts, it is surprising to read of the 'costumes' tailor-made, and jackets trimmed with mink and beaver which would be unheard of now.

It was only from 1977 that larger stores like Arnotts stayed opened all day on Saturday. This will surprise many younger readers who are now so used to shopping in stores seven days a week and online 24/7.

Going back in time, the records show that Pádraig Pearse settled his account in advance of the Easter Rising in 1916. Robert O'Byrne, consultant with the Little Museum of Dublin who has curated the Arnotts 1843 Museum, says a written record by the store's company secretary, Henry Beater, gives an eye witness account of the 1916 Rising and of meeting Pearse in Arnotts. "Beater walked in from Rathmines on several days to his job but eventually realised it was unsafe to do so after being nearly killed near a check-point," says Robert.

Famous for its annual sales and promotions, Arnotts held its first fashion 'festival' in October 1959 with a French Fortnight - during which the windows were all dressed by the designer from Paris' Galeries Lafayette. For the 1969 French festival, prices in the windows were in francs!

After the 1894 fire, the company ordered a 'cash ball' system in which cash was put in hollow wooden balls which ran along tracks above the customer's heads. Just last month, the current owners, the Selfridges Group - which is, in turn, owned by the Irish-Canadian couple Galen and Hillary Weston - announced an €11million investment and upgrade of its technology systems. Selfridges acquired the store in 2015 from a consortium fronted by developer Noel Smyth.

The Arnotts 175 Museum will be open to the public, free of charge, from Tuesday May 8. See

Weekend Magazine

Editors Choice

Also in this section