Harry Gordon Selfridge and his grand plans: Hengistbury Head

Those who dream grand plans in their professional lives can be equally ambitious in their private lives too.  This can be particularly acute when their thoughts turn to building their own homes; that ultimate statement of wealth, ambition, and, they hope, taste.  When Harry Gordon Selfridge came to Britain he quickly spotted an opportunity to revolutionise the high-street shopping experience and he was prepared to invest to do so, starting with a flagship store on Oxford Street in London.  Yet, what perhaps fewer are aware of, was his plan to build a spectacular castle in Dorset – a personal vision of his to create a home which matched his ambition.

Selfridges, 1929, seen from south-west (Image: RIBA Library Photographs Collection)
Selfridges, 1929, seen from south-west (Image: RIBA Library Photographs Collection)

Harry Gordon Selfridge (b.1864 – d.1947) became a giant of the retail industry.  Born in Ripon, Wisconsin, his father was manager of the general store but abandoned his family and then Harry’s two brothers died young, leaving him an only child.  His mother struggled financially, and Selfridge, displaying a precociously enterprising talent started, aged 12, a magazine which made money through advertising whilst he worked at another store. He then worked in a bank, then insurance, before joining the store which became Marshall Field in Chicago, as a stock boy. Over the next 25 years, he worked his way up to junior partner, became wealthy and married a local socialite.

During a visit to London in 1906, Selfridge noticed that the UK retail experience significantly lagged behind the latest innovations in the US and so decided to bring those ideas to Britain.  In his typical style, he did this on a huge scale – his vast 50,000 sq ft store on Oxford Street was a bold statement as to the importance of shopping.  Built in a grand Classical Revival style which echoed that of other areas of Edwardian London, it was actually designed by an American architect, Daniel Burnham, who had been responsible for the influential ‘World’s Columbian Exposition‘ held in Chicago in 1893 which had embedded and popularised the Classical style in US architecture.

Plaster model of proposed Selfridges tower (Image: RIBA Library Drawings Collection)
Plaster model of proposed Selfridges tower (Image: RIBA Library Drawings Collection)

The store was built in phases but to a unified overall design.  The first nine-and-a-half bays closest to the Duke Street corner were completed first, with the store opening in 1909 at a cost of £400,000. The western extension was then built between 1924-29, designed by Sir John Burnet, who had designed the strikingly similar King Edward VII gallery at the British Museum in 1905. Externally, the store as it was in 1929 is the store you see today – but in true Selfridge style, this wasn’t all.  Planned from the beginning, the final piece of this retail jigsaw was more decorative and an early indication of Selfridge’s ability to think big: a 450-ft tower to soar over both the store and London. After five years of lobbying, Selfridge had permission from the Portman Estates and Marylebone Council – now he just needed a design.  It had always been his policy to commission more than one architect on a project, enjoying the differing ideas and so he also employed the well-respected Philip Tilden (who had carved out a comfortable career creating a number of country houses such notably Port Lympne and Chartwell), as well as Burnet. Both architects produced a number of designs all in a broadly Classical idiom but with significant differences (see Tilden’s variations: 1 / 2 / 3 / 4) -but none met with Selfridge’s approval and eventually he scrapped the idea, with only a plaster model to show for it. However, by this time, he had another commission for Tilden.

Between 1916-22, Selfridge took the lease on Highcliffe Castle, Dorset and enjoyed entertaining his wealthy friends from both London and the local area.  Yet, as was typical, this wasn’t enough and so he bought the nearby Hengistbury Head; a mile-long stretch of beautiful cliffs, wildlife, and ancient Bronze Age monuments.  Much to the alarm of the locals, he then announced that he would be building ‘the largest castle in the world‘. A showman’s boast perhaps (considering the competition!) but he set Tilden to work to make this dream a reality; which he did, lovingly creating a series of dramatic panoramas and hundreds of detailed individual designs.

Proposal for Hengistbury Head by Philip Tilden for H. Gordon Selfridge (Image: RIBA Library Drawings Collection)
Proposal for Hengistbury Head by Philip Tilden for H. Gordon Selfridge (Image: RIBA Library Drawings Collection)

Selfridge, of course, had his own vision what this castle would look like – and the brief must have made Tilden shudder (inwardly, of course).  Although Selfridge was rigorously Classical in London, he wanted a true castle and so demanded a mix; a medieval fortress planned on Classical lines with ‘…mighty vistas, balance, and co-ordination of the parts‘.  From early 1919, Tilden created a wonderful series of perspectives which Clive Aslet describes as ‘…dreams of Piranesian grandeur and Watteau-like romance‘.  This architectural hybrid was something of a awkward marriage, the imposing mass of the castle fortifications interrupted by delicate Classical arcades, statues and details.

Proposed Barbican at Hengistbury Head (Image: 'The Last Country Houses' by Clive Aslet)
Proposed Barbican at Hengistbury Head (Image: ‘The Last Country Houses’ by Clive Aslet)

The basic plan involved four miles or ramparts with towers, a ‘small castle’ (to be completed first and lived in whilst the main part was completed) and a ‘large castle’ on higher ground.  This ‘large castle’ was to include (beyond the usual living accommodation), a Gothic hall, a 300-ft tower, a theatre, a Hall of Mirrors copied from that at Versailles, a winter garden, a covered lake, long corridors and galleries for pictures, tapestries and other objet d’art, and at least 250 suites of rooms for guests.  Even the small castle would have been a significant project and the proposals for the main castle firmly moved this plan out of reality and into fantasy considering that, although wealthy, a building on this scale (the plans had to be drawn at 1:64) might even have caused the Morgans, Vanderbilts or Carnegies of this world to think twice – and they were many times richer than Selfridge.

Terrace at Hengistbury Head (Image: RIBA Library Drawings Collection)
Terrace at Hengistbury Head (Image: RIBA Library Drawings Collection)

Although Tilden must have quickly realised that this scheme would never be built in full, and at best only a small portion may be created, he took the commission seriously.  Each month he would travel to see Selfridge either in London or at Highcliffe and update him on the progress of the designs.  Selfridge would often have a selection of his millionaire friends in attendance who would pore over the developments and offer their encouragement and suggestions.  These intellectual gatherings even started to give Selfridge a slim reputation that he was a connoisseur in the grand tradition of earlier country house patrons.

Sadly, Selfridge’s personal life and fortune had both suffered over the years.  His beloved wife had died of influenza in 1918, after which he became increasingly reckless; lavishly entertaining, gambling and taking up with a pair of sisters who performed on stage.  In the decade after his wife died he reputedly ran through an $8m fortune and, combined with the financial impact of the Wall Street Crash in 1929, his wealth could no longer support his lifestyle. So, in 1930, he sold 300-acres of Hengistbury Head to the local council, including covenants still in force today that ironically stipulated that the land could not be built on (though, optimistically, he did retain 33-acres).  By the mid-1930s he was all but penniless and in 1939 he was forced to retire from Selfridges, eventually moving to a small flat in Putney and travelling around on the buses, before dying at home in May 1947, his grandiose plans for the largest castle in the world, a mere memory.

In many ways, H. Gordon Selfridge’s life was a remarkable series of triumphs and frustrations.  His early years clearly led him to a preference for the grandiose statements and a desire to accumulate the trappings of those he considered his social rivals who may have looked down on his humble beginnings.  Of course, he wasn’t the only department store owner with grand ambitions which ran far ahead of his budget – Lutyens‘ original design for the dramatically beautiful Castle Drogo, Devon for Julius Drew, owner of the Home and Colonial Stores, was three times larger than the completed building.  However, the sheer scale of Selfridge’s plans for Hengistbury Head increasingly looked more like an ‘after-dinner’ exercise; something to show and discuss with his wealthy friends rather than something he seriously intended to build.  In this way, he was a consummate showman with an ability to think grand dreams, which is to be applauded. However, in some ways we get the best deal; he didn’t get to create an oversized ego-driven building on a beautiful section of coastline but we do get to admire the incredibly detailed designs which Tilden laboured on for over half a decade to amuse Selfridge’s ambition.

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A new drama called ‘Mr Selfridge‘ on ITV in the UK on the life of H. Gordon Selfridge starts on 6 January 2013 – hence this article.

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More of Philip Tilden’s designs: ‘Hengistbury Head‘ [RIBA Library Drawings Collection]