It’s the season for people to pack the shops in town and spend their money on Christmas presents, on bits and baubles. There have been shops in Leeds since at least 1207. But towards the end of the 19th century, retail took a giant leap with the opening of Monteith, Hamilton & Monteith – essentially the first department store in Leeds, known to everyone as the Grand Pygmalion. So, in the spirit of the shopping season, here’s a Leeds short story for you.
They chose us careful enough. Interviewed by a matron and by the manager, Mr. Monteith himself. Not just questions, but our elocution and deportment, as well as our behaviour. Mr. Monteith explained that he had a standard he expected at such a place as Monteith, Hamilton and Monteith, and the matron, Miss Hardisty, nodded her agreement.
The customer, he said, must feel like royalty. His girls would be well turned-out. Anyone who wasn’t would be sent home without pay, and if it happened twice, that would be the end of her employment.
He was a very neat man, Mr. Monteith. Precise in his speech and his dress. He wore a frock coat. You don’t see that too often any more. His teeth and his fingernails were clean, and his hair had a light sheen of pomade. At first I thought he looked more like a mannequin than a man. But once he began talking about this department store, you could see the passion in his eyes. Perhaps it was strange to become so excited about a thing like that, but that’s how he was.
I knew how to behave. I’d spent seven years in service, since I was nine years old, and I had excellent references to prove it. Scullery maid, upstairs maid, then a ladies’ maid, I’d done it all. Good teachers I’d had, too. This shop work would be easier. It would pay better and I’d be in my own bed every night, instead of going back to visit my parents one afternoon a week.
Mr. Monteith read each reference carefully, nodding his head at a phrase here, a word there. He passed them to Miss Hardisty. She glanced at them quickly then sat, smiling.
Finally he raised his head. He’d made a decision.
‘Miss Allison, your Christian name is Victoria, is that correct?’
‘Yes sir. I was named for the Queen.’
‘Well, Miss Allison, I’d be gratified to offer you a position with us at the terms I outlined to you at the beginning of this interview. You seem to be an ideal candidate.’ His face was serious, eyes intent upon me. ‘Do you wish to join us?’
‘Yes sir, I do.’ I was beaming and trying to sound calm, but inside I wanted to shot for joy. Working in a place like this? It would be like coming to some magic land every day.
‘Excellent.’ He gave a quick smile, as if he was unused to the gesture. ‘Miss Hardisty will show the department store, assign you your duties and see that you receive your uniform.’
‘Thank you, sir.’ I offered him a small curtsey, not quite sure what to do.
‘You’ve had experience as a ladies’ maid. I think perhaps a position in the ladies’ wear department, don’t you?’ He looked vaguely at Miss Hardisty.
‘Absolutely,’ she agreed quickly. ‘Come along, Miss Allison. You need to learn where everything is.’
She walked away briskly and I hurried to follow. She wore a cotton dress, no bustle, walking with her back very straight and shoulders back, hair gather in a tight bun at the back of her head.
‘We shall have two hundred staff by the time we open,’ she told me. ‘Young ladies and young gentlemen. I trust I don’t need to say that we shall frown upon any fraternisation.’
‘Of course, miss,’ I agreed. But I knew the rule was unlikely to work, and was glad about it.
Men in brown coats or heavy aprons were setting out the good according to a plan. Monteith’s covered four floors in a new building that still smelt of distemper. On the top floor, workmen were still laying the carpet and we had to walk gingerly around them, trying to ignore their comments.
The department store was larger than any building I’d been in before. Girls I knew talked about the size of Temple Mill, but I didn’t see how it could compare to this.
‘You will be working on the second floor, Miss Allison. As Mr. Monteith said, we expect the highest standards for our girls. Politeness to the customers at all times and very prompt service. It will be our hallmark.’
It took more than an hour to explore the whole place. Four floors. Four! I felt sure I’d be lost every day when I made my way around. Not only was there the area open to the public, but also behind the doors, where we kept our stock, and a cafeteria for staff in the basement, along with lockers where we might keep our valuables.
Outside, in the spring air, I looked around. I followed the tall plate glass windows around on to Boar Lane. I was going to be working here. I wanted to sing, to laugh. But I knew I had to act with decorum now.
I began work the next Monday. Still a week to go before the opening, and we were bustling round, preparing everything. You men were working in the windows to create the displays. The inside of the glass had been covered with newspaper so that people outside couldn’t see. It was a smart idea, I thought. It created a sense of anticipation. On the second floor we were arranging the clothing, making everything tempting and just so.
Each morning I was proud to change into my uniform and present myself for inspection to the floor supervisor, Miss Adams. She was as demanding as any sergeant-major, looking at our nails and the shine on our shoes, as well as the arrangement of our hair and the cleanliness of our clothes.
‘She’s a right madam,’ Catherine said to me as we set out blouses on one of the counters. We’d been assigned to work together, and for the first day I’d been unsure. But Catherine was a few years older than me, and worldly in a way I wasn’t. She been in a mill, she’d been in service, and she’d worked in a milliner’s shop before. She understood life.
‘Is she?’ I asked. When I worked for the family in Chapel Allerton we’d had the same kind of inspection each day.
‘Course she is. Look at her, she’s like a dried up prune. Probably never had a night’s fun in her life.’ She winked. ‘You know what I mean?’
I stifled a giggle.
‘You know what people are calling this place?’ Catherine asked.
‘What?’ I hadn’t heard. To me it was Monteith’s.
‘The Grand Pygmalion. I was down at the music hall last night with my young man, and someone said they thought it was going to be like one of those Eastern bazaars, some of everything.’
I started to laugh, stifling it when Miss Adams glared at me from the other end of the floor.
‘Why don’t you come out with us on Saturday?’ Catherine asked impulsively. ‘They’ll have the new turns on at the halls. I can ask my Jimmy to bring one of his mates if you like. If you don’t have someone that is.’
I didn’t. I’d broken off with the boy I’d been seeing at the start of the year. I don’t know why, but everything he said started to annoy me. And Saturday we’d have our first pay packets.
‘All right,’ I agreed. ‘Why not?’ It could be fun after a week of work. My mother wouldn’t mind, as long as I wasn’t too late home.
They worked us hard. We earned our money that week, I have to say. Carrying boxes, arranging the goods in the most becoming way. Then doing them over and over after Miss Adams found fault with our work.
By five o’clock on Saturday I was ready for it to end. Everything would be different on Monday, once the customers started coming in. Catherine and I changed out of our uniforms into our best clothes, everything carefully hung in the lockers so it wouldn’t crease. She took her time, changing her hairstyle once, then again, until I was afraid the lads would have given up on us.
‘Come on,’ I chivvied as she put on her cape.
‘Always better to keep them waiting,’ she told me. ‘Just makes them more eager to see you. If you’re on time they’ll just take you for granted.’
Maybe she thought so; I wasn’t as certain.
We met them in one of the gin palaces on Boar Lane, down near the railway stations. Bright lights, the brass and wood all shining, voices loud and happy to be free after a week of work. I met Jimmy. He has good-looking, but in an obvious way. And he knew it, cocky and sure of himself.
His friend, John, was different. Chalk and cheese, the two of them. Quiet, not so talkative. At first I thought this was going to be a waste. But after an hour and a couple of pints he began to smile a bit more.
We stopped for fish and chips then went on to the Pleasure Palace on Lands Lane. Laughed at the comedians, even though half their jokes were as old as my granddad. We had a good singalong and oohed and aahed at the acrobats. Another round of drinks in the intermission.
When it was all done, and Catherine and Jimmy wanted to be off on their own to canoodle, John offered to escort me home.
‘It’s quite a way to Wortley,’ I told him doubtfully. ‘And the omnibus goes right to the end of our road.’
But he insisted. It was warm enough to sit on the top deck. Couldn’t see the stars, though, just like most nights. Too much soot and haze in the air.
We had a chance to talk. He was a fitter over at Hunslet Engine Company, but he’d scrubbed up well. It was a skilled trade, he told me proudly. He’d finished his apprenticeship and he had his eye on becoming a foreman eventually. Maybe even open his own little shop one day, making specialist parts. There was a future in that.
He was serious, but he liked to smile, too.
He walked me almost to the door. I stopped him going any further. If my mam saw him there’d only be questions later. I wasn’t ready for that.
‘Do you think…’ he began and I waited. ‘You know, maybe I could see you again.’
‘I’d like that,’ I told him.
His eyes widened. I think I’d surprised him.
‘Next Saturday?’ he asked tentatively.
‘All right. Why don’t you meet me outside work and we can decide what we want to do.’
Monday morning we had to report to work early. Miss Hardisty and Miss Adams looked us over carefully. No smudges, nothing out of place on our uniforms. Then we all had to parade down to the ground floor where Mr. Montheith was waiting to address us.
‘We’re here at the start of a remarkable enterprise,’ he said. He was smiling widely and almost hopping from one leg to the other, he was that excited. ‘There has never been a place like this in Leeds before. We’re creating a wonderland of shopping.’
He carried on for another five minutes about this and that, until everyone was fidgeting, just ready for him to open the doors. They’d taken the newspaper off the windows earlier, so pedestrians could see a few of the things we had for sale.
Catherine and I looked at each other, both of us trying not to giggle.
Finally he was done.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, please return to your stations,’ Mr. Monteith told us and pulled the watch from his waistcoat. ‘We shall open in four minutes.’
I could hear the clank of the lift and the sound of feet on the marble stairs leading up to our floor. A woman in an expensive hat and a fox stole came towards me. I smiled.
‘Good morning, madam. How may I help you?’
Historical Note: Monteith, Hamilton and Monteith opened at the junction of Boar Lane and Trinity Street in the 1880s. It was billed as the first department store in Leeds, although that honour might have belong to the Co-op on Albion Street. But it was certainly the biggest, with four floors and 200 staff. It brought London shopping to Leeds and offered a huge array of goods. It’s ironic, perhaps, or maybe simply a continuing thread of history that Trinity Shopping Centre occupies much the space today.