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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust


Chamberlins of Norwich 

Chamberlin's store decorated for the Silver Jubilee in 1935
Chamberlin's store decorated for the Silver Jubilee in 1935

Chamberlins department store on Guildhall Hill (now Tesco) was the pre-eminent store in Norwich in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries providing a level of service unsurpassed in Norwich and the surrounding area.

Chamberlins' origins lie north of the border, in the person of a Scot, Henry Chamberlin (1777-1848) who came to Norwich from Edinburgh in 1814, and founded a department store on the corner of Dove Street and Guildhall Hill a year later. His son Robert joined him as a partner in 1823, the firm becoming known as Chamberlin Sons & Company and it was he who was responsible for the development in the company's growth. He entered local politics in 1848, becoming Sheriff the same year, an Alderman in 1870 and Mayor in 1854, 1856 and 1871. Robert had seventeen children by two marriages, and two of his sons, Alexander (b .1835), and George (b .1846) were to play an important part in the history of the firm.

An intriguing description of the store comes from an article written at the turn of the century. 'The premises, which have been considerably enlarged and entirely re-arranged, form a conspicuously handsome block. The main building is of red brick, faced with stone, and is of four stories in height, while the subsidiary portion, which extends nearly the whole length of Dove Street, is of three stories, the ground floor portion of this being entirely of glass. Five very spacious and handsome shop windows face the Market Place, or the corner, and there are two very fine entrances. The premises cover an area of 42,057 feet, and for elegance, comfort or completeness, they stand unrivalled by any similar establishment in the country.

The stock kept on hand is of considerable value, goods to the amount of no less than £80,000 being available for customers to select from. The main shop is of considerable extent, and is, like all the other portions of this vast emporium, most elegantly fitted up, handsome glass cases serving to display articles of millinery, etc., of the richest description. This fine shop is warmed throughout with hot air, and is lighted by chandeliers of artistic design and elegant appearance. Handsome Corinthian pillars are located at intervals, and serve not only to support the superstructure, but to impart an imposing appearance to the fine vista presented by this richly decorated portion of the building.

Close to the main entrance is the millinery department - a richly decorated saloon, having a ceiling finely panelled and ornamented, four sculptured bosses marking the intersections of the beams in every instance. This section is lavishly provided with mirrors, and glass cases also give an elegant air to the room. Flowers are here tastefully arranged in cachepots, and the lighting is effected by chandeliers of exceptionally fine design. The buyer for this section, and also the head milliner, each visit Paris and London periodically, bringing back the latest and most fashionable models which are reproduced in the workrooms of this firm.

The mantle saloon also has a ceiling of rich design and fine execution. Cheval glasses are placed at frequent intervals, and mirrors are also lavishly used as screens. Glass cases of artistic shape are used to display and protect examples of work, as are also tables formed of plate glass cases, which serve as tables, at the same time containing fur boas, ties, capes, muffs, etc., of great value.

The section appropriated to ladies' underclothing is also a rich saloon, divided into two parts by a richly worked open screen of wood. Adjoining the fitting rooms, from which it is divided by a screen of ornamental glass, is the fine waiting and writing room, which forms one of the most distinctive features of .this splendid house. It is lighted with a central chandelier of artistic workmanship, having five shaded lights. This elegant room is well supplied with settees and lounges richly upholstered, and has escritoires and all the requisites for letter writing or correspondence. The tables are of handsome design, and are well supplied with magazines, newspapers, etc., and opening out from this room is a suite of retiring rooms, lavatories, etc. This novel department has been provided expressly for the country customers

of the house, and the ladies are much pleased with it. There is a Post Office box fixed at the chief entrance.

The carpet and furnishing department is a well-appointed section, and is on the same level as the main shop. It is lighted by a well lantern, and is provided with pendants, having each two shaded burners. The gallery overhead is supported by fluted pillars of light construction. In the workshops carpets are made up by machinery, free of charge, and there is also a complete staff of upholsterers and others employed in the making up or fitting of bed furniture, hangings, or draperies, of every kind.

The dress department is considered by the principals as the chief one, and great attention is bestowed on it. It is a handsome square gallery, the centre of which is occupied by the lantern opening, which lights the department below. It has a glass roof and contains a very considerable counter space, while the walls are literally lined with shelves, containing all the best available fabrics of English or Continental make. A staff of one hundred and twenty skilled workwomen are employed in the work-rooms in connection with this important section, and even with this great staff the resources of the house are often severely taxed to execute the large number of orders with which the firm are favoured.

Another special feature of this superb establishment is the refreshment room, which is a spacious room fitted up and furnished in the most luxurious manner, and in the best possible taste. It has a buffet, well supplied by the articles in request by ladies, and the proprietors disclaim any intention of making a profit on the refreshments here supplied, the department having been provided for the convenience of the country customers, many of whom come long distances, and who fully appreciate the consideration shown for their comfort. '

When War broke out in August, 1914, the company's factory, by then situated in Botolph Street, was entirely devoted to the manufacture of civilian goods for the home and foreign markets. Almost immediately the call came for help, and so prompt was the response that within a month the business was almost entirely transferred to war productions. The difficulties, although enormous, were tackled so successfully that in a very short time the eight hundred employees were working at the highest pressure in order to satisfy Admiralty and War Office requests for an ever-increasing output.

For some years the company had been the sole concessionaires for Great Britain and the Colonies for the manufacture of Pegamoid waterproof clothing. In pre-war days the authorities had subjected this material to a severe test in all climates, and it was held in such high esteem that, with the exception of a certain quantity which went to the army and to the Italian Government, the Admiralty claimed the bulk of the Company's output during the whole period of the war.

Another important aspect of the Company's activities was the manufacture of East Coast oilskin water-proof material, and throughout the war this was used in many styles of garments for the sea and land forces. The demand became so pressing that not only was the entire output requisitioned by the Admiralty and War Office, but it was found necessary to build and equip a new factory in order to cope with it. In addition to these services the Company contracted for the supply of clothing to meet the requirements of the G. P. O, Government munitions factories, and other departments.

At the request of the Government large quantities of standard clothes were also made, as well as suits for discharged soldiers. The war work of Chamberlins totalled close on one million garments, and they received from the authorities' official recognition of the value of their services to the State in the years of the nation's peril. One hundred and twenty-five members of their Norwich staff enlisted and eight died in the service of their country. Many others served with distinction and obtained commissions and decorations for gallantry.

In 1935 the post -war years brought fresh demands and challenges and, although maintaining old traditions, Chamberlins had moved with the times and presented modernised premises fully equipped to give service in all departments of drapery and house furnishing. Their factory, equipped with modern machinery, produced speciality men's sports clothing under their registered brand 'Sartella'. They remained a large manufacturer of oilskins whose largest customer was the British Government.

It was a pleasure to shop at Chamberlins in the 'thirties' and 'forties'. You were welcomed by a floor walker, who escorted you to the desired department. The little drawers under and behind the counters were filled with an amazing array of items for sale, all of which were displayed with great artistry on the counter for the customer's perusal. Chairs were provided for all to sit upon, and the goods selected were duly packed, and would be delivered to your home if required.

The lady assistants, who were apprenticed and often lived over the shop, were not allowed to serve customers for the first year, but fetched and carried for their superiors. Later they would be allowed to assist the seniors, and it was only during their third year they were allowed to deal directly with the customers.

Such old world charm could not resist the march of time. This lovely, elegant store was taken over by Marshall & Snelgrove in the 1950s and nothing now remains to remind us of Chamberlins of Norwich.

Joyce Gurney-Read


Amended by Nick Williams February 2008