Lost Edinburgh: Charles Jenner & Co.

IT MAY surprise many people to learn that the grand Jenners department store, long regarded as one of Edinburgh’s most esteemed and magnificent institutions, originated from an unlikely game of chance.

Jenners Department Store, bathed in blue light during the Christmas celebrations in 2012. Picture: Kate Chandler/TSPL

Jenners is unarguably Edinburgh’s best-loved department store and was up until 2005, the oldest surviving independent department store on the planet. It began life in 1838 when a pair of Englishmen, Charles Kennington and Charles Jenner, were sacked from their jobs as Edinburgh drapers for having the impudence to attend the Musselburgh races rather than turn up for their shifts. Luckily the pair had managed to back the right horse and made what would turn out to be a sound investment with their winnings.

They promptly purchased the lease on a converted townhouse property on the corner of Princes Street and South St. David Street with a view to starting their own drapers. Trading officially commenced on May 1st 1838 under the name Kennington and Jenner. Their ambitious aim to provide the citizens of Edinburgh with the finest silks and linens from home and abroad was something that was only available in London during this time.

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Despite the initial struggle to cough up the annual rent of £150, Kennington and Jenner’s boutique corner shop was soon raking in profits. The store’s journey to one day becoming known as “the Harrods of the north” was well underway.

The interior of Jenners. Picture: TSPL

Following the retirement and death of Charles Kennington in the early 1860s, the store was renamed to simply Charles Jenner & Company. Jenner himself continued running the store until 1881 by which time the business had expanded to become the largest retail establishment in Scotland. Upon his retirement a proud Mr Jenner remarked: “When I came to Edinburgh, the ladies were the worst dressed in the kingdom. What are they now? Why, the best dressed – thanks to Charles Jenner.”

Under new ownership the business continued to grow. However, on the 26th of November 1892 disaster struck when a crowd of 40,000 people gathered to witness the store burn to the ground. Fortunately there were no casualties, better still, a curiously large number of insurance policies enabled the owners to make a swift return to business. With substantial insurance funds and financial backing from the town council who held the department store in the highest regard possible, Jenners’ rebirth would be nothing short of spectacular.

Future North British Hotel architect William Hamilton Beattie was enlisted to create a true Edinburgh landmark for generations to come. Modelled on the Bodleian Library at Oxford the new store displayed exceptional extravagance inside as well as out, and was something of a revelation when it opened on the 8th of March 1895. Among the elegant features placed on the exterior were several pairs of caryatids depicted as supporting the structure.

These sculpted female figures were a knowing tribute to the beliefs of Charles Jenner that women were the driving force behind the success of his business. “It is women who decide how most of the family income is to be spent,” Jenner had once declared, adding: “This is a rock on which some other stores have perished - they concentrated on trying to attract male customers instead of women.”

As the previous shop had burned to its foundations, it was of great importance that its successor featured adequate fireproofing. Iron columns and steel beams used throughout the structure as supports and Stuart’s Granolithic stone flooring provided excellent protection. This was quite an innovation in 1895 as was the impressive array of interior electric lighting, air conditioning and hydraulic lifts. In these respects, the new building was well ahead of its time and left an indelible impression on many a patron. Sadly Mr Jenner had died in 1893, a full two years before the store’s official opening and never laid eyes on the finished result.

The store continued to thrive during the 1900s and expanded several times to take up further retail space along both Rose Street and Princes Street. In 1924 the now regally-approved Charles Jenner & Co. became a Limited Company and was renamed Jenners, Princes Street, Edinburgh Ltd. For the remainder of the century Jenners further cemented its reputation as the No.1 place to shop for both tradition and quality in the capital and became a local byword for extravagance and opulence.

In 2005, despite changing their mission statement to “Confidently Independent” the year before, the company was sold to its rival House of Fraser for £46m. The department store had been family run for 167 years but was now embarking on a entirely new era under corporate ownership.

Though many Edinburgh locals are sad to see such a long and illustrious institution tampered with, they are thankful that the Jenners name, identity and location adjacent the Scott Monument on Princes Street have all been retained.

From humble beginnings as a small fashion outlet on a corner of Princes Street ran by two recently sacked drapers to a multi-million pound business and nationally recognised emblem of Edinburgh, Jenners department store is an icon of Scotland’s capital and one that would be sorely missed if it were ever to vanish completely.

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