Shopping in the 50s: the Kensington High Street experience

Although I spent my childhood far from Kensington, in the 1960s I did once visit the High Street and its famous triumvirate of department stores, Barker’s, Derry and Tom’s and Ponting’s. Even as a disinterested teenager I could recognize the distinctive high class air of the three establishments. Many people I’ve spoken to have reported that Kensington High Street was regarded as a cut above shopping destinations like Oxford Street, if not quite as exalted as Knightsbridge. The 1950s were the heyday of that shopping experience.

Barkers High Street Kensington 1955 K61-1003An artist’s impression of Barker’s in 1955 with Derry and Tom’s on the right. The slightly curved, prow of a ship frontage and the series of flags demonstrates the  absolute confidence of the John Barker company in its store.

This night time picture of Derry and Tom’s from 1933 shows a similar stylistic pride in its image.

Derry and Toms 1933 (Ponting’s on the other hand was very much the least prestigious of the three. But it was the first one I wrote about on the blog – link.)

The three stores catered primarily for the middle class woman who had shopping as one of the key activities in her job description. And as their customers came from far and wide the shops used in-house magazines and catalogues as part of their promotional efforts.

Shopping cover July 1954July 1954’s issues of Shopping was concerned with Barker’s satellite store in Eastbourne and was geared towards summer fashions.

Shopping pp10-11A bright summer’s day at the seaside but no beachwear in sight.

Copy of Shopping pp10-11It looks a bit windswept in fact.

Derry and Tom’s of course had its own exotic location:

Derry and Toms 1950s 009 cover - colourThe famous roof garden, an integral part of the store identity.

The 50s were also a heyday for the commercial artist.

Derry and Toms 1950s 006The store catalogues were not just about fashion. There were furnishings:

Derry and Toms 1950s 001Haberdashery  (note that there is a whole Hall devoted to linen::

Derry and Toms 1950s 002And Christmas gifts for all the family:

Dery and Toms Christmas 1957 gifts for all the familyIf you can’t make out  the small print what about the Triang Minic Garage Service Station or the Toy Fort, or the Chemistry Set (with Bunsen Burner)? There’s a His and Hers towel set (thick Turkish towels at 17/6), or some Beaver Lamb Back Gloves (32/6). The Pedigree Dressed Bunny  at 17/11 shows how soft toy technology has advanced since the 50s. For the curious, the Gilbert Harding Question Book (an early version of QI?) And for Her, a Novelty Nightdress Case or a Nylon Straw Evening Bag.

But for husbands, the best bet for a present for her indoors was something from the lingerie collection:

Dery and Toms Christmas 1957 gifts for the wife Most of the year the ladies were shopping for themselves, and the stores offered “a delightful experience”.

Derry and Toms 1950s 005 colour

The in house magazines had helpful hints as in these month by month suggestions:

Shopping pp18-19

And after all that shopping you might want to get away from it all back in sunny Eastbourne:

Shopping pp14-15 - Copy


Whenever I do a shopping related post someone always asks me when I’m going to do something about Biba? The  unfortunate answer is that the collection has almost no pictures of Biba in the period when it took over Derry and Tom’s. So it’s my turn to ask: does anyone have any photos of Biba in that era (particularly of the interior) that we could scan and use on the blog?

Curiously, while working on this week’s post I found some interior pictures of Pettit’s, the least known of the High Street’s shops, which I might use one of these days.

11 responses to “Shopping in the 50s: the Kensington High Street experience

  • First Night Design

    This has brought back so many wonderful memories of High Street Ken in the late ’60s and early 70s: the exotic delights of the Market and the thrill of buying posters of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean at Biba at the same time as bruise-coloured lipstick and a lime green granny t-shirt. And feeling a very grown-up teenager by having something to eat and drink at the Rainbow Room at the top. Where has the time gone!

  • Rachel Farhi

    Just stumbled across this site and love it! I was born in North Kensington in 1965 and my father worked at Barkers. I remember being taken to Derry and Tom’s roof garden (I have a photo of myself as a toddler taken there) and I also remember when the store became Biba – which my mum got very excited about.

    Biba was all black and gold – quite atmospheric – and I remember they had in the entrance two life size toy lions which I used to cuddle !

    Thank you for this site – it’s great!

  • tom

    having worked in the menswear dept, in derry’s as we used to call it, mr warner was the department manager/buyer, always immaculate in his appearance, & quickly gained the know how needed it all things, apart from made to measure, it was with much regret that i have to seek another job when it was annouced that derry’s was closing down, i did return a couple of years later , when biba had taken over & i was shocked at the sight before me, all the walls,ceilings painted black, what had become of the derry’s i had left, have never returned, have spent my entire career at john lewis in oxford street.

    • Jean-baptiste

      Hi Tom! I am currently retracing the story of Kensington Hight street for a uni project. I have been very interested by the old department stores and as you worked in one of them, I was wondering if you had some interesting facts about the store itself and the high street in general…your help would be very much appreciated !

  • Carole Bennett

    I was born in Queen Charlottes hospital 1945 and just love all the pictures and info. Really lovely memories. I shopped at Biba so would love see some pictures of the old Derry and Toms!

  • Melanie

    Please could you post photos of Pettits I remember parts of it,the smell of coffee as you came in.i cannot see any other photos online.

  • Shelly Staple

    I have just found a hat, in a box, ordered by my husband’s grandmother from Pettit’s in 1970. As she lived in a tiny village in rural Somerset, it must have been for a very special occasion. I, too, would love to see or know something about Pettit’s. Incidentally, I went to Biba as a teenager before moving to Somerset with my parents. I remember the little set-piece show rooms, never seen before, full of the most amazing black and gold decor: black feather boas, black silk top hats, gold and black striped sofas, faux tiger skins and black lipstick! It felt so sophisticated and classy. I also remember visiting again some years later when it was closing and and it was all shabby and worn. The saddest thing.

  • Linda gregory

    Please put the pics of Petting up, I remembered this stores name tonight and in researching it your link came up. Hope you will post them. Many thanks.

  • Geraldine Kelley

    Loved this walk down memory lane! My father worked at Charles House so we often had trips from Putney up to Ken High. My school uniform came from Daniel Neal’s and as a teenager I loved Barkers and Derry and Tom’s. It was a very elegant street in the 60s.

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