At last the 1936 show: Barkers of Kensington

We’re moving west along Kensington High Street and we’ve now reached the Barkers building, opposite the point where the High Street intersects with Kensington Church Street. We’ll pause here this week because the Barkers building is Kensington High Street’s signature building, which has been a central part of the look of the street for more than 80 years. Its curved frontage is like the prow of a ship, a luxury ocean liner of shopping.



Barkers is the first of the three department stores of Kensington. Along with Derry and Toms, and Pontings it was the focus of serious shopping in Kensington during the heyday of the big stores. The fact that it is now occupied by a number of different retailers and offices doesn’t distract from the grandeur of the building.

But this building was not the first Barkers store. John Barker came to London in the 1850s and worked at the Bayswater store, Whiteley’s. He leased the first of his Kensington properties in 1870, and began the slow process of colonizing the block between Young Street and Derry Street, and the streets behind (see this post about the streets at the rear of Barker’s) The first substantial Barker’s building can be seen in this from the west in a photo by the Stiles brothers.




You can just make out the letters of the name in the distance.

Here’s a closer look.




The expansion was dealt a severe blow in November 1912 when a fire gutted the east end of the main block.



In those days it was common for big stores to provide living accommodating for their staff either on site or nearby. Barkers had been acquiring property in Kensington Square for various purpose including living space for their staff. but there were still 20 people living on the fifth floor. Five waitresses died after jumping prematurely from high windows.

For a while the store traded from a site they had leased across the road



This would be where the Ladymere building would be built. You can see the side of the Royal Palace Hotel on the right.

The fire damage was repaired and the work of being a huge shopping emporium carried on.



Groceries for everyday use.

Special occasions



And fashion



The “display hall”, 1930. Women’s fashion was a big priority for Barker’s as demonstrated by two scans from the catalogue of 1935, the 65th year of business.




Plans for a new building began from the 1920s. The directors took inspiration from Selfridges and from visits to the USA. One of the chief directors, Trevor Bowen went there in 1919 and was particularly impressed by the Marshall Field’s store in Chicago. There were delays along the way. Barker’s merged with Derry and Toms in 1920 and their building was the first to be replaced with a modern version. (Bowen would have been particularly occupied by the roof garden, which was his brainchild and arguably remains as his most interesting legacy.) Plans for the new Barkers start in 1933 and building work started in 1936. It was an even more ambitious project than the rebuiling of Derry and Toms, with the two dramatic staircase towers which add to the impression that the building is about to start moving forwards. Work was intended to finish in 1942,  but was stopped during the War. Post war changes in planning law and building regulations also had a delaying effect so work carried on into the 1950s.



This 1951  picture shows that the last section of the frontage was not yet complete. It shows how the shape we know now was the result of another road widening. Note the huge sign warning about the bottleneck (still a feature of this section of the street). If you look in the centre distance you can see a big sign over the Slater’s store. Have a look at that here.

The building was finished in 1957 by which time the House of Fraser had taken over the company

This picture shows the finished building and how well it matches Derry and Toms.



Lowly Pontings (“the store for value”) limped on in a less  impressive building but was the the first part of this retail empre to go. (See one of my early posts here). I think you could say that in the 1960s, the zenith of department store shopping had not yet passed so Barker’s glided on into my teenage and adult life. Derry and Toms morphed into Biba and later Marks and Spencer and Gap In the 1980s and 90s but the Barkers building remained as the biggest thing in the High Street.




This picture looks west in a similar way to the first photo in the post.




While preparing this post it was inevitable that I would zoom in on this view.



Along with the lady’s nice coat (a winter picture, confirmed by those Chritmas trees), you can see a green bus.

Although you can’t make out much detail, Matthew soon found a picture of that actual vehicle using the strange powers of the enthusiast.



From the same date, the west entrance, with a toy display.



And the banner: Barkers of Kensington.

Below, a handy set of images showing some of the interior shops after this part of the building became a kind of small shopping mall. Barkers Arcade was a name I found a couple of times.




(Was there actually a branch of Hatchards there, or has the photographer inserted some shops for demonstrating what was possible?)

Despite changes in use and the decline of department store shopping the iconic building remains almost as it was originally envisaged, seen below in an architect’s drawing of a slightly wider high street in a slightly grander London.





I haven’t done an obituary lately so this week let’s pay tribute to Roky Erickson, psychedelic pioneer with the exotically named Thirteenth Floor Elevators. Do you remember any of the other equally hallucinogenic names from Lenny Kaye’s compilation album Nuggets? (The Strawberry Alarm Clock, the Electric Prunes, the Nazz? And many others) Roky unfortunately was a victim of excessive drug taking and spent some years in mental hospitals. But he came back and recorded more general weirdness in later life. I had a couple of singles by him in the 1980s, my personal favourite, Bermuda but not forgetting Two Headed Dog, which features another couplet I love: “Two headed dog, two headed dog / I’ve been working in the Kremlin with a two headed dog.” I almost never use the word gonzo but that song deserves it.

Roger Kynard Erickson (did you see what he did there?) 1947-2019. Thank you. We are going to miss you.



6 responses to “At last the 1936 show: Barkers of Kensington

  • dmbath

    Re the Green bus in your photo, I`m wondering if it is one of the Shillibeer buses . In 1979 LT had several buses painted green to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the introduction of Shillibeer`s bus service in London. We had one at our garage in Hammersmith so that green bus could be on the 27 route which we operated on saturdays. Possibly a number 9 but I can`t remember which year we took on that route. I might even be driving that bus !

    • Dave Walker

      For this reply I went to my son:
      While it would be truly excellent to have captured one of the Shillibeer Routemasters, the livery LT applied for the anniversary utilised a much darker shade of green and matched it with a cream upper deck (from the windows upwards). It was also remarkably short-lived – despite the effort involved, the RMs were all repainted red by early 1980, some even getting back to corporate uniformity before 1979 was out. (This was probably because of the adverts as the whole thing was based on sponsorship, which explains how a single DM managed to get in on the act – Leyland wouldn’t sponsor an RM!) Corgi have produced a miniature version, though not of Hammersmith’s particular vehicle.

      The green Routemaster here is a different shade of green – a particular leaf green that was rare in the capital, but common everywhere else in the country. I talk, of course, of the NBC. They had inherited the country-area RMCs and painted them into their preferred livery, despite not really seeming to want them at all. NBC favoured the Leyland National, and disposed of the RMCs by selling them back to London Transport, who promptly placed them into all into the training fleet. While some of them were immediately repainted red, quite a few retained their NBC green with the addition of LT roundels and adverts the main evidence of their new ownership. A couple of examples can be found on flickr:
      RMC1489 (489 CLT) seen leaving Chiswick Works in ex-London Country leaf-green livery
      London Transport . RMC1508 508CLT . Chiswick Works , London . 06th-June-1979 .

      It seems most likely that this green bus is one of this group (the last was repainted red in 1988, so this photo in 1987 must have been towards the end of this vehicle’s life in green), embarking on a training run into central London, possibly from Chiswick Works. Looking closely, the restricted front blind of the RMC class appears to be displaying the “private” destination blinds worn in both of the above pictures. There was one of these allocated to R garage (RMC1499:, which apparently stayed green until at least 1985 – outliving the garage – so maybe you saw it in person at some point?

      • dmbath

        Hello Dave, after I posted my comment I zoomed in on the photo and realised I made a boo boo ! Your son is spot on with his research.
        Your posts are always a treasure for me . I mentioned in a couple of old comments that I lived at Niddry Lodge when my parents were caretakers of the Linguists` Club. 59 – 73. Remember the library being built.
        I went to St Mary Abbots school , my sister`s first job was in Barkers .
        Kind regards , David Malster

  • Christina Brooks

    I was born in 1955. My first Saturday job at 15 was at Barkers and I worked there for years, all through Uni until I was twenty one, in Haberdashery. All my sisters worked there too in Display and on the shop floor. Prior to this though as my mother was a Tailor we were regularly dragged to Pontings as children to buy fabric. The whole of the basement was rolls upon rolls of fabric of all kinds and they had huge square, wooden containers (like planters) full of remnants which my mother made us plough through for bargains. It was an amazing store really. I also remember being taken to the roof garden of Derry & Toms (way before it became Biba)for tea by my grandmother.
    If you check out Christmas at Barkers in the early seventies (it made the National papers) they put on a huge event with a grotto, Santa arriving on a sleigh outside, a real Penguin (which pecked everyone and pooed everywhere!) and my three sisters and myself dressed as Gypsies (don’t ask me why lol) in costumes made by my mother. All the grotto staff were roped in from the Display team and the Saturday/holiday staff.
    Those were the days!!! lol

    • Cassie

      Hi there I dont suppose you remember a Bernadette Sweeney working at Barkers or an Italian gentleman called Demetri (possibly) who worked there as a chef? Around the mid 60s. Can you ask your siblings too?

  • Paul Evans

    We used to go to all three stores regularly. My childhood impressions were that Derry & Tom’s was the poshest, Ponting’s was rather down at heel while Barker’s was for everyone. My favourite visits were to the toy department at Barker’s during Christmas! I too used to go St. Mary Abbots School and later on worked for London Country buses at Reigate from where the green Routemasters came from, so a small world. We moved away from the area in 1973 but it’s still a treat to revisit the area. A very interesting piece so thank you.

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