Messrs Williams and Sowerby already had a large shop when Tallis came round (±1839), but they were to make it even grander in later years. This will be a blog post with lots of illustrations and not so much text, because this post is more about the building than about the history of the people who occupied it. It had all started in 1828 when silk mercer John William established his Commerce House at 61, Oxford Street. Joseph Sowerby was taken on as the junior partner and the gentlemen set out to make their shop the best place in town to obtain “silk mercery, haberdashery, hosiery, gloves, ribbons, laces and general drapery”. This listing of their wares appeared in an advertisement in The Caledonian Mercury of 21 April, 1838, in which Williams and Sowerby introduced their agent J. Thomson, who sold their stock in Edinburgh. The advertisement also tells us that by then, that is ten years after they started the business, the London shop already encompassed 61 and 62 Oxford Street, as well as 3 and 4 Wells Street, around the corner. Williams and Sowerby spent some money on their entry in the Tallis booklet, as they not only entered two advertisements, but also a vignette, and a generous depiction in the street plan, not to mention the write-up that Tallis supplied.
The premises on the corner, the patent medicine warehouse, was number 63, not 66 as the street plan incorrectly states. Williams and Sowerby were no doubt frustrated that they could not manage to buy that property as well, as that would have meant a nice straight building site for the refurbishment they had in mind. However, they did manage to obtain number 60 on the other side of Commerce House as well as 5 Wells Street.
An item in The Belfast News-Letter of 3 April, 1840, copied information from an “Edinburgh Paper” on ‘glass cloth’. One Mr. Clarke had shown this new material at the Assembly Room in Edinburgh. Glass cloth was invented in Paris, but was “now manufactured by Messrs Williams and Sowerby, who are reported to have expended about ten thousand pounds upon the patent and requisite machinery”. The material consisted of very thinly spun glass, which was interwoven with silk. It could be used for curtains, but also for dresses and “has graced the ball-room at Almack’s and the Tuileries”. Williams and Sowerby called the material ’tissue de verre’ and in 1844, The Art-Union (p. 195) explained that the finely-spun glass material was not brittle at all, as one would expect of glass, but very flexible, and used to make material that looked very much like brocade. 1844 was also the year in which Williams & Sowerby opened their renovated showrooms. The Guide to Life included a picture of the showroom and a nice write-up, also mentioning the ’tissue de verre’.
Although the dome that was described in The Guide to Life could not be seen in the accompanying illustration, The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction included one that showed this marvel.
The Mirror praised the architect David Mocatta (see here and here) “for the happy adaption of the site, its lofty height, the forms of the design, and its enrichments, and more especially of the beautiful mellow light which pervades every part. The original form of the ground called for much ingenuity on the part of the architect, as next to Wells-street the width is only 25 feet, and at the back it is 43 feet wide; this difference is concealed by the arrangement of the circular parts of the two ends”. The Civil Engineer and Architect’s Journal included two plates; one to show the design of the new showroom, shown below, and the other the decoration on the columns with which they were not entirely pleased (see here).
The refurbishment had not gone entirely without a hitch, as a watchman employed to keep an eye on the Wells Street property while it was under construction was found to be asleep, creating an opportunity for some thieves to enter the empty building via a skylight. They got into the cashier’s desk in the counting house, but were apprehended before they could leave the building. The police had, in one version of the story, been alerted by the barking of a dog, or, if you believe another version, by a passerby who heard strange noises.(1)
The partnership between Williams and Sowerby was not destined to last as in 1851 a notice appeared in The London Gazette to announce that they had terminated their partnership with Williams to continue on his own. Although the entry in The Gazette speaks of “mutual consent”, an advertisement in The Daily News of 25 April 1853 seems to suggest something else.
The large building Williams and Sowerby constructed with the help of David Mocatta did not survive the century and was replaced in 1894 by a new building that was to become Bourne and Hollingsworth’s Department Store. For more on that building see here.
‘Tissue de verre’ and dresses made from it are mentioned in George Dodd’s Novelties, Inventions, and Curiosities in Arts and Manufactures, 1853 (see here) and a a blog post of Jessica Leigh Hester, ‘Glass Dresses, The Fairytale Fashion Trend That Never Quite Took Off’ (see here).(2)
(1) The Morning Chronicle, 19 September 1843 and The Standard, 25 September 1843.
(2) Thanks go to @2nerdyhistgirls, @ladymissalicia and @sarahmurden for finding these references.
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