Fenwick is a retail institution here in Newcastle. John James Fenwick of Richmond, North Yorkshire chose to open a shop on the city’s main shopping street in 1882, a whole nine years before opening one on London’s New Bond Street.
The Newcastle branch means a lot to many Geordies who still like to crowd round its legendary Christmas window display.
Here’s a piece I wrote a few years ago about shopping in Newcastle back in the 1970s. Most of it was included in All Right Now! 1970s Newcastle edited by Anna Flowers and Vanessa Histon and is still available from Tyne Bridge Publishing in Newcastle:
Mam and I shopped in Binns and Farnons but spent most of our time in and around busy Northumberland Street. This noisy road had its own theme tune composed of bus engines and brakes, the blind accordion player’s tunes and Evening Chronicle newspaper sellers croaking and yelping like toads and wounded dogs.
My favourite shop was Fenwick but like most Geordies I called (and still call) it Fenwicks. I was too young in the Seventies to appreciate the French style of the building. It looks like a classy Parisian store but back then I was more interested in staring at the accordion player outside one of the entrances on Northumberland Street. What was his story, I wonder?
Christmas was my favourite time to visit Fenwicks when I’d coo at the famous window display and fizz with excitement in the toy department. I loved visiting the third floor and remember standing in front of the Sindy dolls wrinkling my nose like Tabitha from Bewitched and willing those toys back to my bedroom!
Trips to the loo in my favourite department store offered me insight into the adult world. Passing Johann’s Coffee Shop and the Majorca Café en route to the toilets upstairs, I’d catch glimpses of women through the partition walls chatting over coffee and cake. Would I arrange to meet friends or Mam here in the future?
Once inside the Ladies’ Powder Room, I tuned in to the female conversation around me. As I washed my hands I wondered if my adult life would have to be as complicated as the biographies broadcasting in stereo from toilet cubicles. I can still smell that cloying mix of tobacco and perfume in the air as women sorted out their hair, makeup and love lives in front of those big mirrors.
And there’s an exhibition at Newcastle’s Discovery Museum all about the famous Fenwick Christmas Window. Check it out https://discoverymuseum.org.uk/whats-on/fenwick-unwrapped