Features Leytonstone

The local department store that rivalled Harrods

David Boote delves into the history of Leytonstone’s Bearmans, once nicknamed the ‘Harrods of the East End’

A Blue Plaque commemorating the Bearmans store,
Credit: speedgun67/Wikimedia Commons

The site of the recently closed Matalan has changed hands many times before. But its most interesting owner was in the first half of the 20th Century.

From 1898, it was a shop founded and managed by Frank Bearman. He had trained at a Westminster store, cycling back to spend weekends at the family home in Braintree. The new London suburb of Leytonstone, he decided, had become a promising area for a new retail venture.

Starting with cloth for furnishings the business rapidly expanded into a local ‘department store’, remembered still for providing a stylish experience and for treating its customers as special people.

Behind the High Road Bearmans store, a roller skating rink was converted during the 1920s into the Rialto cinema showing films with sound, Hollywood blockbusters and their British rivals. Behind large plate glass windows Bearmans displayed hats and handbags for the temptation of those queuing to see the latest glamour on screen.

Just as cinemas had clubs that children could join, so Bearmans had a ‘Mr Acorn Club’ whose members got a free birthday tea in the store restaurant, where the waitresses wore black dresses and white aprons. Its leadership took pride in having kept up with changing fashions from the trailing skirts and leg-of-mutton sleeves of 1898 to the sleeveless frocks, brief skirts, slacks and sweaters of 50 years later.

In 1947, the steam locomotive-hauled line from Stratford was converted into an extension of the electric Central Line underground through Leytonstone to Wanstead, Newbury Park and Hainault, as well as along the existing line to Epping and Ongar.

Bearmans could look to the more affluent residents of Woodford and nearby for whom price was not the only consideration. Frank Bearman died in 1956 and the family sold the business to the London Co-operative Society in 1962. The change of ownership took a long time to be reflected in how the business was run.

Into the 1970s it seemed to be a traditional one, but in 1978 the once popular institution of children meeting Father Christmas in his Grotto stopped being offered. Its resumption in 1948 had been a sign Britain was starting to recover from the crippling sacrifices of the Second World War.

In the 1960s pedestrians along the northern part of the High Road were prevented by railings from trying to cross through the heavy traffic. The situation suited neither those on foot nor those in a car. People went to Ilford and elsewhere for more expensive purchases.

The Co-operative retail organisation closed Bearmans in 1983 and erected a new building for a supermarket, a highly competitive sector from which the Co-op later withdrew and now Matalan which followed has also faced strong competition, notably from website based enterprises.

Visit the Leyton History Society website