Photo gallery: Famous city store that sold only the best

Members of staff from Chamberlin's store.

Members of staff from Chamberlin's store. - Credit: Eastern Counties Newspapers

More than a couple of centuries ago isolated Norwich was in a poor way. The Mint has disappeared along with the famous old weavers and the textile trade. It was without railways, without penny postage, morning papers, matches, gas or electricity.

A view of the Chamberlin's store in Norwich.

A view of the Chamberlin's store in Norwich. - Credit: Archant

Stage coach journeys were long, tedious and at times dangerous.

It was the magazine Punch which wrote: 'On Friday last a young man was heard to ask for a ticket to Norwich. No reason can be assigned for the rash act.'

How sad for a city once second only to London.

The time was ripe for enterprise and vision but where would it come from? Who wanted to start a business in Norwich, let along an up-market department store in a city full of small shops?

A view of the Chamberlin's store in Norwich.

A view of the Chamberlin's store in Norwich. - Credit: Archant

His name was Henry Chamberlin who arrived in the city from Edinburgh and in 1815 took an enormous gamble by opening up a grand shop opposite the Guildhall which in those days was the hub of civic life.

Within the next few years Chamberlins of Norwich was the place to be seen and it helped to put the city back on the map.

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London may have had Mr Selfridge but Norwich had Mr Chamberlin, a man who dismissed the cheap and poor quality and always went for the best.

Was this the biggest corner shop in the land? Not far off.

It stood on the corner with Dove Street but this was a grand department store which attracted the wealthy from all over East Anglia while providing work for generations of men and women.

And it wasn't just the shop. The company also opened up a huge factory in Botolph Street where around 1,000 people, mainly women, worked making a large range of clothes.

The founder was joined in 1823 by his son Robert who went on to take a leading role in the civic life of the city. He was appointed Sheriff of Norwich in 1848 and in 1854 became the first elected Mayor.

He had 17 children by two marriages and two of his sons, Alexander, born in 1835 and George, who arrived in 1846, also became prominent and popular citizens of the city. They also served as mayors and sheriffs.

The Chamberlins were good people; good to work for and good in their life outside the business in the community.

While looking after the needs of the well-heeled citizens of Norwich and Norfolk but they much to help those living on the breadline in the mean courts and yards across the city.

After a disastrous fire in 1898 which also destroyed much of the library, the shop rose from the ashes to be bigger and better than before.

It was reported more than a century ago that at on one Saturday afternoon during a sale in the shop it was estimated there were at least 1,200 customers in the premises at one time.

The story of Chamberlins is told in the book Men Who Have Made Norwich in which members of the Norfolk Industrial Archaeology Society have re-printed articles written by Edward and Wilfred Burgess in 1904 when the store and factory were in their prime.

They had a wonderful way with words and describe walking into the shop 110 years ago when it had been rebuilt following the fire... and now had hydrants on every floor. At the reopening ceremony the music was provided by The Blue Hungarian Band.

'The present edifice, imposing in its external aspect, is positively palatial within its walls, and all the appointments are a marvel of sumptuousness,' they wrote.

'From the fine entrance lobby facing the Market Place right away to the utmost limits of the establishment, the display of the riches of the world's drapery marts is only broken by the elegance of architecture and decorations on every hand.'

The article goes on to describe how George Waite looks after the impressive ground floor, saying: 'The various retail departments are the admiration of every visitor.'

The upper floors were occupied by the counting houses and wholesale departments while the extensive basement was a large warehouse for heavy goods.

'The furnishing department is of recent origin and is already an extensive business. The entrance facing the ancient Guildhall and here is seen one of the largest assortments of carpets, linoleums, floor cloths and furniture of every description to be seen in the Eastern Counties. The management is in the capable hands of Mr T Morpeth,' they wrote.

The factory in Botolph Street ran to more than 300,000 sq ft and employed 1,000 people making different types of clothing including uniforms and waterproof clothing for the army, navy, yeomanry, volunteers, Colonial Service, postal departments, railway Companies and the police etc.

'The motive power of the machinery, in the new section of the works is electricity, while in the remaining portion of the old works the machinery is still driven by steam power. Chamberlins are contractors for several of the principal railway companies and police forces in the country,' they wrote, pointing out the electricity came from a powerful dynamo made by Laurence, Scott and Co of Norwich.

When the First World War broke out the factory was entirely devoted to making clothes for the military. More than 800 people worked night and day fulfilling orders from the Admiralty and War Office, along with suits for discharged soldiers. It was estimated that by the end of the war Chamberlins had made close on one million garments.

Around 125 members of staff enlisted to fight, eight died in the service of their country. Many others served with distinction and obtained commissions and decorations for gallantry.

Chamberlins moved with the times during the 1920s, 30s and 40s and historian and author Joyce Gurney-Read wrote back in 1988: 'It was a pleasure to shop there. You were welcomed by a floor walker who escorted you to the desired department. The little drawers under and behind the counters were filled with an amazing array of items for sale, all of which were displayed with great artistry on the counter for the and behind the counters.

'The lady assistants, who were apprenticed and often lived over the shop, were not allowed to serve customers for the first year, but fetched and carried for their superiors. Later they would be allowed to assist the seniors and it was only during their third year they were allowed to deal directly with the customers,' wrote Joyce.

Such old-world charm could not resist the march of time. This lovely, elegant store was taken over by Marshall & Snelgrove during the 1950s, and Tesco is on the site today.

Did you used to work at Chamberlins? Or maybe you have a treasured household possession bought from there? Why not contact me with your memories.

Men Who Have Made Norwich by Edward & Wilfred Burgess has been republished by the Norfolk Industrial Archaeology Society. It tells the fascinating story of 40 family businesses operating in the city in 1904. It sold out before Christmas but is now back in the shops at £18.99.