In this series of interviews about Colombo’s heritage, we cover the Great Department Stores of Old Colombo. Historian Asiff Hussein, author of The Great Days of Colombo.
by Ifham Nizam
Q: In your book ‘The Great Days of Colombo’ you mentioned that by the 1950s Colombo Fort had four well-known department stores in the best European tradition. These were Cargills, Millers, Whiteaways and Colombo Apothecaries. Can you tell us what were the reasons that led to their emergence and why they were so popular at the time?
Yes, I would call them Colombo’s Big Four. All of them originated in the early 1900s and had their heyday in the 1950s and 1960s. It was all based on the British model of a department store, in the fashion of Harrods of London.
In fact, they may have even been inspired by Harrods whose wedge shape is reminiscent of Cargills, the largest of our department stores. Harrods apparently had a humble beginning, having been established as a grocery store by Henry Charles Harrod in the mid-1800s before expanding in the late 1800s when many new sections were added. The Harrods Building we are familiar with was built in 1905 and housed about 300 departments. So my guess is that it served as a model for others in the English-speaking world and in the British colonies.
A shopping complex with several sections, under one roof, was of course a great convenience for shoppers. Department stores of this nature also had a reputation for maintaining and stocking only the highest quality products and some even gave credit to more loyal customers. In one-off colonies like Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, the protection of these luxury stores was also a status symbol.
For example, we have a Ceylonese writer, J. Vijayatunga, who says in his book Isle of Lanka (1955): “This is the hour of shopping. For those unfamiliar with the ritual of the Cinnamon Gardens housewives, the scene will hit a scene after a Hundred Days Siege. There are two large department stores in York Street – they were known as European stores, but the controlling interest is now in the hands of Jaffna Tamils and Burgers, although the floor managers and managers are still white men, and the saleswomen are generally Eurasian while the lesser salesmen and their assistants are Ceylonese and Malaysian. There are two more such shops in Prince Street ”
Vijayatunga refers to a lady from Cinnamon Gardens who breathlessly orders fresh Australian butter to be delivered. “Account, ma’am?” asks the counter assistant, and no satisfaction, he says, is greater for Mrs. than to be able to say and sign “Account.”
He adds: “At these counters an ordinary mortal must be very careful – for he may unknowingly expel a Ladyship or Knighthood or an OBE ship or a Chevaliership. These honors are lavishly scattered in Ceylon these days and will be on the most unlikely places are encountered. ”
What’s also interesting about Vijayatunga’s version is the look he gives us that these stores offered at the time – Australian beef, Australian cheese, Oxford sausages, canned meat and fish, meat paste and fish paste, peas and asparagus and peaches and jams – anything which has a label on a bottle or can indicating that it was manufactured in Australia, New Zealand or in Great Britain, all of which had “a hypnotic effect on Colombo’s ladies of society”.
Q: Cargills was obviously the biggest of these. Can you tell us something about what it looked like in the good old days?
Cargills was built on the site of Captain Pieter Sluysken’s bungalow at the junction of Prince Street and York Street. This Dutchman’s home was in the corner of a block occupied by high-ranking Dutch officials. History tells us that he was a gentle soul and had a Kaffir Orchestra consisting of black musicians playing sweet music on the lawn in front of his house.
Cargills, which originated in its place in 1906, was a much larger building with its beautiful burnt sienna facade. The company was founded by DSCargill and enjoyed the distinction of being the oldest department store in Asia when it was founded in Kandy in 1844 before moving into its purpose-built premises in Colombo Fort where it flourished. Even then, it was equipped with electric fans and hydraulic elevators. Arnold Wright observed in his monumental book Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon (1907) a year after moving to the big city “This site is deservedly considered the best of its kind east of Suez”.
Cargills eventually added as many as 40 departments to itself that sold everything from basic household necessities to many luxury items coming down from the industrial power stations of the West. Its main departments, in the early 1900s, included groceries, furniture, clothing, menswear, horse feed, wines and spirits, and drugs and pharmacy.
By 1948, when the country gained independence, it had added many more departments, including Photo and Optics, Sports, Toys, Stationery, and even a Book Section above where a whole bunch of books could be purchased. The children of the post-war years who may well be called our own baby boomers had their favorite books, many of which were obtained from Cargills. These included June Girls Annuals, Enid Blyton’s storybooks and Little Lulu and Dell comic books.
Cargills were agents for many foreign brands. The long list included Arnott’s Australian Cookies, Beehive Brand Australian Butter, Blue Band and Golden Mountain Margarine, Fray Bentos Corned Beef, Riverstone Canned Meat and Sausages, Regal Chocolates, Del Monte Fruits, John West’s Salmon and Huntley’s and Palmer’s 4 O Clock Afternoon Tea. . They also sold HMV Radiogram, Singer Sewing Machines, Dinky branded miniature cast vehicles and Hornby Dablo trains manufactured by the Mechano Toy Company.
I was told that during Christmas time, that is to say until about the 1970s or so, Cargills held a Santa Claus to entertain children and had seasonal events such as ‘Lucky Dip’ which involved buyers having to pay a small amount of money to to try their luck with brown. paper bags filled with small toys and stuff like that. The dozen or so bags would be kept in a wooden box and participants had to use a hook pole to fish out the bags, each of which had a loop at the top.
Q: Millers was still a big player back then. What was it that they offered that was different from what Cargills had to offer?
Millers Ltd was based in York Street and also traded in foreign goods, although much of it differed from what Cargills traded. It has sold, among others, Cow & Gate Milk Food, J.Terry & Sons Chocolates, Kodak photographic products, Marconiphone Radios. Tunstalite Electric Bulbs, Tarzan’s Grip Paste, Magic Hoodoo anti-ant tape, Partridge & Sons Cigars and a variety of liqueurs such as Smith & Sons Yalumba Wines among others. Around the time we gained independence, they were dealing with Elaine Chocolates, Walters’ Palm Toffees, Elizabeth Arden’s toiletries, Jean Valjean Manilla cigars, Austin Reeds shirts, Mangold shoes, Columbia gramophones, Tungstalite electric light bulbs and Brolac and Murac paints and enamels. In the 1950s we hear of Millers offering large bedroom, living room and dining room suites, Slumberland mattresses and lampshades in Crenothine with decorations.
Q: Whiteaways was another well-known department store of that time. What does it have to offer its customers?
Whiteways or to call his full name Whiteaway, Laidlaw & Co had its department store in a three-story building in Prince Street (Present Sir Baron Jayatilleke Mawatha). It was painted on top of a dome, white or silver and allegedly had cargo hatches on its sides where the goods arriving from the port could be unloaded and transported to the cellar or shops.
Whiteaway admittedly had fewer departments than Cargills or Millers and was primarily agents for British brands. Among these were groceries, clothing, menswear, shoes, glass and porcelain, confectionery, pharmacy, fireworks and milling. According to us, they also had a toy section on the third floor where there was a model railway layout with running toy trains demonstrating Tri-Ang trains of British origin for which they were apparently the agents. They were also agents for Barb clothing, Ciro Pearls, Snow White Sheets and Helena Rubinstein beauty products.
Q: Pharmacists are also told that it was a department store. So what did they offer their customers?
Colombo Apothecaries was on the corner of York and Prince Streets and was housed in a four-story building. It got its name Apothecaries from its humble beginnings as a small pharmacy shop that opened its doors in 1883 in the De Soysa buildings in Slave Island.
The later building, built in 1915, housed all of its sections that had been added over the years and included confectionery, groceries, pharmacy, photography, books, clothing, furniture, watches, fancy goods, toys and games, watches and jewelry. , boots and shoes and even women’s outfit that attracted very fashionable young women as it had the latest styles from the fashion centers of Paris and London. Pharmacists offered only a few exclusive brands such as Rayner’s Essences, Leica Cameras and Frister & Rossmann’s Sewing Machines. (Photos courtesy of Asiff Hussein)