Islington’s Historic Department Stores

Our guide Jenny Watson-Bore takes a trip down memory lane (aka Holloway Road) to revisit North London’s great shopping emporia.

Photo: Nigel Smith

In the 1950s and 60s Holloway Road and the Nag’s Head was one of the premier shopping areas of North London, rivalled only by Wood Green High Street. Many brides-to-be were fitted out for their wedding dress here and, aged seven, I spent many tedious hours watching my sister choosing and rejecting glamorous outfits which made her look like a film star.

The most famous department stores on Holloway Road were Jones Brothers and Selby’s, the latter still existing today.  

Jones Brothers was the crème-de-la-crème of North London stores and it occupied much of the land between Tollington Road and Lorraine Road.  William and John Jones, former drapery apprentices from Caernarvonshire, established the shop in 1869. Later, another brother, Robert, joined the company.

The City architectural practice of Davis and Emanuel designed the Jones Brothers building and it still dominates Holloway Road with its Flemish bond brickwork, Portland stone dressings and an ornate tower at the southern end above an imposing main entrance. In 1927, the store became a Selfridge Provincial Store and in 1940 was sold to the John Lewis Partnership.

Jones Brothers

Photo: Nigel Smith

In the 1960s Jones Brothers was famous for its curtain and drapery department and it had an unrivalled stock of dressmaking materials and dress patterns. Furniture was also a good seller and so were ceramics; I still possess a black-and-white Susie Cooper tea set which my mother purchased in 1967 – now a rarity that I have never managed to find on eBay.  

And who can forget the toys at Christmas?  Not quite up to Gamages’ famous toy department in Holborn but running very close. Imagine the noise of the tills, the voices of excited children, the smell of the Christmas decorations – magical! Then there was the hairdressing salon….

Jones Brothers closed on 21 July 1990 after John Lewis opened a new store at Brent Cross.  Opposition to the closure was fierce, with actor Bob Hoskins leading the charge.  He lived in Penn Road and could be seen on Saturdays with other protestors.  Unfortunately, his efforts were in vain and now Waitrose and a conference centre occupy the Jones Brothers site.

While researching the history of Jones Brothers, I was surprised to learn of the store’s connection with one of Islington’s most notorious residents – Dr. Harvey Hawley Crippen of Hilldrop Crescent.

Crippen’s wife, Belle Elmore, had disappeared under suspicious circumstances. Police searched their house and eventually found a body in the cellar, wrapped up in a shred of pyjama jacket bearing the words ‘Shirtmakers Jones Brothers (Holloway) Ltd.’  At Crippen’s trial, the menswear buyer produced a copy of a sales check proving Belle had brought an identical pair of pyjamas in the 1909 January sale.  Crippen was found guilty and hanged for murder at Pentonville Prison on 23 November 1910.

Selby’s is the only large Holloway Road shop still in existence.  It is situated between Tollington Road and Nag’s Head and is now owned by Elys of Wimbledon. James Selby founded the original store in 1895 when he acquired a small drapery business from a smaller enterprise named Treharnes.  


Photo: Nigel Smith

The business grew slowly and was particularly popular just before World War I.  Later, it was badly hit in the Depression of the late 1920s and early 1930s, but during its heyday in the late 30s it became one of the most important stores in North London. The shop was famous for clothing – it specialised in fitting Islington ladies with new corsets, brassieres and other articles of underwear.  

When new bed linen was required, what better place than Selby’s?  Islington children in the 1950s were also fascinated by the stairs leading to the lower ground floor – many a game of chase was played on those stairs and without fear of reprisals from the Health and Safety Department!

Today, Selby’s sells excellent and fashionable shoes and lady’s clothes. It also has its own café… it’s time that I paid another visit!

With thanks to Jonathan Blatchford, Dave Griffiths and Gavin Henderson for their excellent information contained in the John Lewis Memory Store and for Ely’s of Wimbledon in its publicity on James Selby.

Jenny Watson-Bore is an Islington Guided Walks and Blue Badge guide.