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How BHS’ flagship Wellgate store helped lead the way in ‘the making of modern Dundee’

BHS' refurbished store at the Wellgate Centre, Dundee, was officially reopened by Lord Provost McDonald in 1993.
BHS' refurbished store at the Wellgate Centre, Dundee, was officially reopened by Lord Provost McDonald in 1993.

An iconic British high street brand, British Home Stores was a mainstay of Dundee’s Wellgate Centre for more than 30 years before closing in 2016.

Better known as BHS, the department store chain was founded in London in 1928, before expanding across the country in 1933.

While most Dundonians will best remember BHS in the Wellgate, it actually had a brief presence in the city much earlier than the late 1970s.

Wellgate shops in the early 20th Century.

In the days before the mall, the Wellgate was a traditional thoroughfare in the city centre with a host of charming old shops and tenements.

One of those shops was the New Universal Stores, a three-storey department store which opened at 53-61 Wellgate in 1938.

The commodious shop, designed in the Art Deco style, was built on the site of slum buildings so old that a musketball was found embedded in one of the walls during demolition.

The cutting-edge shop sold everything from ladieswear to sweets, toys, haberdashery goods, hardware, cutlery, rugs and linoleum.

And one of its biggest attractions was an “all-electric cafe bar” on the ground floor with fashionable Terrazzo tiling.

It wasn’t open for long when it was rebranded Hills & Steele Limited after its parent company, and it continued to be the only Scottish store in the chain’s nine-property portfolio.

Hills & Steele Ltd was bought over by BHS in 1944, and the shops were rebranded – with the exception of the Dundee branch.

Despite being under the ownership of BHS, the name didn’t quite make it to Wellgate as the shop was requisitioned by the government for the war effort.

The popular department store was forced to shut down and the entire fixtures and fittings were sold off at auction; from hosiery legs to the last coat hanger, everything went under the hammer.

With the shop gone, so was British Home Stores’ fleeting presence in Dundee.

Ironically, it wouldn’t be until the whole Wellgate area was demolished in the 1970s that BHS would return to the city.

It was a time of great and irreversible change in Dundee; £9.5 million of commercial projects were under way or in the pipeline.

Well-known shops in the lower half of Wellgate disappearing to make way for redevelopment in 1973.

By 1975, a 17-storey block for council offices was nearly completed on Shore Terrace, as well as a modern development linking Barrack and Bell Streets.

But the £7m Wellgate development would change the face of the city centre forever.

On April 4 1978 a new shopping and commercial precinct opened – the Wellgate Centre.

Tesco was the first retailer to open its doors followed by BHS and Mothercare in the weeks afterwards.

A view of the Wellgate development from one of the Dallfield multi-storeys in November 1975.

What replaced the traditional sandstone buildings was a state-of-the-art complex clad in glass and concrete.

But it represented progress; it was part of ‘the making of modern Dundee’.

And attracting a prestigious brand like BHS to the city was a real coup.

Now Dundee residents could enjoy the one-stop-shop for clothes, household items, fragrance and beauty products without traipsing around town.

BHS was the cutting edge of modern retail in Dundee – the light and bright shop with concessions and a cafeteria helped make shopping a hobby.

A view of the BHS store in the Cowgate, Dundee in August 1985.

As well as its famous lighting displays and occasionwear department, many Dundonians will recall making the annual pilgrimage to BHS during the summer holidays to get kitted out for the new school year.

BHS was also one of the retailers in Dundee that pioneered Sunday openings when it did so as an experiment for the summer of 1986.

The public response had been good, but BHS store manager Michael Garson said it was too early to say if it would be adopted permanently.

He added: “This store is in fact the last of BHS’s stores in Scotland to open regularly on Sundays and the trend from them is usually a slow start until the public get it.”

British Home Stores staff in the new first floor sales area after a major refit.

Still going strong in the 1990s, in the days before e-commerce, the Dundee BHS underwent a big revamp as part of improvements at the Wellgate Centre.

Inspired by the Bon Accord Centre in Aberdeen, the centre was reimagined with larger and loftier mall areas in 1992.

BHS gave up almost all of its extensive area on the first level, instead taking up almost the entire Murraygate end of levels one and two.

The renovation was a bid to attract shoppers back to the mall after the departure of Tesco in 1990 which saw footfall drop.

BHS’ refurbished store at the Wellgate Centre, Dundee, was officially reopened by Lord Provost McDonald in 1993. He is pictured centre with managing director Graham Rider on his left and store manger Morris Macleod on his right.

There was great excitement when the new-look BHS was reopened by Lord Provost McDonald.

The shopping centre’s owners said the improved mall and BHS – its biggest store – would meet shoppers’ increased and “sophisticated” demands.

He added: “We believe the Dundee deserves and indeed needs a comparable facility and one which will take the centre and all of its tenants successfully and profitably well into the next century.”

Kirk Lane between the Wellgate Centre and St Andrew’s Church, Dundee, showing the signage for BHS in 1999.

But like many established high street names, the new century wasn’t kind to bricks and mortar retailers.

The Arcadia Group, with Sir Philip Green at its helm, acquired BHS for £200 million in 2000, but it proved to be such a poor performer he sold it for just £1 in 2015.

By now, BHS had debts of more than £1 billion, including a pensions deficit of £571m.

Despite proposals for restructures, the chain went into administration on April 25 2016, but failed to find a buyer, with the loss of 11,000 jobs.

The closing down sale at BHS Wellgate in 2016.

The Dundee flagship clung on until the bitter end as one of the final two stores in Scotland to remain open until August 20 2016.

It was a sad sight when the shutters came down at BHS, the store looked as empty as many of the staff felt about walking away with no redundancy package after dedicating careers to the once proud stalwart of Dundee’s high street.

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