Lefevre’s and the coming of Canterbury’s department stores

The first retail department store in Canterbury, Lefevre’s, opened in 1926. The 20th century had arrived! It was a modern, new, store in Guildhall Street, which combined the Lefevre family drapers shop with buildings comprising the former Philosophical and Literary Institute, the Theatre Royal and its neighbouring Guildhall Tavern. The brainchild of Charles Lefevre (1879-1945), his father William Lefevre, born 1847 in Canterbury and of Huguenot descent, had established the family’s shop in the drapery trade. Lefevre’s became a model for a large retail space, embellished with a sweeping staircase, Egyptian style windows and art deco style exterior. The business was such a success that Charles Lefevre sold it to Debenhams who continued to operate the store under the Lefevre name until 1973.

In 1933, Reg Barrett opened a store in St George’s Street which brought together bicycles, his father’s first interest, electrical goods, records, prams and toys. All of this stemmed from the Barrett family’s original interest in cycles, since bike owners use lamps and batteries, and the prams and toys, especially toy trains, have wheels. The shop developed as one of the largest toy departments outside London, second only to Hamleys. Canterbury people today who were young in the 1960s remember the wonderful electric train sets in the Barretts’ St George’s shop window at Christmas. Sadly the toys emporium did not outlive Hornby model electric trains, was sold to C and H Fabric and today the building is Metrobank.

The success of Lefevre’s and the Barretts’ stores in the 1930s heralded Canterbury’s phenomenal development after the Second World War as East Kent’s major shopping centre. Canterbury’s prime retail area in the St George’s Street, Longport, Whitefriars quadrant of the city arose from the devastation of the area by the 1942 bombing. The townscape of the area has changed architecturally twice with the rebuilds of the 1960s and 1990s (completing the Whitefriars in 2008), but with the consistent purpose of making Canterbury the premier shopping centre for East Kent.

A secondary retail area, mixed with banks, restaurants, pubs, museums and charity shops extends from St Margaret’s Street through the historic thoroughfare of the High Street and St Peter’s Street to the Westgate Towers, with a branch down Palace Street to Northgate (today King’s Mile). Between the 60’s and 80’s attitudes about commercial development changed from replacing the old with the modern to preserving the old by being modern. Ever since the destruction of Canterbury’s Guildhall in 1950, there were those who challenged the view that this was progress.

The Canterbury Guildhall had stood on its site at the junction of Palace Street with the High Street for 750 years. Parts were in poor condition and the costs of rebuilding in 1950 were put at £18,000. The City Council decided on demolition. If as John Boyle, the Canterbury Town Clerk, wrote ‘no one can build an old building’, conservationists were determined to show that wonderful old buildings do not stand in the way of progress, but enhance it. In the late-20th century the consensus developed that in a historic city the protection of heritage was attractive to residents, students and visitors and a huge gain for Canterbury’s traders. By the year 2000 the pedestrianised High Street area was buzzing as never before.

Commerce has been combined with conservation. Conquest House, in Palace Street, a building of outstanding interest with an 11th-century stone cellar, reputedly where the four knights armed themselves before seeking out Thomas Becket, and a splendid, timber-framed 13th-century gallery, has been an antiques and upholstery shop.

Zizzi’s Restaurant or Cogan House, in St Peter’s Street near the Westgate Towers, is one of the greatest architectural delights in Canterbury. Concealed behind the 19th-century red brick façade is an aisled timber-framed hall dating from 1160. The stone walls are over 2 feet thick. Cogan House is one of very few stone houses in England surviving from Norman times, unique in Kent and the only urban example of its early medieval type. Its wood panelling, staircases, and stuccoed plaster ceilings are of superb 16th-century craftsmanship, while the first floor preserves the 12th-century ambience. Why is this building featured in a 20th-century map of Canterbury? Because it was only in the late-20th century that conservation grants were available and as a restaurant Cogan House was open to customers to enjoy.

Does internet shopping and the closures accelerated by coronavirus signal the end of retailing? In Canterbury first Nason’s and then the High Street’s biggest store, Debenham’s, have become redundant, though plans to revive the sites remain on the table. The list of casualties in 2020/21 for Canterbury includes Burton and Dorothy Perkins, Topshop, Café Rouge, TSB bank and Poundland. Other units in Whitefriars and the Marlowe Arcade stand empty. Historians of the future may see the late 20th century as the final flourish of shopping mania.

Return to the homepage for 20th-century Canterbury, or explore Canterbury’s economic growth through the essays on Canterbury’s commerce and industrial heritage, its trading estates, or Canterbury as a boom city. You can also learn more about how Canterbury has been shaped by other facets of its transport infrastructure and the railway, planning decisions, as well as the significant impact of the Second World War.