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Debenhams: A look back at the history of the iconic British retailer

By Huw Hughes

Dec. 2, 2020

On Tuesday, iconic British department store chain Debenhams announced it would begin winding down its business and closing its 124 stores after last-minute takeover talks fell through.

The move, which puts some 12,000 jobs at risk, was the last option for a company hit hard this year by Covid-19, and prior to this year by a fast-changing retail industry.

In this article, FashionUnited takes a look back at the history of Debenhams, from a humble London drapers store to a high street giant.

1778: William Clark establishes a drapers store at 44 Wigmore Street in London's West End.

1813: William Debenham invests in the firm which then becomes Clark & Debenham.

1818: The first store outside London is opened in Cheltenham and the company begins to grow rapidly.

1851: Clement Freebody invests in the business which is then renamed Debenham & Freebody. As well as its retail stores, a wholesale business is established selling cloth and other items to dressmakers and other large retailers. Many acquisitions of retail, wholesale and manufacturing businesses are undertaken in the remainder of the nineteenth century and into the next.

1905: Debenhams Ltd. is formed.

1919: The business merges with Marshall & Snellgrove.

1920: The company purchases Knightsbridge retailer Harvey Nichols.

1928: The Debenhams family exits the company as it goes public.

1950: By this time, Debenhams is the largest department store group in the UK, owning 84 companies and 110 stores.

1985: Debenhams becomes part of the Burton Group, which is later renamed Arcadia. Debenhams is repositioned with the introduction of exclusive merchandise - most notably Designers at Debenhams which was launched in 1993.

1998: The retailer splits from the Burton Group and is re-listed on the London Stock Exchange.

2003: Debenhams is delisted from the stock exchange when it’s bought by Baroness Retail Ltd, a consortium formed by CVC Capital, Texas Pacific Group and Merrill Lynch Global Private Equity.

2006: Debenhams is floated again on the London Stock Exchange. Baroness Retail Ltd makes 1.2 billion pounds from the 600 million pound investment it made just three years earlier. However, debt has also mounted. Debenhams owed around 100 million pounds before when it was taken private, ballooning to around 1.2 billion pounds when it is returned to the stock market. The company has also been locked into many expensive and long-term lease agreements.

2007: Debenhams acquires nine stores from Roches in the Republic of Ireland.

2009: The company acquires leading Danish department store chain Magasin du Nord.

2018: Debenhams reports a record pre-tax loss of 491.5 million pounds.

2019: The business falls into administration for the first time and is immediately bought by a consortium of investors including Silver Point Capital and GoldenTree Asset Management. The company is delisted and its shareholders wiped out, including Frasers Group owner Mike Ashley’s near 30 percent stake. Ashley had made offers to control the company prior to its administration.

March 2020: UK goes into lockdown, forcing Debenhams to close all its stores.

April 2020: A month later, Debenhams enters “light-touch” administration.

August 2020: The company cuts 2,500 jobs.

October 2020: Mike Ashley again makes a bid for Debenhams.

5 November 2020: Second England lockdown comes into effect. Frasers Group exits the race to acquire Debenhams ater failing to match a 300 million pound price tag demanded by the UK department stores group’s advisers.

24 November 2020:Reports emerge that JD Sports is in exclusive talks to buy all of Debenhams.

1 December 2020: Debenhams falls into administration after JD Sports exits talks.

Photo credit: Debenhams