Chamberlin & Sons

Chamberlin’s department store on Guildhall Hill (now Tesco Metro) was the most celebrated store in Norwich in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, providing such a high level of service that was unsurpassed in Norwich at the time.

George Moore Chamberlin (c.1846-1928) was also the Chamber’s longest-serving President and one of its most formative.

The origins of the department store begin with his grandfather, Henry Chamberlin (1777-1848), who came to Norwich from Edinburgh in 1814, and founded the department store a year later. Both Henry and his son Robert (George Chamberlin’s father) were involved with the earlier Chamber of Commerce in 1847, and occupied a variety of civic offices. Robert, following the best path to secure and expand a family business, had seventeen children, and on his death in 1876 George Chamberlin became General Manager of the family business. George would himself have large family too, fathering ten of his own children. All four of his sons served in the First World War.

Throughout his life George occupied a variety of commercial and civic posts, and had an active personal life. He was Mayor of Norwich three times, and in that capacity took the review of the 2nd Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment on their return from Mesopotamia after the First World War.

When WWI broke out in August 1914 Chamberlin’s factory, situated in Botolph Street, was entirely devoted to the manufacture of civilian goods for the home and foreign markets. Almost immediately the call had come for help with the war effort, and George Chamberlin’s response was so prompt and efficient that within a month the business was almost entirely transferred to war productions. The importance and notoriety of the business rose, and although the difficulties faced were vast, they were tackled successfully to negotiate the requirements of war. In a very short time the eight hundred employees roles were reorganised so they were working at the highest efficiency in order to satisfy Admiralty and War Office requests for an ever-increasing output.

The Norwich Chamber was the first in the country to call for conscription in 1915, while businesses looked to its help in dealing with the restrictions and controls wartime prompted. These included lighting restrictions against zeppelin attacks, restricted opening hours, shortages of necessary material and the loss of markets in territories held by the enemy.

The Chamber was also responsible for issuing Certificates of Origin for those trading with neutral nations so as to ensure British commerce did not indirectly aid the Central Powers.

Chamberlin’s produced vast quantities of waterproof material for use by the army, as well as suits for soldiers in service and after demobilisation. For some years the company had been the sole concessionaires for Great Britain and the Colonies for the manufacture of Pegamoid waterproof clothing. In pre-war days the authorities had subjected this material to a severe test in all climates, and it was held in such high esteem that, with the exception of a certain quantity which went to the army and to the Italian Government, the Admiralty claimed the bulk of the Company's output during the whole period of the war.

Another important aspect of Chamberlin’s activities was the manufacture of East Coast oilskin water-proof material, and throughout the war this was used in many styles of garments for the sea and land forces. The demand became so pressing that not only was the entire output requisitioned by the Admiralty and War Office, but it was necessary to build and equip a new factory in order to cope with it. In addition to these services Chamberlin was contracted for the supply of clothing to meet the requirements of the G. P. O, Government munitions factories, and other departments.

At the request of the Government large quantities of standard clothes were also made, as well as suits for discharged soldiers. The war work of Chamberlin & Sons totalled close on one million garments, and they received from the authorities' official recognition of the value of their services to the State in the years of WWI.

One hundred and twenty-five members of their Norwich staff enlisted and eight died in the service of their country. Many others served with distinction and obtained commissions and decorations for gallantry.

In 1935 the post -war years brought fresh demands and challenges and, although maintaining traditions, Chamberlin & Sons had moved with the times and established a modernised store fully equipped to provide in all departments of drapery and house furnishing. Their factory, with new modern machinery, produced speciality men's sports clothing under their registered brand 'Sartella'. They remained a large manufacturer of oilskins whose largest customer continued to be the British Government.

It was said to be a great treat to shop at Chamberlin’s in the thirties and forties, with staff to welcome you and lead you to the desired department. The female assistants were apprenticed and generally lived over the shop, but were not allowed to serve customers for the first year of their training. They woudl instead act as runners for their superiors and later they would be allowed to assist the seniors. Only in their third year they were allowed to deal directly with the customers.

Unfortunately though, even tradition and the finest charm could not withstand the modernisation and changes in retail. The grand old store was eventually taken over by Marshall & Snelgrove in the 1950s the Tesco Metro now stands in their place next to the Market.

Still, a revealing description of the store comes from an article written at the turn of the century remains to give a feel for the grandiose of the store and the impression it left on residents of Norwich: 

“The premises, which have been considerably enlarged and entirely re-arranged, form a conspicuously handsome block. The main building is of red brick, faced with stone, and is of four stories in height, while the subsidiary portion, which extends nearly the whole length of Dove Street, is of three stories, the ground floor portion of this being entirely of glass. Five very spacious and handsome shop windows face the Market Place, or the corner, and there are two very fine entrances. The premises cover an area of 42,057 feet, and for elegance, comfort or completeness, they stand unrivalled by any similar establishment in the country.

The stock kept on hand is of considerable value, goods to the amount of no less than £80,000 being available for customers to select from. The main shop is of considerable extent, and is, like all the other portions of this vast emporium, most elegantly fitted up, handsome glass cases serving to display articles of milliner of the richest description. This fine shop is warmed throughout with hot air, and is lighted by chandeliers of artistic design and elegant appearance. Handsome Corinthian pillars are located at intervals, and serve not only to support the superstructure, but to impart an imposing appearance to the fine vista presented by this richly decorated portion of the building.

Close to the main entrance is the millinery department - a richly decorated saloon, having a ceiling finely panelled and ornamented, four sculptured bosses marking the intersections of the beams in every instance. This section is lavishly provided with mirrors, and glass cases also give an elegant air to the room. Flowers are here tastefully arranged in cachepots, and the lighting is effected by chandeliers of exceptionally fine design. The buyer for this section, and also the head milliner, each visit Paris and London periodically, bringing back the latest and most fashionable models which are reproduced in the workrooms of this firm.

The dress department is considered by the principals as the chief one, and great attention is bestowed on it. It is a handsome square gallery, the centre of which is occupied by the lantern opening, which lights the department below. It has a glass roof and contains a very considerable counter space, while the walls are literally lined with shelves, containing all the best available fabrics of English or Continental make. A staff of one hundred and twenty skilled workwomen are employed in the work-rooms in connection with this important section, and even with this great staff the resources of the house are often severely taxed to execute the large number of orders with which the firm are favoured.

Another special feature of this superb establishment is the refreshment room, which is a spacious room fitted up and furnished in the most luxurious manner, and in the best possible taste. It has a buffet, well supplied by the articles in request by ladies, and the proprietors disclaim any intention of making a profit on the refreshments here supplied, the department having been provided for the convenience of the country customers, many of whom come long distances, and who fully appreciate the consideration shown for their comfort.


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