Around Christmas-time, children all around the world love to visit Santa in his magical grotto and seal the deal regarding what presents they would like his elves to make them for delivery on the 25th December.
Just about everyone of a certain age from Liverpool will no doubt remember the three main grottoes that our city used to have. There was one in the TJ Hughes on London Road, one in the basement of Blackler’s (Blackler’s basement was like a Christmas grotto all year around for me anyway – you could seemingly find just about anything there!), but the one that was always the most impressive and was a real treat to go to, was the one that was in Lewis’s.
Rumour had it that only Lewis’s had the real Santa Claus and that the other two grottoes just had official representatives of him there. It should be noted that as a young child, this was gospel to me and so I insisted that it was always Lewis’s Santa that I would be taken to visit. If I was going to let someone know the important details of what was required for Christmas, I didn’t see why I should tell a 3rd party when I could speak directly to the big man himself!
I have many, many happy memories of being taken to the grotto in Lewis’s by my parents and grandparents as I am sure a lot of us have, but did you know that there is a good chance that in 1879, Lewis’s creator, David Lewis, created the very first Christmas Grotto in the world?
There are other claims for this record, for example, Edinburgh had a shop in George Street that, in 1859, was decked out with Christmas trees and decorations, had ‘Good Old FATHER CHRISTMAS’ with a ‘wonderful inexhaustible Christmas Box’ from which he handed out present to his visitors with help from his ‘attendant nymphs’ to ‘young and old alike’. This experience was called the ‘Grand Fancy Fair’
The main difference here is that the ‘grotto’ in Edinburgh was simply a decorated shop, whereas David Lewis’s creation was much, much more.
In his store, ‘Bon Marche’, that stood where the old George Henry Lee store is now, he created what was called by the local press an ‘introduction to FAIRYLAND’ and described it as one of the ‘Seven Wonders of Liverpool’ (I have no idea of what the other six were!)
Lewis had brought to Liverpool a collection of toys, the like of which had never been seen in one place. There were dolls of all sorts and of all nationalities that had been imported directly from Paris. It was said that some of them were also ‘possessed of a power nearly akin to that of speech’.
There was a menagerie of toy animals that had been collected together in a section called the ‘World’s Fancy Fair’ and there was a large collection called ‘Children’s Treasures’. In this section there were mechanical toys for both boys and girls. These included ships that sailed, peacocks that would ‘strut with stately grace’, fish that swam, little men and women that would dance to a lively tune and amongst other magical sights, gymnasts performing acrobatic feats that ‘render a visit to the circus quite needless’.
In amongst, the displays were miniature shops of ‘every conceivable description’ selling ‘knick-knacks of endless variety, both useful and ornamental’ and a large collection of musical boxes that were in the shape of Swiss chalets.
The Fairyland wasn’t just for children though. It also included practical gifts for adults, such as cigar cases, purses, work bags, travelling bags, jewellery, writing boxes, scent cases and fans. These goods came from all over the world.
To further boost the popularity of Bon Marche’s festive extravaganza, Lewis had also specified that the public should keep in mind that all the prices throughout the Christmas displays would be set to half of what would be charged elsewhere.
The newspaper article closed with:
A visit to the Basnett Street Emporium for nearly all that is amusing, artistic, and useful, ought to prove one of the most pleasant features of holiday time to old and young alike.
Lewis made his Christmas extravaganza an annual event in Liverpool that became renowned throughout the UK and further afield. In the 1890s, large stores in America realised the appeal of Christmas grottoes and started emulating the idea and from there the idea took off around the world.
The annual tradition of Lewis’s grotto was continued within the main Lewis’s store on Ranelagh Street long after Bon Marche closed and it stayed there until Lewis’s closed in 2010. The rights to the Lewis’s grotto were bought by the grotto’s former manager, Mike Done, and in that year, he relocated it to Rapid Hardware, in the former George Henry Lee building, and in a an extraordinary twist of fate, the home of the very first Lewis’s grotto ever.
The Lewis grotto lives on today and is still can be visited in Liverpool every year. It is currently based in St John’s Precinct (https://worldsfamousgrotto.com/)
BONUS FACT: The giant Santa that used to stand inside Blackler’s over the Christmas period is now displayed each year in the Museum of Liverpool at the Pier Head. I went to see it recently, and it still terrifies me as much as it did when I was a little kid!
— Photographs of Blackler’s and Lewis’s stores c/o Liverpool Echo
By Chris Cannon of Hidden Liverpool
Chris is a local historian and tour guide that regularly visits schools and local history groups around Liverpool to talk about the rich history of the city. He has received five-star reviews for his interesting and informative walking tours of Liverpool. For more information, or to contact him, please visit http://www.hiddenliverpool.co.uk