From Della Porta to Rackhams to House of Fraser: Store closures mark end of an era

By Mark Andrews | Shrewsbury | News | Published:

After House of Fraser revealed plans to close 31 stores, we look back at the department store's history in Shropshire.

A picture of the original Della Porta on the corner of Princess Street taken about 1910 by Shrewsbury photographer Teddy Gill

David Trumper says back in the 1950s the Della Porta department store was so popular it brought people into town even when it was shut.

"In the 50s there wasn't any Sunday opening," he recalls.

"But even when the shop was hut, in the pouring rain, you would see the women going up and down, looking in all the windows to see if there were any bargains."

The announcement that store giant House of Fraser is set to shut its shops in Shrewsbury, Telford and Wolverhamptonis not just another blow for our high streets – it also marks the end of an era for some of the most respected and venerable names.

Della Porta, renamed Rackhams in 1976 following a takeover by House of Fraser, had been a fixture in Shrewsbury town centre since 1857.

And while the group's department store in Telford only opened in 2003, it was originally part of the family-owned Beatties chain, which began life as a small drapery store in Wolverhampton in 1877.

An advertisement for Della Porta's from 1933

Mr Trumper, who is 71, says there was always a special mystique about Della Porta when he was growing up in the 1950s.


"There was a lift in there, and there was a man in the lift who would take you to the different floors you wanted," he says.

"In those days it was a huge store, there was a ground floor, a first floor and a second floor, as well as a lower ground floor, and then across the road at 7-8 High Street there was another, smaller store."

Shrewsbury historian David Trumper

On leaving school at the age of 16 in 1963, Janet Foden took a job in the Della Porta fabric department in the smaller store across the road. She has fond memories, remembering it as a fun and vibrant place to work.


"It was really busy in those days, a lot of the girls went to work there when they left school to get a bit of retail experience," she says.

"We had a lot of people in there, the Heber-Percys came in a lot, a lot of people came in who had accounts.

"They employed window dressers, and the windows always looked good, especially at Christmas, it was just a very thriving store."

An advertisement for Della Porta's from 1974

Joseph Della Porta came to England in 1847 from Italy, and by 1857 he had opened a small store on Princess Street, Shrewsbury.

"I think he sold everything, right from the start, I think he even made his own brand of shoes," says Mr Trumper.

As business grew, he began buying up neighbouring shops, right up to The Square, pioneering the department store.

In 1869, Joseph's son-in-law Augustine Alfred Rabnett joined the business as a partner, which was briefly known as Joseph Della Porta Son & Rabnett. Rabnett later left to open his own store, and the name reverted to Joseph Della Porta & Son, with Joseph's son John taking over on the death of his father in 1904.

The business moved into its present premises on the corner of High Street circa 1929, after doing a deal with the council which wanted to expand the Shire Hall.

How House of Fraser looks today on Shrewsbury High Street

"This enabled Della Porta to have an entrance on the High Street, which is the timber-framed frontage that people recognise today," says Mr Trumper.

In 1948 the store was taken over by the Hide & Co chain, although the Della Porta name was retained, and the shop continued to expand. When it celebrated its centenary in 1957, it had more than 40 departments, selling everything from washing machines to soft furnishings.

Beatties in Telford

The story behind Beatties, which opened the store in Telford 16 years ago, is remarkably similar, although it was controlled by the Beattie family until 1996.

In 1877 James Beattie opened a small drapery shop in Victoria Street, Wolverhampton, staffed by two assistants.

Like Della Porta, he was quick to see the benefits of investing in the business, and began acquiring neighbouring premises as the business grew.

By 1895, he had a staff of 40 and an annual turnover of £30,000. His premises included living accommodation for the shop assistants. who earned an annual salary of £60 a year.

The business was dealt a huge blow the following year, though, when the shop was destroyed by fire. Undeterred, Beattie moved to larger premises on the opposite side of the road.

House of Fraser's store in Telford town centre

By the end of the 1920s the business had expanded greatly, leading to the introduction of merchandise other than drapery, the start of a department store format.

Beattie died in 1934, but his grandson James Beattie Jnr continued to control the company until his death in 1988.

By this time the company had grown into a chain with stores in Dudley, Solihull, Sutton Coldfield, Northampton and Birkenhead, but a Beatties branch in Birmingham was not a success.

By the time the Telford branch opened in 2003, the Beattie family had sold its majority shareholding, and in 2005 it was taken over by House of Fraser in a £69 million deal.

The Telford store was rebranded two years later, and Rackhams in Shrewsbury followed suit in line with the new corporate branding policy.

House of Fraser can trace its roots back even further, and like Beatties it began as a small drapery store.

Founded by Hugh Fraser and James Arthur in 1849, it began trading as Arthur and Fraser on the corner of Argyle Street and Buchanan Street in Glasgow.

As business expanded, it established a wholesale division, and in 1865 the partners went their separate ways, with Fraser taking on the retail business and Arthur concentrating on the wholesale side.

A branch in London's Oxford Street opened in 1879, but it was the period after the Second World War which saw it develop into a national store chain through a series of takeovers, and from 1959 to 1994 it owned the famous Harrods department store in Knightsbridge.

Today, department stores like Della Porta, Beatties, or indeed House of Fraser, are a dying breed. Out-of-town retail parks, and more recently online shopping, have all taken their toll, but there is no doubt that they will be sorely missed.

"It will be sad to see it closing after so many years," says Janet Foden.

"It will be missed by those of us who like to try things on before we buy them rather than order them online."


Mark Andrews

By Mark Andrews

Senior news writer for the Shropshire Star specialising in in-depth features and commentary, investigative reporting and political matters.


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