Above: The busy scene in the Lowther Arcade in 1883.
In the main, toy shops are a thing of the past. Many of us will remember the days of our childhood and how there was a toy shop in the area where were grew up. Market forces have been responsible for the closure of toy shops across London and the only famous toy shop to survive is Hamley’s, in Regent Street.
About 150 years ago, it was the Strand that children were taken to for toy shops. The famous Lowther Arcade was rather like ‘Aladdin’s Cave’ for children with the entire length of the arcade devoted to shops selling toys and other gift items. The arcade was on the north side of the Strand on a site now occupied by Coutt’s Bank. Parts of the outer walls of the original grand building were retained when the whole site was redeveloped in the 1970s.
A children’s book of 1883 shows a busy scene of children of the well-to-do being taken on an outing to look at the toys on display. You can see from the picture that the arcade was rather grand with pilastered walls and round sky-lights set into the ornamental roof.
Some of us, no doubt, remember the ‘over the top’ display of toys that Gamage’s used to put on over the Christmas season. This large store was situated to the east of the Prudential building in Holborn. Although Gamage’s was a general store, it used to clear one floor of the huge shop at Christmas and turn it into an unbelievable display of toys, including a large model railway layout.
As shops move into high-rent shopping malls, the shopping experience is now confined to ‘factory methods’ of selling where only the high-profile chains of stores operate and, because they need to sell in high volume throughout the year, the likes of Lowther Arcade and Gamage’s have become a thing of the past. The well-heeled, who can afford the high prices, still beat a path to Hamley’s near Christmas but the rest of us have been reduced to ‘Toys-R-Us’. Sad isn’t it!