Tragedy Strikes the Selfridges

Harry Gordon Selfridge in high middle age






By Megan McKinney


The name Selfridge was well known to the one million English men and women who visited the store during the week following its March 15, 1909, opening, as well as those throughout the city and nation who read about it.  In addition, Harry had become a major London celebrity. One city newspaper printed that  Selfridge personally was “as much one of the sights of London as Big Ben…a mobile landmark of the metropolis.” Each morning, his 8:30 arrival at the store was greeted in respectful silence by a small but avid crowd.

After spending the hour between 8:30 and 9:30 in his office with his private secretary and others of his personal staff, he would devote another hour to walking through the store. In 1909, it was estimated that the employees with whom he engaged during this “tour” numbered one thousand. The amount would grow through the years to three thousand and finally five thousand. For many it was the high point of the day to actually receive an exchange from this somewhat distant—though genial—figure for whom they worked.

With the store fully open, Harry’s family arrived to settle in with him to their new home, Lansdowne House in Berkeley Square, Mayfair.

The mansion, greatly changed today and now the home of the Lansdowne Club, was hardly cosy for the family of seven, but beautiful and very impressive to their many guests. It will be described in full in a later segment of this series. With such a fine setting, the Selfridges entertained frequently and lavishly. Rose was an accomplished harpist, with recitals frequently a part of their entertainment.

The active social life of the Selfridges was well covered in the city’s newspapers, rapidly making Rose as “famous” in London as her husband and the store bearing their name. It was an idyllic five years, until July 1914 when World War I broke out in Europe. To remove the family from London, Harry leased property in Highcliffe in Dorset, 80 miles southwest of London.

Wanting to do what she could to contribute to the war effort,  Rose joined the Red Cross.

Unlike so many men and women in 1914, Rose could drive. She volunteered to drive an ambulance transporting the wounded from the English Channel to hospitals in the south of England.

The grounds of the estate Harry had leased were vast and it occurred to Rose that a rest camp for wounded American soldiers could be constructed on it for them to stay while they either waited to go home or return to the front. Thus, although we don’t have visuals of the facility itself, Highcliffe was home to “The Mrs. Gordon Selfridge Convalescent Camp for American Soldiers.”

The year was 1918. The war was almost over, but there was another terror hovering over much of the world. The Spanish flu. During the first week in May, healthy, 57-year-old-Rose began feeling ill. She weakened over the next few days; then her body was hit by a second infection, pneumonia, which—before the miracle drugs of the 1940’s—was nearly always a fatal disease.

On May 12, 1918, Rose died. Services were held in St Mark’s Church, Highcliffe on May 16.    She is buried in the St. Mark’s cemetery.

Rose Selfridge’s grave in the cemetery at St. Mark’s Church, Highcliffe.


Author Photo: Robert F. Carl