Humble beginnings of Ilford’s Harrison Gibson remembered ahead of redevelopment plans

Harrison Gibson - 27 & 29 Havelock Street C.1910 Harrison Gibson goods entrance & sales offices. Pic

Harrison Gibson - 27 & 29 Havelock Street C.1910 Harrison Gibson goods entrance & sales offices. Picture: Redbridge Information and Heritage Service - Credit: Redbridge Library

It’s been a landmark in Ilford town centre for more than 100 years, and now the Harrison Gibson site is due for redevelopment.

As developers release pictures of their vision for the site, Redbridge Information and Heritage Service has taken a nostalgic look back at the store’s beginnings at the turn of the 20th Century.

In 1902 Ilford was a rural town with a population of about 32,000 who did their shopping in nearby Stratford.

When Yorkshireman John Harrison Gibson chose Ilford for his first stand-alone furniture enterprise, most people thought that it would fail.

They did not have his vision or the foresight to realise that Ilford would grow and develop its own trading position.

By the time he died in May 1924, Harrison Gibson was a five shop-fronted building and the principal furniture store in Ilford, with a reputation for fair and square dealing extending over a period of 22 years.

He was succeeded by his son John C. Gibson, but two months later an electrical fault caused a fire which completely destroyed the store.

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An article in the Ilford Recorder dated July 25 1924 stated that soon after 8am on Tuesday, employee George Strickland discovered a roll of linoleum alight and tried unsuccessfully to put out the fire.

The alarm was raised and employees evacuated the building. The fire quickly took hold and within minutes, flames were shooting halfway across Havelock Road, and volumes of smoke were pouring skywards and could be seen for miles around.

The fire engine was on the scene in a few minutes, hydrant fixed, hose unreeled and water was poured onto the burning building. By 9am the combined forces of three fire brigades were on the scene, together with police who arrived to hold back the gathering crowd.

As the business went up in flames, John Gibson was to be seen walking with a stick, up and down the road.

Local residents and shop keepers feared the fire would spread, but it appears that the arcade passage and solid wall between it and the neighbouring buildings was possibly responsible for saving the buildings on the right hand side.

Telephone lines were burnt and the paint blistered from the heat on the houses & warehouses in Havelock Road.

The firemen worked for four and a half hours before the fire was finally extinguished.

Upon inspection of the building, the basement was found to be filled with dirty water about five to eight ft deep.

At 1pm the pumps began the reverse process of pumping out the water into the gutters.

The next day the front was boarded up and a large poster was pasted up announcing ‘BUSINESS AS USUAL’ at another depot.

About five days later Mr Gibson had the store back in business, operating from what remained of the warehouses.

A completely new store was built on the site within a year and the store’s reputation and success grew.

Written by Redbridge Heritage and Information Service.