Those who dream grand plans in their professional lives can be equally ambitious in their private lives too. This can be particularly acute when their thoughts turn to building their own homes; that ultimate statement of wealth, ambition, and, they hope, taste. When Harry Gordon Selfridge came to Britain he quickly spotted an opportunity to revolutionise via his flagship store on Oxford Street in London. Yet, less well known, was his plan to build a spectacular castle in Dorset – a personal vision of his to create a home which matched his ambition.

Harry Gordon Selfridge (b.1864 – d.1947) became a giant of the retail industry. Born in Ripon, Wisconsin, his father was manager of the general store but abandoned his family and then Harry’s two brothers died young, leaving him an only child. Selfridge started working young in a local store, before moving to a bank, then insurance, and then the store which became Marshall Field in Chicago, as a stock boy. Over the next 25 years, he worked his way up to junior partner, became wealthy and married a local socialite.

During a visit to London in 1906, Selfridge noticed that the UK retail experience significantly lagged behind the latest innovations in the US and so decided to bring those ideas to Britain. In his typical style, he did this on a huge scale; his vast store a bold statement as to the importance of shopping, built in a grand Classical Revival style, and designed by an American architect, Daniel Burnham.

The store was built in two phases but to a unified overall design, the first completed in 1909, the second in 1929, but in true Selfridge style, this wasn’t all. The final piece of this retail jigsaw was an early indication of Selfridge’s ability to think big: a 450-ft tower to soar over both the store and London. Alongside Sir John Burnet, he also employed the well-respected Philip Tilden. Both architects produced a number of designs all in a broadly Classical idiom but with significant differences (see Tilden’s variations: 1 / 2 / 3 / 4) – but none met with Selfridge’s approval and eventually he scrapped the idea, with only a plaster model to show for it. However, by this time, he had another commission for Tilden.

Between 1916-22, Selfridge took the lease on Highcliffe Castle, Dorset, but, typically, this wasn’t enough and so he bought the nearby Hengistbury Head; a mile-long stretch of beautiful cliffs and announcing he would build ‘the largest castle in the world‘. A showman’s boast perhaps but he set Tilden to work to make this dream a reality; which he did, lovingly creating a series of dramatic panoramas and hundreds of detailed individual designs.

Selfridge, of course, had his own vision what this castle would look like – although rigorously Classical in London, he wanted a true castle and so demanded a mix; a medieval fortress planned on Classical lines with ‘…mighty vistas, balance, and co-ordination of the parts‘. From early 1919, Tilden created a wonderful series of perspectives which Clive Aslet describes as ‘…dreams of Piranesian grandeur and Watteau-like romance‘. This architectural hybrid was something of a awkward marriage, the imposing mass of the castle fortifications interrupted by delicate Classical arcades, statues and details.

This image, plus many others can be viewed as one of four million items at the, RIBA Library Drawings and Archives Collections

The basic plan involved four miles or ramparts with towers, a ‘small castle’ (to be completed first and lived in whilst the main part was completed) and a ‘large castle‘ on higher ground. This ‘large castle’ was to include a Gothic hall, a 300-ft tower, a theatre, a Hall of Mirrors copied from that at Versailles, a winter garden, a covered lake, long corridors and galleries for pictures, tapestries and other objet d’art, and at least 250 suites of rooms for guests.

Even the small castle would have been a significant project and the proposals for the main castle firmly moved this plan into fantasy considering that, although wealthy, a building on this scale might even have caused much richer men to think twice.

Tilden must have quickly realised that this scheme would never be built in full but he took the commission seriously. Each month he would travel to see Selfridge either and update him on the progress of the designs, though this was as much progress as was ever made.

Sadly, Selfridge’s personal life and fortune had both suffered over the years. His beloved wife had died of influenza in 1918, after which he became increasingly reckless; in the decade he ran through an $8m fortune and, combined with the financial impact of the Wall Street Crash in 1929, his wealth could no longer support his lifestyle. In 1930, he sold 300-acres of Hengistbury Head to the local council and in 1939 he was forced to retire from Selfridges, dying in a small flat in May 1947, his grandiose plans for the largest castle in the world, a mere memory.

In many ways, H. Gordon Selfridge’s life was a remarkable series of triumphs and frustrations. His early years clearly led him to a preference for the grandiose statements and a desire to accumulate the trappings of those he considered his social rivals. However, the sheer scale of Selfridge’s plans for Hengistbury Head increasingly looked more like an ‘after-dinner’ exercise rather than something he seriously intended to build. In this way, he was a consummate showman with an ability to think grand dreams, which is to be applauded. In some ways we get the best deal; he didn’t get to create an oversized ego-driven building on a beautiful section of coastline but we do get to admire the incredibly detailed designs which Tilden laboured on for over half a decade to amuse Selfridge’s ambition.

For the unabridged version of this article, featuring more houses and detail, please read: ‘Harry Gordon Selfridge and his grand plans: Hengistbury Head

Matthew Beckett writes about the UK’s wonderful country houses at ‘The Country Seat‘ blog and also on twitter @thecountryseat. He also writes and researches about the hundreds of lost country houses at ‘Lost Heritage – a memorial to demolished English country houses‘.

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  • Eileen Frost

    Thank you for the article on Mr Selfridge, most interesting. Amusing at one level, with his wild dreams, but sad on another level, that he should pass away in a small flat. Let’s hope that he knew the Saviour in a personal way, so that he can live eternally in a big mansion. John 14 verse 2 says “In My Father’s house there are many mansions …. I go to prepare a place for you”.