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Lewis’s department store

Department store

Image: A typical department store

Lewis’s department store in Leeds was a large independent department store built on a 600 square metre plot, with two subterranean floors and five above ground, 10,000 square yards of marble were used just for the floors and with 157 departments it was one of the largest in the north of England.

I have fond memories as a youngster being taken to town by my grandparents to see the fantastic window displays and visit the café for a knickerbocker glory, followed by a visit to the toy department on the top floor close to Christmas. Somehow the toy you liked the most seemed to be included in Santa’s sack each year.

Imagine my surprise when I was told to report to the store to assist James working on alterations to the alarm systems. I arrived to find that the work entailed climbing out of a window onto the three feet wide parapet which ran all the way around the building, we were to clip a cable around the outside of the building to form an antenna loop for new hand held alarm systems to be deployed to work throughout the store. It took three days to install, and we had lunch sitting on the parapet with our legs dangling off watching the people, mostly unaware that we were there, going by.

We did not go completely unnoticed however, at one point three elderly ladies suddenly noticed us and thinking we were a suicide pact, shouted encouragement to us and advised us not to jump.

On the second day, we were sitting for a break with our feet hanging off the parapet, when suddenly two police officers climbed out of the open window and came up to us to enquire what we were doing, James showed his security pass, but they forced us to come back inside, by which point the Lewis’s management had been summoned who explained.

On another occasion, whilst working in the store to install new detectors within the stairwells, I needed to check a connection which I suspected was in the roof void near to the escalators, rather handily, there was a tall set of stepladders set up in the spot I needed access to.

Climbing the ladders, I was surprised to find two plumbers laid on top of the air conditioning duct just below ceiling level, they were watching ladies getting changed in one of the departments. I joined them briefly for a look but the lady they were watching had dressed and was just leaving. 

Later it transcribed that one of the department’s female staff was tipping off the plumbers, when she suspected that an attractive shopper was likely to be of interest to them allowing them to scuttle off up the stepladder for a ring side seat.

After the detectors were installed, they gave several false alarms over the next two weeks, much head scratching and even a supervisor visit to the site could not resolve the issue which seemed to go away on its own. It transcribed that this was always the case, the alarm system would give several false alarms after being altered to cover a different area of the store. The service engineers spoke of rumours of ghosts in the store, which was a bit silly really. 

In the late 1970’s additions were made to the system and once again false alarms were prevalent. However new technology was available to help resolve repeated false alarm events, a camera loaded with film could now be connected to the circuit and installed to view the same area covered by the detector giving the issues. That night the system activated, and the camera film was developed showing a man on the stairwell who had activated the detector. 

The man was not found in the building and it was assumed he was a member of the public who may have fallen asleep in the store and been locked in, and that he had hidden until the store opened the next day, then left. 

However, a year or so later, during a major refurbishment of one of the oldest departments in the store, a false wall was removed by the shopfitters, behind this they discovered that someone was living in the store. 

They had set up a kettle, bed, TV, stove etc. and made themselves very comfortable, and had helped themselves to the deli counter every night, evidence of this was found in the fridge and the bread box and of course lots of wrappers in the bin, gleaned from the household department of the store. 

All the items in the living area had been lifted from the departments in the store, bedding, food, heater, fridge freezer, food, drink, pillows and even clothes. They never caught the individual; however, it was determined that he had been living in the store for more than five years at the time of discovery. 

He must have been gutted when he was evicted, fancy having everything on tap for free, no rent, no rates, free food, free heat. The only inconvenience would be having to be in before five and not able to leave until eight the following day and locked in on Sundays.