Fire at Jenner’s

POSTED ON January 25, 2023 BY Terry Levinthal

Our thoughts go out to those firefighters who were injured and to their colleagues whose stellar efforts to contain the fire were heroic.

The tragic fire on 24 January that occurred in the former Jenner’s Department Store may have been much worse if it wasn’t for two reasons.  Firstly, the early response of Edinburgh’s fire crews to the scene prevented the fire from spreading throughout the entire building rather than being contained with the 1905 extension on Rose Street.  Our thoughts go out to those firefighters who were injured and to their colleagues whose stellar efforts to contain the fire were heroic.

Secondly, Charles Jenner’s vision following the catastrophic fire in 1892 which saw the buildings used by Kennington and Jenner Drapers (as it was then called) largely destroyed.

The significance of Jenner’s to Edinburgh is hard not to understate.  Socially and culturally, it sits at the heart of Edinburgh’s commercial heart.  A trip to Jenner’s was a highlight for many whether it was to shop, enjoy tea and cake in its café, marvel at the treats to be found in its food store, or gaze with wonder at its toy shop, an experience remembered by many, many people of all ages.  Of course, the erection of the huge Christmas tree in the spectacular central hall was a visit in its own right.

It was the oldest department in the world that traded from the same site.  It was once one of the largest department stores in the UK, and it had a global reputation which it shared with some of the finest establishments across the globe, be it Harrod’s, Mace’s or any of the great stores in Paris or Milan.

Architecturally, its grand renaissance facade is one of only three Category A-listed buildings on Princes Street (the other two being Forsyth’s and the New Club – this might say something about the fortunes of this once-great street!).

In 1838, Charles Jenner and Charles Kennington set up their drapers and haberdashery shop on the corner of Princes Street and South St David’s Street.  As their business grew, they expanded into neighbouring buildings in a piecemeal fashion.  In 1892, a fire ravished the buildings, leaving them destroyed and usable.  By this time, Jenner had been in retirement, but he returned to the business to lead the reconstruction process.  In the same year, he instructed architect William Hamilton Beattie to prepare designs for a new building on the corner site.  Beattie was a well-established local architect.  He trained with David Bryce but joined the family firm (his father and older brother were also architects).  The firm developed a specialism in hotel design (especially railway hotels) and were responsible for the North British Hotel, aka the Balmoral.

As the design progressed, Jenner insisted that stonework included caryatids and in his own words, “to show symbolically that women are the support of the house”.  It wouldn’t be for 23 years before women were given the vote!

Building construction was completed in 1895, and it incorporated some of the newest technology.  It had hydraulic lifts and was one of the earliest building to have electric lighting installed.  Keep in mind that many places in Scotland did not get electricity until the 1920s!

However, in the context of recent tragedy to strike the building, it incorporated a “fire-proof” structure comprising steel beams on iron columns with Granolith flooring, a mixture of cement and fine aggregate like granite chips which when cured formed an impermeable horizontal layer which could prevent fire spreading upwards through the material.  More associated with pavements (good example is outside the Portrait Gallery), the skill required at this time was considerable and demonstrated a commitment to quality from the start.

In 1903, the success of Jenner’s required expansion, and Beattie’s practice was again called upon.  By time, Beattie had passed away so A R Scott led the design team, and developed the original design along South St David’s Street and Rose Street.  It too used the fire-proof construction structure used in the 1895 building.

The fire that took place on 24 January 2023 seems to have started in this 1905 building, near the ground floor on Rose Street.  At the time of writing, the Fire Investigation Unit is still looking at the reasons for the fire, but representatives of the development, AAA ltd, have indicated that the structure is intact.

For this, there can be no doubt that Jenner’s vision and Beattie’s architectural and technical abilities led to a design that helped prevent the disaster that destroyed Kennington and Jenner’s original shop over a century ago.

The Cockburn was, and remains, fully supportive of the proposals developed for AAA Ltd (a company owned by Danish fashion billionaire, Anders Holch Poulson) by David Chipperfield Architects.  Our views on this can be found here.  We hope that this fire will be only a small setback to realising this scheme, bringing Jenners’ back into the heart of the city.




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