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13 November 2014

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You are in: Bradford and West Yorkshire > Around West Yorkshire > Local History > Christmases Past: Santa at Busbys...

Christmases Past: Santa at Busbys...

For generations of Bradford's children Busbys' grotto was THE place to visit Santa and his helpers. We take a look back to a time when a trip to Busbys' store was an essential part of any Bradford Christmas - and you've been telling us YOUR memories!

'Cinderella's kitchen' grotto at Busbys, 1939

"Cinderella's kitchen" at Busbys, 1939

[To read more memories of Busbys' at Christmas and to add your own West Yorkshire memories of Santa's various grottos across the county, go to the bottom of this page!]

Busbys' department store in Manningham Lane may be long gone but it is still regarded with fondness by many Bradfordians, particularly at this time of the year. "The one thing that many people remember the store for was Santa's grotto. Most people in Bradford and surrounding areas had a trip to see Busbys' Santa Claus," says Michael Callaghan and he should know. Michael, Collections Officer for Bradford Museums, has just put together a book, Busbys': A Shop Full of Memories.

Exterior, Busbys, Bradford

A shopping palace? Busbys in Maningham Lane

Michael says Santa's arrival at the store was eagerly anticipated: "Father Christmas and Mother Christmas would arrive on horseback or by carriage,. They would come by train. They might have flown in by helicopter. It was an event. They'd come along Manningham Lane and the crowds would follow, or they'd come up through Bradford and the crowds would follow...It was an annual event for everybody."

And it all seemed to have been worth the wait: "People have told me there was a longish corridor where people queued and all along the corridor they would have things working or flying, or nursery rhymes. There were all sorts of things going on to keep the children occupied and then eventually they would go into this magic Santa's grotto." And when that magic moment arrived Santa would call out to the Fairy Godmother and a suitable present would come down the chimney.

Santa's grotto, Busbys, Bradford

A magical moment at Busbys

Each year the grotto would have a different theme and it was the discovery of photos of 'Cinderella's kitchen', taken in 1939, from the C.H. Wood photographic archive at Bradford Industrial Museum, which inspired this new book as well as two exhibitions. The Busby and Wood families were personal friends and C.H. Wood was the biggest commercial photographer in the city. It's not surprising, then, that he should have been commissioned to take photos of the store, covering everything from aerial views of the store to staff sports days, and 106 of these images are used in the new book. However, it was the very popular exhibition of these photos at Bradford Industrial Museum in 2007 that prompted visitors to share many personal memories.

Santa at the barbers

Even Santa could spend a day out at Busbys!

Both the images and recollections used in the new book show that Busbys was definitely not just for Christmas but for all the year round. Michael says: "I think the grotto is something people remember from the store, but I think the store was a special time in shopping. When Busbys moved onto Manningham Lane [from Kirkgate] they started to cater for families. It was more of a day out. You could spend quite a few hours there. You could have a haircut. You could buy your food. You could shop, you could have lunch and then you could go home. You could spend all day in one department store."

And it's not only the shoppers who have happy memories. Michael adds: "It was like one big happy family. We are still waiting for someone to come and say they didn't enjoy working there. Everybody who had anything to do with it enjoyed their time there."

Record department at Busbys department store

Busbys was not just for Christmas...

Ernest Busby had opened his store in Kirkgate, Bradford in 1908. This was a time, Michael reminds us, when the city, with the wealth from its woollen trade, might seem like a very good place to start a shop. In 1929 Busbys moved to Kirkgate where, over the years, it expanded. At the height of its success the store employed over 800 people. Michael believes Busbys were successful in finding a niche market: "They talked about themselves as 'Busbys, the people's store', and it was just in the bracket where people could afford it, but there was some quality as well..." But shopping habits change and in 1958 the department store became part of the Debenhams group although it continued to trade as Busbys until 1974 when it took the name of the parent store.

Letter from the Santa at Busbys

A letter from Father and Mother Christmas!

That the Busbys considered their shop to be one happy family is suggested by their once famous logo. First used in 1928, and red and black in colour, it shows four marching and helmeted Coldstream guards. In front is the firm's founder Ernest: "He used to explain that it was a symbol of unity - the soldiers were all in step, progress - they were all on the march and uprightness - they were all straight and erect." Whatever its significance for Ernest, the logo's jolly appearance may be one reason why it is still so fondly remembered in Bradford.

Santa and his helpers

Santa and his helpers...

Basing their business practice on such principles, work on the Christmas grotto would start in June, and every letter to Santa would get a personal handwritten reply from Father and Mother Christmas. Debenhams closed their Bradford store in 1978 and in 1979 the building - once such a palace of shopping - was destroyed by fire. All that remain now are memories, photos and perhaps one or two carefully preserved letters from Busbys' Santa.

Father and Mother Christmas arriving at Busbys, 1939

Father and Mother Christmas arriving in 1939

[The book, Busbys': A Shop Full of Memories by Michael Callaghan and Colin Neville, is officially launched at the Bradford 1 Gallery on Thursday December 4th 2008 at 6pm and can be obtained after that date from Bradford's Museums and Galleries. All images used are (c) Bradford Museums, Galleries and Heritage]

last updated: 11/12/2008 at 15:56
created: 28/11/2008

Have Your Say

Do YOU remember when a visit to Father Christmas was something special? If so we want to hear from YOU.

The BBC reserves the right to edit comments submitted.

Patricia Crosswaite(nee Longbottom)
Oh the memories of going to see Santa at Busby's Grotto, there was so much to see and it seemed to take you ages to finally get to Santa, it was wonderfull and something that most of us Brafordians looked forward to for months, Busby's store was also a delight, I remember when we had been to the grotto my mum used to take me into the shop and I was mesmerised by the lanson system, (they used to put your money when you paid for your goods, in a little pod and it was sucked to somewhere in the upperpart of the store for cashiers to sort out, then it came back with your change in it) the place was fantastic when you were kids, What memories

Rita Patton
I remember vividly going to see Father Christmas at Busbys with my mother. It was a joy and a thrill just to be there, walking through the Grotto and pulling various strings that were available giving different sounds and bird songs and the joyous moment when you actually arrived at Father Christmas's magic room complete with fairies and mother Christmas. I also took my children when they were young and it was a truly wonderful time.

Mrs Kay Robinson nee Smithson
I remember my Mother taking me to Busby's grotto. It was a very exciting time for me. The grotto was beautiful, so many lovely scenes to see on the way to Father and Mother Christmas.I particularly remember the reindeer, the animated scenes and all the fairy lights. It was magical.Nothing like it since.

Julie Barker
Hi i remember sitting on santa's knee @ Sunwin House Bradford each christmas time the grotto there was always lovely , my mum took us there yearly as children it was a real treat , we looked forward to it ..

Gwen Nunn
I remember my parents taking me to Busbys to visit Santa; it was half a crown to see Mr and Mrs Claus, and worth every penny! It was such a magical experience, especially the childrens hairdressers where you had your hair cut ehile you rode a rocking horse. Children don't know what they're missing these days!

Fantastic memories of Father Christmas at Busbies, what seemed like long halls of Christmas magic to look at before meeting the BIG man. x

Susan Clark
I remember so well the grotto - it was magic, sparkly there were strings to pull buttons to push, animated scenes totally magical to a 5 year old girl. And to see the real Santa Claus and tell him your secret wishes. I remember even at 10yrs old telling myself it was true because I did not want to miss out on a gift. I got a tin metal globe on a stand which I lost when I moved 18 months ago (45 years old it was and my pride and joy). It gives me a warm glow to think about Busby's and magical pre-christmas night out.

Anne Brown
The entrance to the grotto was behind the single lift. From the moment I went through the doors I got 'butterflies' in my tummy. Walking through the grotto looking at the magnificent displays behind glass and pulling all the strings dangling from the ceiling to hear what sound they made. Then as soon as I saw Rudolph I knew another couple of yards and Santa would be sat there by his chimney with Mother Christmas. I can still feel the tingle down my spine as he asked if I had been good and what I wanted for Chritmas before he shouted up the chimney "a present for a little girl". Then out of the double doors back into the store and down to the ground floor to get some butter from the big slab for my Dad.There hasn't been a grotto to match it since and possibly never will.

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