Famous Belfast Stores: Anderson and McAuley

Last survivor of Belfast’s family owned businesses

In 1861, two brothers, Robert and Alexander Anderson, went into partnership with John McAuley and established a shop at the corner of Donegall Place and Castle Street. However, the first firm did not prosper, the partnership between the brothers dissolved, and McAuley died in 1888. Robert Anderson continued in the retail business, assisted by George Williams of Hitchcock, Williams and Company, London.

By 1895, the firm had become so successful that it moved to a larger, purpose built store.

Robert Anderson was also a notable public figure, acting as High Sheriff of Belfast and as Lord Mayor in 1908 and 1914. He was knighted in 1903.

Anderson and McAuley prided itself on a family atmosphere with a businesslike approach. It claimed that the secret of its success was ‘courtesy and honest value’. In 1927, it published the Anderley Gazette as a ‘guide to this house of repute’, which declared that ‘all roads lead to Anderson and McAuley’s, the shopping Centre of Ulster.’

Anderson and McAuley’s were very careful in the selection of their shop assistants, and in the 1930s a position at the store was highly coveted. New female assistants were issued with a standard black dress with snow white collar and advised that ‘scarlet nails and lips plastered with rouge are not an asset to a girl in business.’ Male employees were told that ‘long hair and dirty nails keep many men unemployed.’

In 1953, the first female member of staff was allowed to remain with the company after her marriage. In 1956, the store was one of the first in Northern Ireland to install escalators and people visited the store just to see and experience them.

For over a century, shares in the store were held by members of the Anderson family. After Sir Robert’s death in 1921, his nephew James became managing director. His place was taken by Lady Anderson until her death in 1949, then filled by WH Anderson.

In 1979, Anderson and McAuley was one of 200 members of the Association of Independent Stores. It had 374 staff and several stores within the store, including concession departments such as The Ormeau Coffee Shop, Revlon, Windsmoor, Slumberdown, the Minit Heel Bar, and Christy’s towel shop.

After a lengthy market research programme, a major expansion of the store took place in 1989. Customers had criticised Anderson and McAuley’s for being ‘too claustrophobic’. Floor space was increased by 20,000 square feet and six new escalators now served every floor.

However, the expected raise in sales did not materialise, while high interest rates on the borrowed money for the expansion contributed to the company’s financial difficulties. Competition from Marks and Spencer, Debenhams and out of town shopping centres ate into the store’s sales. In March 1994, ‘Andy Mac’s’, the last survivor of Belfast’s family owned businesses, closed its doors. Some 300 members of staff lost their jobs and its valuable stockpile of fixtures and fittings were auctioned. The closure was seen as marking the end of an era in Belfast’s shopping culture.

Today, the building named McAuley House is used by Clarks, The Disney Store, Monsoon and Zara.

Further Reading:
Buildings of Belfast, 1700-1914 (1985) by CEB Brett.