Last week, the Victorian Silver Arcade in Leicester was finally re-opened after years of restoration. Shopping arcades across Victorian Britain were built to a similar design with an open central archway and two floors, although unusually the Silver Arcade had four storeys. The buildings were extremely decorative inside with lavish use of lighting, glass and high quality materials. The aim was to attract upper-class customers with plenty of money to spend. 

Birmingham’s Great Western Arcade is an excellent example. Opened to the public on 28 September 1876, it was built over the tunnel of the Great Western Railway running from Monmouth Street to Temple Row. On 2 December, the Illustrated London News reported on the new building:

“The shops, of which there are forty-two on the ground floor and forty-two on the balcony, are mostly let, and almost every trade will be represented. Some London firms have taken shops here. The fronts are ebony and gold, and have been made by Mr F Sage, of Gray’s-inn-road, London. The arcade is 400ft. long and commodiously wide and is 40 ft. high. The dome is 75ft. from the top to the floor.”  

Here is a view of the exterior of the Great Western Arcade:

The New Great Western Arcade, Birmingham (Illustrated London News, 2 December 1876)

As you can see, carriages frequently transported wealthy customers to the arcade. They could instruct their coachmen to drop them off outside and to return within a specified amount of time. 

Inside, no expense was spared to impress the shoppers, particularly with the lighting scheme:

“The galleries are illuminated by forty-four four-light candelabra, making 176 lights in all. Beneath are forty-four three-light hanging pendants, or chandeliers, whilst in the centre of the building, immediately under the dome, is suspended a colossal chandelier, 14 ft. high and 8 ft. in diameter, comprising two tiers of lights, the upper one consisting of eighteen jets and the lower one twenty-four. Thus the body of the arcade is lighted by 350 gas jets, the whole of which are enclosed in opal globes, shedding a mellow light on the building. When the 600 lights are lit the effect is magnificent.”

 Here’s a view of the interior, which gives a good illustration of the lights and the dome above:

The New Great Western Arcade, Birmingham (Illustrated London News, 2 December 1876)

I wonder if the gas bill was as colossal as the chandeliers!


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