Saturday, 29 August 2015

13 The Ben Evans Store - 'the Harrods of Wales'

13. The Ben Evans Store (photos: Ben Evans before and after the Blitz) - 29 August

In “Return Journey” Dylan Thomas recalls returning from London to bomb-damaged Swansea after the Three Nights’ Blitz of February 1941.  Following a comment on the loss of the Three Lamps pub in Temple Street, one person remarks “You remember Ben Evans’s stores …. Ben Evans isn’t there either”.  The premises referred to was the large dome-topped department store sometimes called “The Harrods of Wales”, which occupied most of the block now known as Castle Square.

The Ben Evans store was on the site of the town’s finest medieval house The Plas, demolished in 1840.  Ben Evans himself was born in Carmarthenshire in 1839, and started his drapery business in 1863 at numbers 2 and 3 Temple Street, Swansea.  As the business grew adjoining properties were bought up until the whole premises was enlarged and rebuilt in 1893-94 at a cost of £30,000, along with widening Castle Bailey Street.  Entrances were on Castle Bailey Street, Temple Street and Caer Street, with a porter on hand to assist customers who arrived by carriage.  Aldermen and councillors attended the opening on 24 November 1894, with a short speech given by Henry Hussey Vivian, Lord Swansea.

The following year Ben Evans and Company Limited was floated on the stock exchange.  A hundred members of staff were living on the premises at the time of the 1891 census, housed on the upper floors.  A housekeeper was in charge enforcing strict rules about how late one might be out: on getting married a woman would automatically cease employment.  By 1898 the number of staff had risen to around 500 people.  Vehicles for Ben’s were built and painted by John Jones and Co., Carriage Builders of Fisher Street (today lower Princess Way), while the Ben Evans stables and vehicle depot were in nearby Frog Street.  By 1906 Ben Evans himself was retired and living in Llandovery, aged 67.

A 1929 advertisement described Ben’s as “The Premier Fashion and Furnishing House of Wales and the West”, with thirty-eight departments to provide ladies’ fashions, children’s wear, baby linen, home furnishings, sports and travel goods, and offering complete funeral services.  There was a restaurant, a hairdressing Salon, and even a full-size model horse for those wanting to try on riding attire.  Ladies appreciated the provision of a refreshment room.

As with Lewis Lewis in the High Street and other departmental stores, wire cash carriers would carry customers' payments from the sales assistants to the cashier, and return the change and receipt.  Dylan wrote of the money “singing on the wires”.

Although a large and thriving business, Ben’s did not neglect advertising, using Swansea trams and Mumbles Railway carriages to display prominent advertisements.

On 21st February 1941, the third night of the massive aerial bombardment known as the Three Nights Blitz, this iconic building was destroyed by incendiary bombs.  The adjacent David Evans department store which had been similarly gutted was permitted to rebuild on the same site, but not Ben Evans, for the Council planned to lay out memorial gardens to remember those killed in the Blitz.  Ben Evans moved to Walter Road, where “The House of Quality” remained in business until around 1959, though never able to recapture the prominence it had enjoyed.  The bombed site was cleared and Castle Gardens created as a pleasant oasis of green in the old town centre, often patronised by ‘gentlemen of the road’.  In 1994 the area was transformed to resemble a continental piazza and re-named Castle Square. 
Though many like Dylan, who lamented “Our Swansea is dead”, regretted the loss of the Ben Evans store with the employment it provided, the real tragedy of the February 1941 bombardment was the human cost - 230 people killed, 409 injured, and over 7,000 made homeless.  


  1. Lewis Lewis was a Carmarthenshire Draper also..
    He and Ben Evans probably knew each other from hometown.etc

  2. Who was the architect of Ben Evans store?

    1. There were a few architects because it was built in stages over the years.

  3. Can you tell me what year the streamstress' strike was at Ben Evans? Thanks.