Knight & Lee: memories of a Southsea institution

The original Knight and Lee store opened in 1887 on the corner of Palmerston Road and Stanley Lane by Jesse Knight and Herbert Soden Lee.
The original Knight and Lee store opened in 1887 on the corner of Palmerston Road and Stanley Lane by Jesse Knight and Herbert Soden Lee.
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Last Saturday saw the last day of trading for Knight & Lee at Southsea. The store had reopened after the war on Monday, September 24, 1956, on the corner of Osborne Road  and Palmerston Road and the frontage changed little since that day. 

Former employee Jon Cole lent me a copy of The Gazette, a staff magazine from the John Lewis Partnership. I have copied some of the photographs from it and will include others tomorrow and Saturday.

The remains of Knight & Lees store after the night of January 10, 1941. The spire of St Judes Church is on the left.

The remains of Knight & Lees store after the night of January 10, 1941. The spire of St Judes Church is on the left.

Friends Jesse Knight and Herbert Soden Lee lived next to each other in London. They worked in a drapers but in 1887 rented a building in Palmerston Road, Southsea, for £750 a year. They did well and in 1895 bought it and in 1908 expanded, buying a fishmongers on the corner of Stanley Lane.

It was a happy place to work with a waiting list of applicants and many of the 100 staff lived above the premises.

Mr Knight died aged 75 in March 1922 and Mr Lee two years later. The store continued under a Mr H Brown who had joined when the store opened.

On January 10, 1941, most of Palmerston Road was destroyed by the Luftwaffe. Offices were set up in the Queen’s Hotel and staff were given a fortnight’s pay and told to return on February 24.

Part of a map showing the original shop on the corner of Stanley Lane and the premises used after the war until the new store opened in 1956.

Part of a map showing the original shop on the corner of Stanley Lane and the premises used after the war until the new store opened in 1956.

Post-war a block of shops in Palmerston Arcade fell vacant and were acquired to house soft furnishings, carpets and linen. A shop on the corner of Elm Grove and Grove Road South was rented for men’s and boy’s clothes. 

It was there that Mr Cole, of Old Portsmouth, began his working life. He says: ‘As a working class boy, my education at Portsmouth Technical College, Hilsea, was designed for a dockyard apprenticeship. This was a new era for teenagers and 7am starts in a noisy, cheerless dockyard lacked appeal. A more stylish future beckoned and I opted for life in retail starting in Knight & Lee’s menswear department. 

'It was opposite Telephone House. We were on two floors and I was incarcerated downstairs with deputy manager Mr Sloman, ex-Harrods and an old school martinet. 

‘Brushing clothes, putting back endless garments and being a dogsbody sums it up. I was also the delivery lad for our exclusive customers. Carrying parcels was not the thing for upper class Southsea ladies. When the new store opened in 1956, we remained a satellite. 

HMS Reclaim under sail. It was said an extra half a knot could be obtained when the sails were raised. Picture: Mike Nolan collection

HMS Reclaim under sail. It was said an extra half a knot could be obtained when the sails were raised. Picture: Mike Nolan collection

'The shop had a huge grammar school clothing trade, dressing St John’s, Portsmouth Grammar, Seacourt and St Jude’s. Kitting out posh kids was my introduction to retail – mainly because the adult staff hated it! Hours were 9am to 6pm and 9am to 1.30pm on Saturdays – 44 hours.’ 

 Launched in 1948 and serving until 1979, HMS Reclaim was the only ship to attend both the 1953 Coronation and the 1977 Fleet Reviews. She was broken up in 1982.

It was said an extra half knot could be obtained when, what were basically stay sails, were raised.