Searching for Madame de Witt

 

When this little jacket came up on ebay I couldn’t resist purchasing it. It’s a piece of wholesale couture with an interesting retailers label and felt like the perfect excuse for a little bit of research. In this post I’ll talk about the jacket, who made it and retailed it and explore some of my ‘go to’ online resources for research.

Let’s start with the jacket itself. This lovely blue and white stripe jacket is made from a twill (almost herringbone) weave cotton with a satin lining which is hand stitched in place. It has a fitted shape and fastens with fabric covered buttons. I’m sure this would have originally been part of two-piece suit with a matching skirt.

The manufacturers label is stitched into the neckline of the jacket. This large woven label states ‘Matita. London, Paris, New York. Made in England.’ Matita were one of the leading London wholesale couturiers and exported their garments internationally. Wholesale couturiers produced designs which were copied or adapted from French couture for the ready-to-wear market. Their pieces are often beautifully made, with lots of hand finished details like buttonholes and linings.

Rather usefully wholesale couturiers were prolific advertisers and their advertisements are often found in fashion magazines including Vogue, Tatler and Harper’s. I’ve done a little bit of hunting for an advertisement, using the British Newspaper Archive and my own hoard of 1950s copies of Vogue, however I haven’t been able to find one for this jacket. I will say that Matita produced a lot of stripey suits and I would expect that this is a mid 1950s example. 

Whilst I wanted to purchase this piece as it was a good example of wholesale couture, what intrigued me the most was the retailers label, ‘Madame de Witt, Croydon’. I currently live in Croydon, so this provided me with an excuse to look into fashion retailing in my local area. In the midst of Covid-19 local studies and archive centres are shut, so I’ve had to rely on the internet and going to look at physical buildings in Croydon, as research. Unquestionably this is not ideal, but it’s a good start!

 

Croydon Guardian and Surrey County Gazette, 1888, via British Newspaper Archive

 My jacket dates to the 1950s, however Madame de Witt goes MUCH further back. The earliest record I can find of the shop dates to 1888 when an advertisement appeared in the Croydon Guardian and Surrey County Gazette (found via the British Newspaper Archive). It stated: ‘Madame de Witt begs to inform the ladies of Croydon that she is now offering all summer millinery at less than half price’. The advertisement provides the address of 74 George Street, however the business moved a number of times in the following few years. In the 1891 census it was located at 64 George Street and by 1896 it was located at 78 George Street where it stayed until at least 1911. Madame de Witt existed in Croydon until at least 1967. In that year an editorial feature in the Illustrated London News suggested a Matita tweed suit was purchasable from the store, however it doesn’t give a precise address for the shop within Croydon.

George Street, 2020

Looking around George Street today it is interesting to consider the date plaques that adorn the top of many buildings. Largely the older buildings on George Street date to the 1880s or 1890s. 64 George Street is the only one of Madame de Witt’s premises that appears to be pre 1900. Unfortunately this building does not have a date plaque, so I cannot be sure whether this is the actual building Madame de Witt was located in.

74 and 78 George Street no longer exist, on this site today is Suffolk house, built in the 1960s. Suffolk house is just meters from 101 George Street, the world’s tallest modular tower, and planning documents suggest that Suffolk House may be set to go as part of the Croydon masterplan.

 

Grants, 2020

Whilst researching Madame de Witt it was interesting to wander around East Croydon and realise just how many of the significant and grand buildings of the area appeared in the 1880s and 1890s. This is indicative of Croydon’s expansion in the period. In 1889 Croydon became a county borough and the 1890s saw the widening of the high street and clearance of the Middle Row slum. Just one example of the period (and one of my personal favourite buildings in the town) is Grants which opened in 1895. The original Victorian windows and façade sit above the modern shop fronts.

 Madame de Witt was a ‘milliner’. Today we associate milliners with making hats, however historically a milliner would have sold a real range of items. This meant ‘ready-made’ garments (how we buy most of our garments today) alongside fabric, ribbons, trims and all range of accessories including hats. Milliners typically had onsite workrooms and advertisements indicate that this was the case for Madame de Witt.

Census, 1911, via ancestry

So who was Madame de Witt? I believe the original Madame de Witt was a lady called Caroline Elizabeth Bowles, in 1897 the London Gazette reported that a business, ‘Madame de Witt’ between Caroline and her husband Henry George Bowles was being dissolved, and run by just Caroline, as he was retiring. After searching Ancestry Caroline was found. I first ‘located’ her in the 1911 census and then I traced her back. As can be seen in 1911 she was running the business with her daughter (the sister seen here is actually her sister-in-law), with the family living onsite.  Caroline was living at the business address in both the 1901 and 1891 census. 

Banns of marriage, 1887, via ancestry

Caroline proved hard to trace but I believe the name Madame de Witt stems from her own maiden name, Witts. Caroline also went by the name Elizabeth and I cannot trace her prior to 1887 when she married Henry George Bowles. Via ancestry I was able to find Henry and Caroline’s Banns of marriage. This indicates that it was very unlikely that the shop was established prior to their marriage.

Caroline Bowles passed away in 1912, and after this date I’m not entirely sure what happened to the shop, or who ran it. In 1911 her daughter Gladys had been assisting in the business and it is entirely possible that she continued to run it. I could find very little about Gladys (married name Gladys de Witt Neve), tragically the only other record I have found of her was as a civilian casualty during WWII.  

For now this is where my hunt for Madame De Witt ends and certainly this is a post that I will have to revisit post lockdown. Despite searching google with every search term I could think of and hunting through facebook local history groups I could not find any images of the shop. Many images of the local area seem to show the left-hand side of George Street at the junction with Park Lane, but not the right (where both 74 and 78 George Street would have been located. My only question left to ponder is, as the shop existed until at least 1967 do any Croydon residents remember it, and did it stay at 78 George Street?

 

 

6 comments

  • Dear Lindsay Ould my husband & I have lived in Croydon & surrounding area all our lives I was so interested to hear about Madame De Witts In George street . Have always wondered where the shop may have been. It’s just fascinating that I worked for Joyce Stovall & her sister Vera Ibbotson who owned the salon at 188 Lower Addiscombe road in Addiscombe. It was a large White House with gates each side up to the front door . I can’t find any recollection of it being there . I worked as a junior there in about 1960 . When I went for an interview with my mother she told me as it was so high class it was a privilege to work there. ! It was very posh I loved all the clothes Dorville & Matita seemed to be the main names Remember some being made of shantung & silk . Miss Stovall & Mrs Ibbotson would go every week to the fashion houses in London to buy clothes for certain clients . They quite often took me as well. We used to be taken there & back by taxi. We had a milliner who worked at the back of the house making the most beautiful hats & 3 girls working in another room doing alterations for the clients . I also remember a small cabinet of costume jewellery which used to fascinate me. My job was to keep the salon clean & tidy I used to send the clothes off at the post office when they had been altered I guess I was the dogs body really. I learnt so much about colour coordination & ever since have all my clothes & furniture to mix & match. We had very rich people come to the house one being Mrs Riesco who owned the beautiful house & grounds near Shirley hills .she used to arrive in her chauffeur driven car, I left there after 3 years as I was getting married & although I loved working there it was only a junior job & I went on to other fashion places Do hope you receive this email Have often wondered how Joyce & Vera took over the business . I was 17 then and am now 77 & now live in NZ

    Lynne Skipper
  • Hello I was so interested to read the article on Madam de Witt. When I was 17 , I went to work at Madam de Witts in 1961 . It was a large house at 188 Lower Addiscombe rd in Addiscombe . The down stairs was the show room with all the stock hanging on rails covered by curtains .There were a few manaquin stands round the room which I used to dress each week . There was a large cupboard where all the beautiful hats were kept .They were made by the milliner who had a room at the back of the house .Her name was Greta . In the room next door were 3 machinists who did all the alterations of the clothes .I remember one year they made the wedding dress for the famous tennis player at Wimbledon at the time called Christine Trueman .We used to have very rich ladies come to buy all their clothes at the salon. I remember the Matita clothes & Dorville ,in fact I used to go to the fashion houses in London with Joyce Stovall & Vera Ibbotson who were both sisters .We would take a cab there & back . We would sit & watch the fashion shows & buy the clothes . There was a third sister called Kathleen who lived upstairs above the salon with her sister Joyce . It was my job as a junior to send the clothes off to the clients ,keep the salon looking spotless I learnt so much about colour coordination. The clothes were beautiful but most of all I loved all the hats to go with the costumes of course made specially to match .I was told by my mother at the time it was an honour to work there, as she came with me to be interviewed . Joyce Stovall was a tall quite stern lady who seemed to be in charge . I worked there for 3 years as I left to get married . I do hope you manage to receive this email I have been looking for ages to find the history of the shop in George street . I am 77 now & live in NZ Thank you so much for all the information . I hope you find my small part in their life interesting Kind regards Lynne Skipper . Ps the house is still in Addiscombe . I believe it is a doctors surgery now . I do have a photo of me sitting in the back garden there having my lunch all those years ago .

    Lynne Skipper
  • Thanks for this post, a very timely one for me! I recently purchased a charming Susan Small dress, to discover when it arrived that it had a store label from a retailer in my current hometown – I’d known nothing of this when I purchased, so it was a lovely coincidence. I’ve just been for a wander to the one address I could find for the store, from 1942 onwards, which is now half of a ‘White Stuff’. Off to thumb through the couple of local history books I have – fingers crossed I get lucky and there’s a photo in there somewhere!

    Sarah
  • Very interesting, well researched read this morning. I lived in Croydon for a long time and never associated it with couture. Thanks.

    Stephen O'Reilly
  • Hi I am the Borough Archivist for Croydon and was really interested in the story. I have checked in a street directory for 1955 which shows the shop still at 78 George Street and lists it as selling gowns
    I am working remotely at present but will check to see if we have any photos of the street showing the shop front when we can access the collections again.

    Lindsay Ould

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