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Belfast's Anderson & McAuley: A store full of happy memories

Walking into one of Belfast’s most prestigious retailers transported shoppers from the troubled city streets to a world of glamour and style. As plans are made for a staff reunion, Stephanie Bell catches up with three women who worked there.

It was Belfast's original department store, part of the fabric of city life for 150 years, and now, more than 20 years after its sad demise, former colleagues are getting together to celebrate  Anderson & McAuley.

Shoppers came from all over Ireland to enjoy what was regarded as a shopping experience like no other in the famous local, family-run business.

A company way ahead of its time in terms of customer service and staff training, it was regarded as a prestigious career step to get a job there.

Now the call has gone out to former employees for a special "Andy Mac" celebration in the Europa Hotel next April.

Belfast event gurus, Profile Events, whose director Maureen Delaney is a former employee, are organising the reunion, inviting people to join in a trip down memory lane.

"We all know that Anderson & McAuley prided itself on doing business in a family-like atmosphere and we want to see that sense of camaraderie hit the spotlight again at this fantastic do," says Maureen.

"The theme of the evening will be celebration - celebration of a great Belfast family-owned business, celebration of good times at work in not-such-good-times for Northern Ireland and celebration of a bunch of great people reuniting to reminisce and reconnect.

"We just want to see all of the company's staff reunited under one roof for one evening, so that we can all look back on our days at Anderson & McAuley; days, which, although they may have been gloomy outside the front doors, were full of joy indoors."

The iconic Donegall Place store was set up in 1861 by two brothers, Robert and Alexander Anderson, who went into partnership with John McAuley.

Anderson & McAuley prided itself on a family atmosphere with a business-like approach and 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".

A position at the store remained highly coveted right up until its closure in 1994.

In the Thirties, new female assistants were given 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".

A strict dress code for staff endured right until the end.

In 1956, the store was one of the first in Northern Ireland to install escalators and people visited just to see and experience them.

Sadly, competition from multi-nationals such as Marks & Spencer, Debenhams and out-of-town shopping centres led to the closure of what was the last surviving Belfast family-owned department store in March, 1994.

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

We caught up with three former employees who give a fascinating insight into what it was like to work in the store.

Walking into Anderson & McAuley, one of Belfast's most prestigious retailers, transported shoppers from the troubled city streets to a world of glamour and style. As plans are made for a staff reunion, Stephanie Bell catches up with three women who worked there.

‘I got chance to be in Mrs World’

Amanda Hobson (54), who was a beauty queen in the Eighties, worked in Anderson & McAuley at the beauty counter for six years. Amanda now runs Pirate Adventure Mini Golf in Dundonald with her husband Barry (53). They have one son, Shaw, who is 20. She says:

When I heard that a reunion was planned, I was so excited and I can't wait now to see everyone again. Anderson & McAuley was such a wonderful place to work.

I started on Charles of the Ritz and the Yves St Laurent counter in 1983. My counter was right at the front door, so I saw everyone coming into the shop. You got to know people coming in and the same people, mums and daughters, coming in on certain days to go to the coffee shop. It got to the stage where they felt like friends, rather than customers.

It was glamorous in the store and we had these beautiful glass counters; it was such a lovely place to work.

There was no internet shopping then and, especially at Christmas, there was a real buzz as people stood in long lines to buy their Opium or Youth Dew perfumes for Christmas.

I was only in my early 20s, so I was in awe of the Anderson family, who would have been in the shop quite a lot. There were a lot of beauty contests then - it was quite the fashion, and I would take part in them for the fun and also because you won about £200, which went towards helping to pay the bills.

I was runner-up in the Miss Great Britain Bathing Beauty Contest, which was hosted by Terry Wogan and was the last one to be televised on the BBC. I also won a competition called Mrs Ireland in 1984 which got me through to Mrs World, which was held in Hawaii for three weeks. The company gave me the three weeks to go, which was not taken out of my holidays.

They were amazing and also sponsored my evening wear. I still have the beautiful dress they gave me and I have got a lot of wear out of it. It is beautiful and had this bronze full Eighties-style ball gown skirt with gold glitter and I loved it.

I also won the Northern Ireland heat of a national competition called the Access Sales Assistant of the year and had to go to the London finals, and Mr Robinson, one of the directors, came with me.

They were such a supportive company. They looked after their staff so well that everyone was really loyal to them. It was a shop that always had a great buzz and was a great place to work."

'I had great pride in working there'

Janice McAllister (51) from Belfast is a retired retail manager who was thrilled to get a job in Anderson & McAuley when she left school aged 17. Janice, who is married to Edward (59) a British Telecom engineer, worked in the shop for 12 years. She says:

I worked in stationery, confectionery and books and also in the Christmas shop. It was my first job when I left school and it was quite something to get a job there. It was with pride that you told people you worked for Anderson & McAuley.

They were brilliant to work for and way ahead of the times in terms of training - you were taught to be polite to customers at all times.

I remember my boss sending me to the bra department to get a new bra because she didn't like the shape of the ones I was wearing.

I was also sent to the make-up department to learn how to put my make-up on. That's how particular they were about how staff presented themselves.

I worked in the shop during the Troubles, but when I look back on it now I have just fond memories.

Every Friday there seemed to be a bomb scare in the city centre and it got to the stage where all the staff kept their coats and bags under the till on a Friday because we knew we would be going out.

We all went to a local cafe and they would have always been waiting for us and had our coffees ready.

I remember one day coming up to Christmas the bombs were so close and there was glass flying everywhere and we couldn't leave the shop. They took us to the middle of the building which was the safest part of it and we all just stood and sang carols and pop songs while the bombs went off around us.

I have lifelong friends I made there. It was an amazing place to work and I don't think I ever got that camaraderie again. I was very young, but my manager trusted me to make my own orders and I remember once ordering £6,000 worth of wrapping paper which never sold and she just said that at least I would know not to do that again.

I was the youngest trainee manager in the shop and very proud of it.

I only left because there were no management vacancies, as people tended to stay there for life and so I moved on to further my career.

I have enjoyed a successful career in management and I don't think I would have done so well if it hadn't have been for the time I spent in Anderson & McAuley; it gave me the confidence to pursue my career.

I'm thrilled there is to be a reunion and I can't wait. I think there should be one every year and hopefully this will be the first of many."

'My department was fire-bombed'

Sandra Cowden-Cromie (56), from Belfast, worked in Anderson & McAuley from 1976 until it closed. Sandra now works in Orchid Lingerie in Belfast and is married to Alex (65) a bar manager. She says:

After school at 17 I went to Anderson & McAuley and worked there until it closed down. I loved it and when it shut I was heartbroken, it was like a bereavement. It felt like a real home from home and we had great rapport with each other and with the customers. We knew so many of them and it was like one big, happy family.

We had a ball when we worked there and I made some great friends - that was one of the saddest aspects of it closing.

Even with the best will in the world, you do lose touch with people and that's what's so great about the reunion. It is so exciting and I can't wait to see everyone and catch up. It was a great company to work for. Mr Robinson, the managing director, knew everybody in the shop by their first name and there were probably about 400 of us working there.

Shortly after I started working there, one day during the Troubles, I was enjoying a hot summer's day on the beach with my family when it came through that there had been an incendiary device in Anderson & McAuley.

I just knew it would be my department and when I went in the next day it indeed had been in Young Fashion, where I worked. We had just had a big consignment of denim wear delivered which was destroyed.

We had a bomb damage sale and sold off everything that was water or smoked damaged really cheaply.

We worked through the Troubles and it was always business as usual. If there was a bomb scare the place worked like clockwork getting everyone out.

When CastleCourt opened our shop was all done up and modernised, so when it did close it was very sad. I can't wait now to relive those years and enjoy meeting up with all my former colleagues."

Tickets for the reunion on April 9, 2016 cost £50 for a drinks' reception, three-course meal and live entertainment and are available by emailing

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