THE first two stories of disasters in my mini-series for the Telegraph & Argus are about two powerful men. One is about grudging admiration of an already wealthy mill-owner who turned disaster into opportunity and even greater wealth - Samuel Cunliffe Lister. The other is a case of arrogance of a mill-owner who left a tragic legacy - Sir Henry Ripley.

The final story is quite different. This is one of immense sadness for a man who created strong memories of a unique retail experience - Ernest Busby. Let us start with the location, just before the end of Manningham Lane, north of the city centre, approximately half-way between Manningham and West Bowling, scenes of the other two stories. Today the land is Manningham Lane Retail Park, a rather grand name for a modest shopping development comprising a small supermarket, a furniture store, a gym and two empty units, each set back from a car park on raised ground. It is anonymous, except for one redeeming feature - a line of slender silver birch trees lining the edge of the raised ground. They are an echo perhaps of the white turrets of the iconic building that was a magnet for shoppers in the 20th century.

That building was Busby’s department store, which opened in 1930 and closed in 1978. Those who grew up in that period have every reason to have fond memories of an iconic retail experience in a magnificent Gothic building. Those born later will see nothing special about this so-called retail park.

Replacing an earlier, much smaller shop on Kirkgate that Ernest Busby had opened with a staff of 23 in 1908, the new store was well situated as shoppers got off trams, and later, trolley-buses, right outside the store from the wealthier suburbs of Manningham, Heaton, Saltaire and arrived off buses from further afield places such as Skipton, Ilkley and Harrogate. Promoted as ‘The Store with the Friendly Welcome’, Busby’s had a reputation of being a friendly family store, run by three sons and a daughter. Its distinctive red and black logo showed four marching Coldstream guards, (Ernest with three sons - Gerald, Arthur and Eric stepping out in support). At its height, by the 1950s, Busbys employed over 800 staff with branches in Ilkley and Harrogate. It made the claim that it sold everything any customer could need. Many departments were distinctive. Its dress department had expensive gowns and a facility for dressmaking. A furrier by background, Ernest Busby also created a furs department where furs were manufactured. The store had a restaurant, café, library, hairdresser, beauty salon, laundry and record counter. Pre-war, it even had its own petrol station. Post-war, it added an ice-cream factory and nearby Fountain Hall for functions. Busby’s came into its own at Christmas with a Saturday Parade from the city centre and Santa’s grotto. Children also marvelled at the pneumatic cashier system. Cash or cheque would be screwed into a pneumatic cylinder, then pushed into a hole in the wall to hurtle across the ceiling to a central cashier out of sight. A few minutes later it hurtled back with a receipt and change

Sadly, by the 1960s the store’s influence started to decline. After Ernest Busby died, Debenhams took it over in 1958. Fifteen years later Debenhams announced a re-branding and all references to Busby’s were replaced with Debenhams. A famous Bradford name from its prosperous past had disappeared into the anonymity of national chains. The writing was on the wall and in February 1978 Debenhams finally closed its store. It was a sad month for Bradford’s two once-famous department stores, when a week later Brown Muff in the city centre sold out to Rackhams.

Eighteen months later, after lying empty for months, the old Busby’s building disappeared in an almighty blaze. On August 30, 1979, at teatime, a dramatic fire destroyed it. Nearly 100 firemen attempted to tackle the blaze, but couldn’t prevent leaving the grand listed building in a heap of smouldering rubble. In the blaze a third of the facade crashed into Manningham Lane, hurling huge chunks of masonry across the road. As thousands of people gathered, smoke and flames billowed into the sky until the building was a twisted pile of hot rubble - leaving for Bradfordians only memories of a once-loved store. Fortunately, there were no serious casualties. The following year, Eric Busby wrote: “So the famous Victorian building was burnt to a mass of twisted metal and rubble in less than three hours. I cannot dwell on this sad ending except to say that it was less distressing than the empty building had been. And mind you, I did think that as a fire it was the best-ever! A dramatic, super-magnificent finale.”

The remains of the building were demolished. The retail park now stands on the site, offering no reminder of the past. In looking at this anonymous site, one cannot help thinking of the vision, passion and commitment of Ernest Busby. He and his family created something truly memorable that Bradfordians under 50 have never experienced. The fire finally wiped out what he created. Busby’s as was wouldn’t have survived national trends, as department stores gradually disappeared well before online shopping gave the final blow to the high street. But the tragic loss of the building was also the loss of an opportunity to regenerate a major focal point in the city centre.

* Martin Greenwood’s book Every Day Bradford has a story for each day of the year about people, places and events from Bradford’s history. It is available online and from bookshops including Waterstones and Salts Mill.