THERE was nothing quite like Busbys’ at Christmas.

Bradford’s much-loved department store had a lavish festive grotto, where children would queue to see Father Christmas.

Fondly referred to locally as the ‘shop’, the landmark store dominated Manningham Lane from 1930 until 1978 - the year before a disastrous fire led to the demise of the then empty building.

Preparations began at Busbys’ in November ready for the surge of families queuing to put in their present requests to Father Christmas.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Meeting a reindeer in the grottoMeeting a reindeer in the grotto (Image: Busbys’: A Shop Full of Memories by Michael Callaghan & Colin Neville)

Busbys’ was no ordinary grotto. Many readers will have their own recollections of this extraordinary experience. For many Bradford children, Busbys’ at Christmas was a very special time, creating lifelong memories.

To reach the grotto youngsters would wander through a labyrinth of festive tableaux and Christmas trees. Inhabited by elves and reindeer, the grotto turned the store into “a place of wonders”.

The build-up began with the annual Christmas parade, when Father and Mother Christmas made their way on horseback from the city centre to the Manningham store. Our main archive photo on this page shows excited crowds greeting them.

Former Telegraph & Argus journalist Mike Priestley captured the Busbys’ grotto experience perfectly in this ‘Past Times’ piece he wrote back in 2008: ‘Nobody who queued there to see see Santa Busby-Claus will ever forget it. It was like a theatrical staging.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: The Busbys' Christmas Parade leaving Forster Square in 1936The Busbys' Christmas Parade leaving Forster Square in 1936

All along the passage leading to it were decorated tableaux to look at and strings to pull that made things happen. And at the end of it there was Rudolph, the Elves, Mother Claus and Santa himself.

Of course, grottos have sprung up all over since then, shopping centres, even stately homes, now boast their own grotto experiences, but many will have a long way to go to emulate the grandeur of the Busbys’ Christmas experience - although it must have been a surprise, and a delight, to see Santa on horseback rather his modern mode of transport - his sleigh!’

In December 2020 the T&A ran a lovely story about a man who recalled visiting the Busbys grotto on his own - aged five!

All Keith Walker wanted was to see Father Christmas at Busbys’ so, in December 1953, he caught a bus from Baildon to the store. By the time he’d walked all the way home, the five-year-old’s frantic parents had joined a police search for him. “I didn’t know I was a missing child - I just wanted to see Santa,” smiled Keith.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Meeting Father ChristmasMeeting Father Christmas

“My mum said she was taking me to Busbys’ to see Santa,” Keith told the T&A. “She went next door to see a neighbour and said ‘I won’t be long’. I was playing outside and suddenly thought ‘Where’s Mum?’ I got it into my head she’d gone without me, so I just set off.”

Keith walked to a bus stop at Baildon Bridge. “I remember sitting on the bus next to a lady, she smiled at me but never said a word. Nobody questioned what I was doing on my own,” said Keith. “I had no money, but I wasn’t asked to pay a fare. I’d been to Busbys’ before so I had an idea where it was. When the bus arrived I got off and a policeman saw me across the road. I went into the shop and stood in the queue for the grotto. Eventually I went in. It was wonderful, Santa gave me a telescope.

“When I came out I wasn’t sure which bus to get home so I set off walking along Manningham Lane towards Shipley. I must have walked about three miles; when I got to the Branch pub in Shipley I crossed what I later called ‘one of those black and white things’ and was heading towards Baildon when a neighbour saw me and took me home.”

Keith’s adventure prompted a police search: “My dad had been called home from work. Mum burst into tears when she saw me. I knew I was in trouble, but at least I had my telescope. I had no concept of time, but I was gone a few hours. I wasn’t at all nervous - all I could think about was seeing Santa.”

Martin Greenwood looks back at Busbys’ in his book, Every Day Bradford. He pays tribute to the man who brought this unique retail experience to Bradford - Ernest Busby:

‘Busbys’ opened in 1930. Replacing a 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 suburbs of Manningham, Heaton, Saltaire and further afield places such as Skipton and Ilkley. Busbys’ had a reputation of being a friendly family store, run by three sons and a daughter. Its red and black logo showed four marching Coldstream guards, (Ernest with sons Gerald, Arthur and Eric). By the 1950s it employed over 800 staff with branches in Ilkley and Harrogate.

It made the claim that it sold everything any customer could need. Its dress department had expensive gowns and a facility for dressmaking. The store had a restaurant, café, library, hairdresser, beauty salon, laundry and record counter. Pre-war, it had its own petrol station. Post-war, it added an ice-cream factory.

Busbys’ came into its own at Christmas with a Saturday Parade 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. Minutes later it hurtled back with a receipt and change

After Ernest Busby died, Debenhams took it over in 1958. Fifteen years later Debenhams announced a re-branding and all references to Busbys’ were replaced with Debenhams. In February 1978 Debenhams closed its store. On August 30, 1979 the old Busbys’ building disappeared in a dramatic fire. Nearly 100 firemen fought the blaze but couldn’t prevent leaving the grand listed building in a heap of smouldering rubble.’

Pics: Busbys: A Shop Full of Memories by Michael Callaghan and Colin Neville