Lost Edinburgh: Patrick Thomson Ltd

IT WAS once able to claim the title of ‘Edinburgh’s most popular store’. Throughout much of the 20th century, P.T.’s was top of the tree.

Monday, 23rd December 2013, 9:06 am
Crowds outside Patrick Thomson's department store as Santa Claus climbs down a golden ladder in November 1955. Picture: TSPL
Crowds outside Patrick Thomson's department store as Santa Claus climbs down a golden ladder in November 1955. Picture: TSPL

The imposing buildings which flank the southern end of the North Bridge have provided an awesome foyer into Edinburgh’s historic Old Town for over a century. The west building’s time as the Scotsman newspaper office is well known, but the purpose of the eastern building has largely been forgotten about. For a period of 70 years the building was home to Patrick Thomson’s department store.

Established 1889

Patrick Thomson’s was first established in 1889 as a small haberdashery and drapery store. The popular South Bridge store lasted until 1906 when the company relocated over the road to North Bridge. The extra space in the new building enabled the company to considerably increase the variety of its wares.

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The former Patrick Thomson's building in 1981. Picture: TSPL

Patrick Thomson Ltd joined a long list of department stores in Edinburgh which at one time included Maule & Son (later Binns/House of Fraser), RW Forsyth, both on Princes Street, J&R Allan and Peter Allan on South Bridge, Goldbergs at Tollcross, Parkers on Bristo Street and the mighty Jenners. Shoppers ‘up the bridges’ were once as numerous as Princes Street is today.

Patrick Thomson, or P.T.’s as it became affectionately known, was marketed as ‘The Shopping Centre of Scotland’. At P.T.’s consumers had access to a wide selection of some of the latest fashions and trends for both ladies and gents in Edinburgh. Across the store’s 60 departments, P.T.’s also sold boots & shoes, furniture, carpets, millinery & costumes, drapery and toys. Customers could also relax in the Palm Court restaurant, with its grand views over Edinburgh, while admiring the pleasant tones of the in-house orchestra. You could even get your hair cut at P.T.’s – atop a carousel horse, allegedly.


In its early days, P.T.’s was a ‘cash drapery store’ which meant that prices were fixed and customers would have to cough up the cash for goods up front. This method somewhat excluded those of lesser wealth. P.T.’s was a place for Edinburgh’s middle classes to come shop, socialise and be seen. If you didn’t have the money, then you shopped elsewhere.

In 1952, the Scottish Drapery Corporation, the owners of the department store since 1926, were acquired by Glasgow-based House of Fraser. Despite this, the store continued trading as Patrick Thomson Ltd.

For Christmas 1955 a large crowd, estimated to have been as high as 5,000, gathered to watch P.T.’s Santa Claus descend a 60ft golden ladder while being heralded by two trumpeters. The signage above the entrance claimed P.T.’s to be ‘the store of a thousand gifts’. December was a time of year when Patrick Thomson’s truly came to life.

Name change in 1976

House of Fraser changed the name of the store to Arnotts in 1976. The forfeit of tradition was deeply unpopular among the generations of Edinburgh folk who had grown up with the name Patrick Thomson, and the store often continued to be referred to as P.T.’s until its eventual closure in 1982.

Since 1984 the site of Patrick Thomson has housed the 4 star Carlton Hotel. The conversion from a department store into a hotel with nearly 200 rooms plus conference and event space has left little traces of what once existed.

• David McLean is the founder of the Lost Edinburgh Facebook page. You can follow Lost Edinburgh on Facebook and Twitter