IT promises to be one of Swindon's best reunion parties ever. Conversations will be on the lines of "Do you remember Diana Dors popping in for coffee with her mum?"

"Were you there the day Jim Brooks made tea for the Beatles?"

"What about wartime firewatching on the roof by the old clock tower?"

"Did you know some of the staff used to live in bedsits at the top of the store?"

There will be nostalgia unlimited at tomorrow night's event to mark the tenth anniversary of the day when McIlroys, the majestic department store in Regent Street, closed its doors for the last time.

It had served Swindon for 123 unbroken years, ever since William McIlroy opened for business in custom-designed premises put up by a building firm headed by John Norman, who gave his name to Norman Road.

Several generations of customers relied on it as a place where they could buy anything from a bowler hat to a baby's pram and from an ashtray to an Axminster carpet.

"It was never somewhere that people went looking for bargains," said local historian Jean Allen of the Swindon Society. "But it was a store that sold things you couldn't get in modern department stores.

"For instance, I remember it as a place where you could even buy knicker elastic by the yard."

Now a widow in her 70s, Jean recalls buying her first pressure cooker from the store's kitchen department not long after she was married. It cost her £5.

"I also got some beautiful velvet curtains there that lasted for years," she said.

The town's best-dressed women shopped there for hats, suits, lingerie and ballgowns. And after shopping they met each other for coffee or lunch in the store's restaurant - known by jokers as "the place where the elite meet to eat".

Swindon couldn't believe it when its last owners, Mackays, announced in January 1998 that the store was to close. And plenty of former members of staff and their customers shed tears when the doors closed for the last time on April 30 1998.

The group blamed competition from modern rivals Debenhams, House of Fraser and the Designer Outlet Centre.

Yet the following summer a report claimed that in 1997 McIlroys had been the UK's eighth most profitable department store.

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