Kays’ shop at 3 High Street, Ely, is a surviving remnant of a grocery chain that had over 100 small branches throughout much of South-East England and the Midlands in the middle of the 20th century, before the age of self-service and supermarket shopping.
The founder of Kays, John Jay Kay (1895-1973; born Jacob Kalinski), opened his first grocery shop at 15 Magdalen Street, Norwich, in October 1921. By reinvesting profits, Kay soon opened a second outlet in Norwich, followed by a third in Ipswich. Around 1930 he moved his family to Ealing and settled into a new head office at Doreth House, 50-53 Cowper Street, London. William Nelson Overland (1890-1943) became Kay’s business partner in 1931. Like so many multiple retailers, both men became involved in property development as well as retailing.
By 1935, when John Kay Ltd. floated as a public company to finance further expansion, the chain comprised 71 branches dotted through the South-East England and the Midlands, extending as far north as Sheffield. Of these shops, 19 had opened in 1934. The company owned seven freeholds; all other branches were held on a leasehold basis. Kay’s own carpentry department fitted out the interiors, but not the shopfronts, which were commissioned from a professional shopfitter.
Job advertisements for managers and shop assistants reveal that numerous branches of Kays Modern Food Stores opened in the late 1930s, including that in Ely. The chain had grown to 104 branches by 1938, and continued to expand. Although Kays kept a fleet of vans for home deliveries, errand boys were under strict instructions to collect cash payments. A home delivery service did not always mean that credit was available.
In 1943 Overland died and Kay sold the chain to Moores Stores Ltd., a growing business based in Newcastle. The shops were doubtless too small to be converted to the self-service format and were dispensed with after the war. The last few branches closed in 1953. Meanwhile, Kay became a farmer, buying Bourne Place in Hildenborough, Kent, where he bred Sussex cattle.
Kay’s shops had bright red fascias. In Sevenoaks this was too much for the Council – already battling with Woolworth’s over its ‘signal red’ – so they asked Messrs Kay to change the colour to blue ‘and that if this is not possible a less glaring shade of red be substituted’. Such wrangles with local authorities were becoming increasingly common in the late 1930s.
A 1944 photograph of the Bedford store shows the name ‘Kays’ fitted into a lunette-shaped fascia – a fashion of the 1910s and 1920s also adopted by the Melias grocery chain – flanked by the slogans ‘for price’ and ‘for quality’. A sign beneath the canopy box read ‘Modern Food Stores’. Bedford may have been one of Kay’s early branches.
The Ely branch of c.1938 – part of the newly-built Coronation Parade – was similar to the Bedford shop, with a narrow frontage, boxy windows and steel vents. The use of black and white Vitrolite and shiny stainless-steel frames imparted an air of hygiene and efficiency. Kays’ name survives in the vents and in the terrazzo floor of the entrance lobby, which is edged by a white marble threshold strip of the type commonly used for all kinds of food shops. Historic photographs – for example of the Dagenham branch – show that this was the standard house style of the late 1930s. It may, however, be the only one that survives.
The Stornoway shopkeeper Charles Morrison (1838-1920) came from a family of farmers and meal dealers living at Cyderhall near Dornoch, on the east coast of Scotland. Around 1855, aged 16, he set off for Stornoway, a fishing town on the Isle of Lewis, the northernmost of the Western Isles. From Dingwall – according to family tradition – Charles journeyed overland in the company of the postman (who crossed northern Scotland by foot on a weekly basis), then sought his passage over the Minch.
Once in Stornoway – the commercial heart of the island – Charles secured work as a salesman in the drapery and grocery shop of Matthew Russell (1818-92), another ‘incomer’. He lodged over the shop on South Beach Street with Russell’s family. In June 1861 Charles left Russell and entered into partnership as a general merchant with Angus Macdonald (1836-74) from Torridon. For a couple of years they traded as Macdonald & Morrison from a shop at 7 North Beach Street (close to the Lewis Hotel) owned by a Miss E. (Betsey) Macdonald. She doesn’t appear to have been related to Angus, despite sharing the same surname.
This period in Charles’s life is covered in his diary, which is published as separate posts on this blog. Remarkably, Angus Macdonald’s diary from the same period has survived in the hands of his descendants in Australia. Together these documents offer a rare insight into the business life of Stornoway in the 1860s.
Macdonald & Morrison’s partnership was dissolved acrimoniously in May 1864, and each man set up his own business in the town. Macdonald remained in the North Beach Street shop while Charles moved out. The exact location of Charles’s first independent shop has not been verified.
In 1869 Macdonald sold his business and stock (‘drapery, grocery, hardware, boots and shoes, ropes and lines &c’) to McIver & McLean. Improvements had recently been completed in the locality. These included the widening of Point Street and North Beach; the creation of Bank Street (which was given various names, including Cross Street and Harbour Lane); the formation of Percival Square, and extensions to both North Beach and Cromwell Street quays. Two years earlier Macdonald had bought buildings ‘facing North Beach Street, all near the new National Bank’. This included 18 North Beach Street – later T. B. Macaulay’s haberdashery and now (2022) Delights delicatessen. Macdonald remodelled 18 North Beach Street and built a new house to its rear, moving there in February 1868.
The address assigned to the Macdonald family in the Census of 1871 was ‘5 Bank Street’. The preceding entry recorded Charles Morrison, with his own family and shop assistants, at ‘6 Point Street Lane’. Point Street Lane may have been yet another name for Bank Street.
It seems likely that ‘6 Point Street Lane’ eventually became 5 Bank Street, and it was here that Charles Morrison conducted business for most of his life. It is intriguing to realise that by 1871 Angus Macdonald and Charles Morrison, who fell out so fiercely in 1864, were living and working next door to one another. Perhaps they got over their disagreement and became amicable neighbours until Macdonald’s untimely death in 1874. Macdonald’s stock and the tenancy of his shop at 18 North Beach Street were advertised for sale in 1875. His widow, Eliza, quickly remarried.
The building in which Charles Morrison’s shop was established by 1871 had been erected in 1867. Its predecessor on the same site was Stornoway’s first Sailors’ Home. An article of 1853 recorded Sir James Matheson’s gift of ‘a new house’ to be used as a Sailors’ Home. Other accounts reveal that the Home was supervised by ‘Big Meg’ and had a coffee room to ‘keep poor “Jack” from the grog shops’ . When the building was demolished in 1867, presumably for street widening, Matheson sold the property to Alexander Mackenzie junior. Mackenzie – variously described as a joiner and an architect – may have designed and constructed the replacement building himself.
Mackenzie’s new building accommodated his workshop at one end (on Bank Street) and Mackenzie & Macfarlane’s drapery, grocery and ironmongery shop (est. 1867) at the other end. Charles Morrison had set up his shop in the Bank Street end of the building – presumably in Mackenzie’s former workshop – by 1871, but it was not until 1914 that he acquired ownership of the premises from Mackenzie’s heirs. Charles’s family had moved out by 1881 and it is rumoured that the upper-floor rooms were then used to accommodate herring girls during the fishing season.
In 1927, several years after Charles’s death, his daughter-in-law purchased Mackenzie & Macfarlane’s (‘Holy Alec’s’) half of the building for £800. From then until 2002 Charles Morrison & Son Ltd (incorporated 1928) comprised the two shops.
‘Charlie Morrison’s’ (or Buth Thearlaich in Gaelic) was famous for selling rope, paraffin, paints – indeed, all kinds of hardware – and its main customers were crofters and fishermen. Until the 1940s Charles’s daughter-in-law had her own china and glass shop in Cromwell Street. After this closed, china and glass was sold in the reorganised Point Street shop. Due to lack of space, however, a separate china and glass shop opened in a converted garage in Keith Street (‘Murrays Garage’); this closed in the late 1960s and the building was subsequently used solely for storage. In addition, for many years the firm ran the Shell Depot in James Street through its subsidiary, Charles Morrison & Son (Oils) Ltd.
The two main shops, with their separate entrances in Point Street and Bank Street and equal access to a central cash booth, continued to thrive, descending through four generations of the Morrison family, who celebrated the centenary of the company in 1864. After the business closed upon the retirement of the manager, Neil Macdonald, in 2002, the premises were taken over by the Digby Chick, one of Stornoway’s most popular restaurants. Its closure during the Coronavirus pandemic prompted almost as much anguish as the earlier demise of Charlie Morrison’s.
Something must be added about Charles Morrison’s personal life and character. By 1863, when the diary begins, he was courting Christina Gerrie (1838-1921; often ‘C’ in the diary), whose sister Georgina was married to Matthew Russell. The Gerries came from the same area as Charles, having farmed at Proncy Mains near Dornoch until the estate went bankrupt in 1841. In 1844 William Gerrie (1790-1863), Christina’s father, took up the role of ‘Inspector of Roads and Bridges’ to Sir James Matheson (1796-1878). Having made his fortune in the Orient trading opium and tea, Matheson purchased the island in 1844 and built the magnificently crenellated Lews Castle, overlooking the town and its harbour. Gerrie was involved in the creation of the castle grounds and the construction of roads throughout the island. When his work for Matheson was completed, Gerrie moved his family to Goathill Farm just outside Stornoway.
Socially, the Gerries were a cut above Charles Morrison and opposed his relationship with Christina. Nevertheless, Charles and Christina were married in September 1864 and went on to have seven children. The family was fairly peripatetic, living at various addresses in Stornoway (in Kenneth Street, Point Street, Francis Street, Cromwell Street and Lewis Street) before settling, in 1905, at Dornoch House in Goathill Road.
Many years after his death Charles Morrison was remembered in Stornoway ‘as a dapper, well dressed gentleman who wore a “cut-away” black morning coat, hard lum hat and stiff white collar and tie’. According to his obituary in the Highland News, he was ‘a man of marvellous personal activity, clear of intellect, and alert in business; and his swiftly moving figure has been familiar to several generations of Stornowegians as he darted swiftly from place to place – indeed, it may be said that he seldom walked’. He was actively engaged in his business, alongside his son Matthew, until his last short illness.
Neatly written entries in Charles’s personal diary of 1863-64, a small black notebook, chart the development of his romantic relationship with Christina, the progress of his business, the economy and daily news of Stornoway, local characters, and – something of possible interest to church historians – details of Sunday sermons delivered at the United Presbyterian (‘UP’) Church in James Street. Original spelling and (very sparse) punctuation have been retained.
Please do not reproduce from Charles Morrison’s diary without permission from the family.
Comments from an old version of this post, now deactivated, have been pasted below for interest. Apologies for the poor resolution.
The Fifty Shilling Tailors was one of the most successful ‘wholesale bespoke tailors’ on the British high street through the 1920s, 30s and 40s. In later years, when it became impossible to sell a made-to-measure suit of clothes for a fixed price of 50/-, the shops were rebranded as John Collier.
The business started in 1906 when the founder, Henry Price (1877-1963; knighted 1937), left his job as manager of The Grand Clothing Hall in Keighley to start his own business. By 1914 he had workshops in Keighley and branches of ‘The High Class Economical Tailors’ in Burnley, Wakefield, Halifax and elsewhere. It was common for high-street tailors to add a by-line to their names. One of the pioneers in this sector, Stewart’s, adopted the slogan ‘The King Tailors’, while Burton’s became known as ‘The Tailor of Taste’. In 1913 Price adopted a trademark with his by-line in an underscore, several years before Montague Burton (ahem!) followed suit.
When Prices Tailors Ltd. was created as a private company in 1919 it comprised just 10 shops scattered throughout the North and the Midlands. In 1922 the first shop to trade as The Fifty Shilling Tailors opened in Sheffield. Regardless of their measurements, customers could buy a made-to-measure suit of clothes – a matching jacket, vest and trousers – for 50/-. According to Price, the real value was 5 guineas. Orders were made up at the firm’s Leeds factory following a system Price called ‘rational tailoring’. Four years later, in 1926, Price opened his first London branches in Oxford Street and the Strand. He arrived in Scotland in 1928, followed by Northern Ireland in 1929.
Conversion into a public company, with share issues in 1928 and 1932, aided Price’s expansion. He took over Stewart’s 106 shops, 60 of which were located in towns that lacked The Fifty Shilling Tailors.
By 1934 the business comprised 244 branches under its two fascias. This rose to 270 by the late 1930s, by which time Price’s arch-rival, Montague Burton, had amassed a chain of nearly 600 stores.
Until the mid-1930s most of Price’s shops occupied leased buildings. Then, in 1935, Prices Properties Ltd was set up to acquire sites and lease them to Prices Tailors Ltd. New developments were undertaken by a subsidiary called Cardigan Estates Ltd. The staff architect Philip S. B. Nicolle produced a house style for new stores. Steel-frame buildings with concrete floors were clad in cream faience with rugged geometric decoration in the art deco style. Commercially, this was a clever design. Its surprisingly traditional fenestration made it adaptable to sites of all shapes and sizes, and allowed upper-floor functions to vary according to need. Furthermore, unlike Burton’s stores, it was free – at least, above the shopfront – from any kind of permanent branding. These were buildings that would retain their value and could easily be sold to other businesses if need be. As well as erecting these standalone stores, Price embarked upon ambitious city-centre development schemes, for example building a parade of five shops in Granby Street, Leicester, in 1934.
The gleaming arcade shopfronts of The Fifty Shilling Tailors had neon-tube lettering mounted on black Vitrolite, chrome edging, and transom lights etched with the firm’s lozenge-shaped trademark. Two dummies often stood in the windows, one fat and the other thin, with the legend ‘No extra charge’. These were amongst the flashiest shopfronts created by any multiple tailor and did not always meet with approval. In Sevenoaks, for example, the Council sought to modify Nicolle’s enormous brilliantly-coloured lettering which, for them, represented the ‘vulgarisation of the high street’.
Henry Price abandoned the name The Fifty Shilling Tailors in 1950. He announced: ‘it would be merely wishful thinking to expect that such a price as 50s. for a suit of clothes can ever return’. His solution was to trade under the abbreviation ‘FST’, with a new logo and shopfront in an art deco style, harking back to the 1930s.
In 1951 Henry Price acquired a Scottish chain that had been established in the early 1920s by Claude Alexander (1901-53), whose father and uncles had founded Alexander the Great Tailor in the 1890s. Alexander’s 44 shops traded as ‘The Scottish Tailor’.
In 1953, however, Price’s business – with 356 shops deemed ‘the second largest bespoke tailoring business in the world’ – was sold to United Drapery Stores (UDS). A year later, UDS acquired Alexandre’s (not to be confused with Alexander’s!). Its founder’s sons, Jack Lyons (1916-2008) and Bernard Lyons (1912-2008), steered UDS’s menswear chains through subsequent decades.
The name over Price’s shops was changed to John Collier at an estimated cost of £1 million from 1956. Joseph – not John – Collier (1898-67) was the vice-chairman and managing director of UDS. Under staff architect Evan E. Morgan, experimental versions of the new shopfront were tried out in several towns before the design was finalised. Deep fascias were mounted with the name in signature style, as if it had just rolled off John Collier’s pen. The striking 1950s house style was gradually diluted and the names John Collier and Alexandre both disappeared in the 1980s.
The shopfronts of The Fifty Shilling Tailors have long gone, but many of its faience facades survive, for example in Leicester, Rotherham, Dewsbury, Nuneaton and St Albans. They may not be as distinctive or numerous as Burton’s better-known stores, but they encapsulate the typical chain-store style of the 1930s high street. If I haven’t mentioned one in your own town, please tell me about it in the comments below.
With thanks to Matthew Bristow for researching Price’s St Albans store.
When Asda (capitalised as ASDA from 1985) came into being in 1965 the grocery and provisions trade was undergoing a radical transformation throughout the British Isles.
Small counter-service shops were gradually being superseded by self-service ‘supermarkets’, defined as having a minimum sales area of 2,000 sq. ft. Many supermarkets occupied converted redundant buildings, such as cinemas, but others were purpose-built in high-street locations.
The ideal supermarket was ill-suited to an urban setting. New-build supermarkets were often recessed behind the building line to create space for prams, stacks of baskets, or even trolleys. Furthermore, their low roofs allowed the scarred party walls of their neighbours to be seen from the street. Food retailers found it difficult to secure suitable sites with access to parking, let alone space for free-standing buildings. Inspired by American practice, some began to consider the potential of trading off-centre, despite the fact that few local authorities were prepared to countenance such a move.
It was in this context that Asda Stores Ltd was formed by the merger of two separate Yorkshire businesses: one rooted in dairy farming and the other in butchery.
Associated Dairies & Farm Stores Ltd had been created in 1949, when Hindells Dairy Farmers Ltd and its subsidiaries merged with several other businesses. Managed by Arthur Stockdale, it traded as wholesale and retail dairymen, café proprietors, pork butchers, bacon curers, provision retailers and farmers. The company had some retail experience, running chains of shops and cafés as Farm Stores, Bramhams and Craven Dairies, but its core business was the production and distribution of milk. Farm Stores and Craven Dairies kept going until 1973, when their staff were redeployed in Asda stores.
In 1965 Associated Dairies acquired a majority stake in Asquith’s. Peter and Fred Asquith had inherited a small chain of butchers’ shops from their father but were more interested in experimenting with supermarket retailing. They had opened their first ‘Asquith’ supermarket near the bus station in Pontefract in 1958, followed by more successful ‘Queens’ supermarkets in Castleford (a conversion of an old theatre/cinema) and Edlington (an indoor market hall).
Like most urban supermarket conversions, the Castleford store was imperfect. Since it had a stepped entrance, customers had to use baskets rather than trolleys. The upper-floor stockroom was connected to the loading bay by a conveyor belt and to the store by a manually-operated hoist. The sales floor, comprising about 3,000 sq. ft., had a meat counter but otherwise adopted a self-service format with 6ft. aisles. Lack of space limited the range of fruit and vegetables that could be sold.
Just months after Asda invested in Asquith’s, a purpose-built ‘Asda Queens’ supermarket opened on an old cinema site with a large surface car park in South Elmsall. The austere, boxy design – a visible reinforced-concrete frame with buff brick infill panels and narrow bands of windows lighting an upper-floor stockroom – perfectly matched Asda’s no-frills policy. Eventually an old billiard hall on an adjacent site was converted to accommodate the non-food department.
Asda’s interest in the potential of off-centre superstores for car-borne shoppers was revealed in October 1966 when it acquired a controlling interest in GEM Supercentres. Such an ambitious move may have been encouraged by the recent abolition of Resale Price Maintenance. This opened the door to cut-throat discounting, a style of retailing which was most effective on a grand scale, and which greatly appealed to Asda.
GEM Supercentres were a failed American initiative. The first opened in West Bridgford, Nottingham, in November 1964, followed by Crossgates, Leeds, in March 1965. A third GEM Supercentre, promised for Castle Lane, Bournemouth, never materialised (the Hampshire Centre opened on the site in 1968 with a large Woolco store). GEM arrived just months after the opening of Safeway’s first free-standing new-build supermarket at Blackfen in Kent and was contemporary with the Supermac development on the edge of Belfast.
The Crossgates GEM occupied a converted cinema, albeit one with an underground car park and an expansive upper floor devoted to the sale of non-food items. More intriguingly, the Nottingham GEM was purpose-built on the site of a former rubbish tip. Designed by the Austin-Smith/Salmon/Lord Partnership following American precedents, this was a monolithic single-storey structure with a steel frame clad in ribbed aluminium sheeting. Its lack of conventional display windows puzzled the Architectural Review, which remarked that its industrial character ‘would not attract the casual passer-by’. But the Supercentre was not designed for the passer-by. GEM was a destination, rewarding shoppers who had driven from far afield with 700 free parking spaces and a petrol filling station.
The vast Nottingham GEM comprised around 80,000 sq. ft., of which 60,000 sq. ft. was dedicated to the sales area (compared with 38,000 sq. ft at Crossgates), including a supermarket of around 12,000 sq. ft. (6,500 sq. ft. at Crossgates). GEM operated on a concessionary basis, with each department having its own checkouts. Concessionaires – like Boots, Dixons, Northgate & English Stores, The Times Furnishing Co., Lex Garages, Finch’s and Allied Suppliers – were all expected to maintain their anonymity.
Asda began by taking over the GEM supermarkets from Allied Suppliers (specifically, Allied’s Meadow Dairy subsidiary) and successfully introducing discounting. It took some time to transform each GEM into a centralised superstore operation, with a single bank of checkouts. Indeed, Finch’s retained their wine and spirits franchise until the mid-1970s. Asda kept GEM’s cafés, motoring accessory departments and tyre bays, firmly believing in engaging the interest of men (the drivers!) while women shopped. It also retained the filling stations, expanding this side of the business when the Asquiths bought premises in North Baileygate, Pontefract, and began to sell cheap petrol imported from Rotterdam.
A third GEM – known as a ‘Super Discount Centre’ rather than a ‘Supercentre’ – was created after Asda acquired William Bartfield’s Allways-Fame Group, with supermarkets in Preston and Manchester. The Preston outlet, in an old woollen mill, was considered too big to be branded ‘Asda Queens’, so it became a GEM.
Many ideas from GEM translated into Asda’s smaller Queens supermarkets, especially the idea of the upper-floor non-food section and the importance of catering for the car-borne shopper. In 1967 a new store was built in West Row, Stockton-on-Tees, a backstreet location served by a small surface car park. The supermarket was a simple free-standing box, constructed and clad in much the same manner as the earlier South Elmsall store, but with an upper sales floor – perhaps originally designed as a stockroom – for DIY and household goods. By this time Tesco had also established a two-level format for its town-centre stores, with ‘Home’n’Wear’ departments above a supermarket. Unlike Tesco, however, Asda did not sell much clothing before c.1970.
Around 1969 the Castleford supermarket was rebuilt on a new site in what had become Asda’s usual style and materials – as a buff-brick box – but on a larger scale than either South Elmsall or Stockton-on-Tees. With its substantial entrance canopy, the building resembled a cinema or a furniture store. The stockroom was situated to the rear while the upper floor – here more obviously part of the initial design concept – was devoted to non-food. This was still an urban store, however, lacking its own car park.
The three purpose-built Queens supermarkets in South Elmsall, Stockton-on-Tees and Castleford appear to have been designed by the same architect and built to the same system. Asda did not have an in-house team of architects and relied on several different firms over the years. One architect who enjoyed a long association with Asda was Mike O’Connor of Wrightson Jackman & O’Connor (later Dewjoc). He may have been the designer of these early Queens supermarkets.
At least two further Queens supermarkets were built with two sales floors around 1970, in Bury and Barnsley. Both sites provided limited customer parking.
Alongside its purpose-built Queens supermarkets and GEM discount centres, Asda created a motley portfolio in the late 1960s, continuing with its off-centre experiments whilst making the most of restrictive urban sites. Perhaps impressed by the Fame store in Preston, several redundant textile mills were taken over for conversion, including one in Nixon Street, Castleton. This stood some distance from the main shopping centre and relied on a combination of public and private transportation. Central stores were necessarily more makeshift. The Accrington supermarket occupied a converted car showroom, with a ramped entrance over the former basement garage, while Salford occupied a former chain store and had a sales area of just 5,000 sq. ft. Nevertheless, by 1971 16 of Asda’s 34 stores were categorised by an Observer journalist as ‘hypermarkets’.
Images of Asda’s early stores suggest a scattergun – if not, to be blunt, bargain basement – approach to premises and buildings. But two strands of development in the years 1965-70 proved seminal. Asda’s experience in taking over GEM Supercentres and building its own fully detached Queens supermarkets gave it the confidence and expertise, after 1970, to focus on new-build single-storey superstores (for example in Pudsey), usually with at least 35,000 sq. ft. sales area, on off-centre sites with ample parking. Peter Asquith, followed by Don Ridgway and supported by economist Ed Neafcy, took a lead role in identifying sites and negotiating planning permission, as local authorities increasingly accepted the inevitability of off-centre shopping.
Having adopted a clear strategy for the future, Asda dropped the old GEM and Queens names. It was ‘Asda Discount Centres’ or, more simply, ‘Asda Superstores’, that now led the sector away from the high street.
This post was prompted by the survival of several Asda Queens supermarkets from the 1960s. I am indebted to Richard Harker, a former Director of ASDA, for providing information about the early years of the chain. Thanks, too, to Professor Leigh Sparks for pointing me in the right direction.
Grouts, one of the last old-fashioned drapery shops in England, shut its doors for the last time on 20 April 2002. The photographs published here were snapped on the previous day, Friday 19 April 2002. Little stock remained but customers kept arriving in search of bargains, as did representatives of the media covering the story. The shop was decked in bunting for the occasion. It resembled a museum, with many original fixtures and fittings still in situ or piled up for disposal.
Grouts occupied 397 Green Lanes, on the corner of Devonshire Road in Palmers Green, North London. The building formed the end unit of Market Parade, which was built in 1912. Alfred Grout (1884-1970) began to rent the premises from the freeholders, the Lilley family, for £130 per annum, in autumn 1914.
Alfred was the son of Frederick J. Grout, who had a drapery shop at 96 High Street, Hounslow. After serving his apprenticeship with Edward Daniel in Kentish Town Road, Alfred gained experience working as a buyer for Owen Owen in Liverpool. In November 1914, just three months after the start of the Great War, he commissioned Pope Bros. of Kensal Rise to fit out his new shop. He then settled over the premises with his wife, his young family, and live-in assistants. A spiral staircase – removed by 2002 – connected the living accommodation with the shop.
Alfred was eventually succeeded by his eldest son, Alfred Grout junior (1912-2002). When young Alfred retired the shop continued to be run by his daughter Sue Whittemore, with her husband Phil, who was once pastry chef at The Connaught. Alfred junior died just a few months after the shop closed.
Grouts’ business expanded between the wars with the addition of eight branches, starting in 1922 with a shop in The Promenade, Green Lanes, followed in 1936 by shops in Melbourne Parade, Green Lanes, The Green, Winchmore Hill, and 7 Avenue Parade, Bush Hill. Another four followed in 1938. Little is known of these branches.
Grouts’ merchandise included a miscellany of soft furnishings, haberdashery and underwear, some of which was retailed from specialist fixtures and fittings.
Pendant gas lights still hung from the ceiling in 2002. Many shops had both electric and gas lighting, with the gas serving as a backup, into the 1930s. Reflective lamps, once used to illuminate displays, were stacked in corners, gathering dust.
Bentwood chairs were provided for customers to sit in front of the counters while they were being served. Some counters had glazed fronts and tops and were fitted with wooden trays: a type of fixture typical of inter-war hosiers and outfitters.
At one time cash was handled efficiently using a “Gipe” cash carrier installed in 1927. Money whizzed from seven points of sale to a central cashier, who swiftly returned it with the customer’s change and receipt. This ceased to be used on a regular basis in the 1950s, although it was still in working order to the end. It was demonstrated by Phil Whittemore in a video shot in 1997. After the shop shut the “Gipe” was removed to the East Anglia Transport Museum, in the suburbs of Lowestoft.
Sadly there was no commercially viable way to preserve Grout’s historic interior, though the shopfront is locally listed. The premises are currently occupied by the Olive Café and Bakery.
Circumstances surrounding the founding and naming of Foster Brothers, the men’s clothing retailer, are rather mysterious. When the founder, William Foster (1852-1914) died, his obituaries noted that he had opened his first shop with his brother in Pontefract in 1876. However, later accounts claim that Foster had no brother, but used two different photographs of himself in the firm’s publicity material.
Foster’s sons, William Henry (1880-1960) and Edgar (1899-1976), eventually took over the business, which became a private limited company in 1894 and floated as Foster Brothers Clothing Co. Ltd. in 1951.
Although Foster Brothers was primarily a working-class clothier, outfitter and tailor, selling cheap ready-to-wear garments to men and boys on low incomes, William Foster – like Robert Dyas in the oil and colour trade – was also a bankruptcy auctioneer, disposing of the stock and shopfittings of clothiers who had gone out of business.
Foster Brothers moved from Pontefract to Birmingham in 1884 – the very year Norris Hepworth set about creating a chain of shops in the North of England – and began to sprout branches throughout the Midlands and the South. There were 40 branches by 1904, 118 (23 of which were in and around Birmingham) in 1926, and 146 in 1939. Five shops were destroyed by bombing during the Second World War, and 20 closed.
Unlike Hepworth’s, which started as a manufacturer and later entered retailing, Foster Brothers initially had no manufacturing capacity. A small tailor’s workshop appears to have been attached to the shop at 13-16 Parade, Birmingham, in the 1890s. This sufficed until 1906 when Stammers Ltd. of Walsall became a subsidiary company. Made-to-measure suits continued to be made in workshops behind the Parade branch until 1936. Since ready-made clothing remained Foster’s mainstay, this operation was on a much more modest scale than that of Montague Burton. Like other manufacturing menswear companies, Foster’s turned to making uniforms during both world wars. A second factory opened in Brownhills in 1955 but the company’s reliance on its own production dropped from 40% in 1968 to 13% in 1973. Similarly, in 1968 80% of its clothing was made in Britain but this had reduced to 45% by 1973. Stock was increasingly imported from Hong Kong and other countries.
Much of Foster Brothers growth was due to the acquisition of other chains. For example:
An unknown acquisition doubled the size of the company around 1902.
In 1965 Foster’s bought W. L. Thomson & Son, with its chain of Dormie dress-hire shops in Scotland.
In 1966 buying Jessops (Tailors) Ltd., with its Batley factory and 14 shops, allowed Foster’s to spread into the North of England.
In 1973 Foster’s bought the childrenswear chain, Kids In, which had 5 shops. It was renamed Adams Childrenswear after its former proprietors. By 1983 Adams had 82 stores selling babywear, prams, nursery furniture and clothes for children up to 12.
Also in 1973, Foster’s bought the rainwear manufacturers and retailer, Stone-Dri. This had started off in Lancashire in 1948 as The Direct Raincoat Company. By 1977 it was deemed a failure and most of its shops were converted into Foster Brothers outlets.
Bradley (Chester) Ltd. was acquired in 1970, with 165 shops in the North-West and Wales.
Discount for Beauty, which sold cosmetics and toiletries in 22 self-service shops, was added to the group in 1978.
Foster’s final important acquisition, in 1982, was Millets of Bristol (Holdings) Ltd., which sold leisurewear and camping equipment.
Other initiatives in the late 1960s included a small chain of fashion boutiques named Mr Christopher, and a brief experiment opening joint stores with Dorothy Perkins, including a ‘walk-around’ store in Brentwood, Essex.
As Foster’s chain grew, so did its need for ever-larger warehouse premises. The first was behind the shop in Coventry Street, Birmingham. This was superseded by the former law courts in Moor Street and then a four-storey building in Albert Street. In 1961 the creation of the inner ring road forced the firm to move from Albert Street to Bradford Street and in 1968 – mindful of access to the expanding national motorway network – new purpose-built headquarters (by Harper Fairley Associates, architects) opened at Shirley, Solihull. The single-storey top-lit warehouse was capable of servicing 700 shops, with room for expansion, although the chain then stood at 225. An entire wing housed the computer – a Honeywell 200 – for stock control: when items were sold, tags were removed and returned to headquarters for scanning. Goods were moved by an overhead conveyor system and transported to branches by a fleet of 30 lorries.
Foster Brothers had just refurbished its 400 menswear shops when, in 1985, Ward White made an unsolicited bid for the company. A counterbid by Sears, for £113 million, was accepted. Sears went on to acquire Horne Brothers and Your Price to build up its menswear division. This didn’t thrive and in 1991 Sears announced the sale of Horne Brothers and Dormie, and the closure of 100 other menswear shops. A year later a depleted Foster’s and Your Price were sold for £1 to a management buyout team, whilst Sears kept Adams and Millets. Naturally, Sears also kept the freehold and long leasehold properties, for which the new owners paid rent.
Your Price (90 shops) and Foster’s (reduced to 250 shops) merged, but Foster Menswear Ltd. went into administration in 1998 ‘after a failed attempt to move away from its 1980s-type denim clothes range in favour of sportswear’. Its 39 remaining shops, mainly located in malls, were bought from the administrator by the Scottish entrepreneur Tom Hunter, who planned to move Foster’s headquarters from Solihull to Ayr. It ceased trading around 2002.
Today it is generally accepted that James Frank Doyle’s Royal Insurance Building in Liverpool was the first significant steel-framed building to be erected in the UK. Although it was designed around 1895-96, it was not erected until 1900-03. The Scottish engineer William Basil Scott (1877-1933), an employee of Redpath, Brown & Co. Ltd., was unaware of the primacy of the Royal Insurance Building when he made claims for one of his own buildings in the early 20th century. Alas, he didn’t have a clear memory of what that building was, or where it was located, creating something of a mystery for future architectural historians and industrial archaeologists.
In 1928 Scott stated: ‘as far as I can ascertain, the first English steel-framed building was a furniture warehouse in West Hartlepool’. Then in 1929, during a lecture, he claimed: ‘about 1896 I designed a steel frame for a furniture warehouse in West Hartlepool, which may be the first English steel-skeleton building’. He expanded on this in an ensuing discussion: ‘For the possible first British examples [ie: of skeleton construction] and for which his firm, Redpath, Brown & Co. Ltd., supplied the steelwork, he referred, from memory, to a furniture warehouse in West Hartlepool, built in 1896, Major Harry Barnes being the architect’. Then in 1930 Scott corrected his story by including this entry in a chronology of iron and steel: ‘1898. Warehouse at Stockton-on-Tees constructed. The first recorded example of steel skeleton construction in Britain’.
Scott thus sowed the seeds of much confusion, for he left people guessing.
In an article published in 1958 Kent & Kirkland named the first steel-framed building as Robinson’s Emporium in West Hartlepool, designed in 1896 by W. Basil Scott. This was accepted for the next 40 years. It was repeated in local publications and accepted by the late Michael Stratton, who wrote in 1999: ‘The first fully steel-framed building proper was reputedly Robinson’s Emporium, Hartlepool, dating to 1896-98. The frame was designed by W. Basil Scott of the engineering firm, Redpath, Brown & Co.’ But Stratton also noted: ‘W. B. Scott claimed retrospectively that the Mathias Robinson store in Stockton-on-Tees was the first fully steel-framed building’. The idea that Scott had been referring to this building, until recently occupied by Debenhams, appears to have been suggested by Alastair A. Jackson in 1998. BBC2 researchers, however, had a different opinion. In 2002 the production team of What the Victorians Did for Us responded to a viewer’s enquiry by identifying the first steel-framed building as the drapery store of Grey, Peverell & Co., later Binns and now Wilko, in West Hartlepool. This prompted its listing by English Heritage.
To unpick this, we are looking for a furniture store, built in the period 1896-98, with a steel frame, involving Scott and Barnes, in either West Hartlepool or Stockton-on-Tees.
The starting point must be Mathias Robinson’s various premises in West Hartlepool. Robinson had established his drapery store, Manchester House at 77-83 Lynn Street, in 1875, then purchased the Coliseum, situated across the street at 94-98 Lynn Street, as a furniture store in 1891. The Coliseum was subsequently ‘improved’. In 1899, for example, the walls of the ground floor were removed and replaced by steel girders to create an open-plan interior. Robinson went on to build two new stores in West Hartlepool, Lynn House in 1906-07 and Birmingham House in 1913; he also acquired the Bon Marché, previously a mantle warehouse, in 1907. Intriguingly, Lynn House, by Barnes & Burton, was one of the first retail buildings to have a ferro-concrete frame. It is evident, however, that none of Robinson’s West Hartlepool buildings could have been the one referred to by Scott.
So, what about the other front runner, Grey, Peverell & Co.? Their red brick store was erected in several phases. The earliest dates from 1901-03 and was designed by local architect James Garry. The columns that support steel girders inside the building appear to be of cast iron, effectively ruling it out. Minor additions were made in 1907 and 1919, but the bulk of the present-day structure was erected by Binns in 1926, with a fully evolved steel frame. It is unlikely that Scott was talking about Grey, Peverell & Co.
There are no other potential candidates in West Hartlepool, so we must turn to Stockton-on-Tees. Jackson was right in identifying Mathias Robinson’s Coliseum store at 149-150 High Street as the strongest contender, although the date is problematic: it was begun in 1900 and opened in May 1901. An account of the opening specified: ‘the construction of the building is of the steel skeleton type, of girders and stanchions encased in plaster’. Attention was drawn to its impressively wide spans. It was designed by Barnes & Coates (Harry Barnes and Frederick Ernest Coates) of Sunderland. All seems well, except for the date.
A possible solution emerges once we learn that the Coliseum replaced an earlier store, built for Robinson’s in 1896, which was destroyed by fire on 16 December 1899. Might this lost building be the one referred to by Scott?
Sadly, not. The opening of the original Coliseum in Stockton was well covered by the press in May 1896. An existing house had been bought, gutted, rebuilt and extended over the garden. To contemporaries, the most intriguing features of the new store were its electric lighting and a flat roof which was strewn with cobbles, gravel and sand on a layer of vulcanite. The building clearly had a steel structure – but not by Redpath, Brown & Co. The girders were supplied by Dorman, Long & Co. and the steel columns by Messrs Golightly, while the architect was not Harry Barnes but a local man, Edward A. Whipham. One account of the fire of 1899 described ‘steel supports and girders twisted into all kinds of crooked shapes’. This was accompanied by an illustration showing distorted steelwork behind a conventional façade: to the front of the building the girders had probably been embedded in pre-existing load-bearing exterior walls.
To conclude, if Scott had nothing to do with the original Coliseum, he was probably involved – as a very young man – in its replacement of 1900-01. He correctly remembered the name of the architect, Harry Barnes, who worked for Robinson on several occasions. The date 1896 may have stuck in his mind, as it marked the establishment of the Coliseum in Stockton-on-Tees. Scott’s confusion between West Hartlepool and Stockton possibly arose because those involved with designing the new store in Stockton dealt directly with Robinson’s office in West Hartlepool. Scott, working in Edinburgh, may never have visited the site. Perhaps if future building work exposes the steel frame – something inevitable following Debenham’s demise – the name ‘Redpath Brown’ will be found stamped on the girders and stanchions, confirming the connection for once and for all.
Whether or not Scott had a hand in its design, the Coliseum is evidently an important early example of a steel-framed retail establishment and it is ironic that, unlike Grey, Peverell & Co. in West Hartlepool, it is not currently a listed building. Its story is paralleled by that of Laurie & McConnal in Cambridge, who rebuilt their Universal Stores (now, coincidentally, Wilko) after a fire in February 1903. When the new premises opened in November 1903 newspapers declared: ‘These are the first entirely steel-framed buildings in this country’. So it was not just W. Basil Scott who was blithely unaware of contemporary projects by fellow engineers.
The Buttercup Dairy Co. devised one of the most artistic and coherent retail house styles to be found on Scottish high streets in the 20th century. The shops of few other Scottish grocery or provisions chains have fared so well.
The business was founded by Andrew Ewing (1869-1956), a farmer’s son from Stoneykirk who had been apprenticed to a grocer in Dundee before opening three small shops in the city in the mid-1890s. In 1896 he acquired the Country Supply Stores in Forfar, running it as a cash-only business. Four years later he moved to Kirkcaldy where he traded from 148 High Street.
In 1904 Ewing launched the Buttercup Dairy Co. with branches in Kirkcaldy, Burntisland and Kinghorn. A year later the head office was established in Leith and Ewing moved to Edinburgh. The Leith depot, comprising a cold store, warehousing and offices, relocated to a larger site in Easter Road in 1915.
At its peak, in the late 1920s, Buttercup had around 250 branches. These shops were concentrated in eastern Scotland, with some outlets in the north of England. They were staffed entirely by women to keep labour costs to a minimum.
Initially Buttercup sold a restricted range of products: eggs, butter, margarine, cream, tea, cooking fat and milk. Although a poultry shed – with display windows facing the street – existed on Easter Road, most of the eggs sold by the company were imported until 1922. In that year Buttercup became a private limited company and purchased a farm called Clermiston Mains at Corstorphine, Edinburgh, as the site of a huge poultry farm where eggs were produced on an industrial scale. Eggs laid on the Sabbath were donated to hospitals and charities.
Ewing’s philanthropic nature, inspired by his religious beliefs, seems to have adversely affected the financial health of his business, which became encumbered by bank loans. It may have been a mistake to turn down offers from the Meadow Dairy Co. and Home & Colonial Stores, both of whom tried to acquire the Buttercup Dairy Co. in the 1920s. By the mid-1930s the shops were struggling, and in 1936 fire destroyed the hatchery at Clermiston Mains, bringing an end to the poultry farm. Over the next six years around 40 retail branches were closed.
Wartime shortages and rationing simply aggravated an already dire situation and in 1948 the remaining 207 shops were put up for sale or lease. Some were acquired by their managers, others by local retailers, or even banks. In Arbroath, Mary White took over the branch she managed at 5 Keptie Street, whilst 193 High Street was taken on by Scott’s, a neighbouring grocer who turned it into an experimental self-service extension.
Over 170 shops had been disposed of by 1951, and just four remained by 1961. The cold store in Leith was now the company’s greatest asset, prompting its purchase by Christian Salvesen Ltd. in 1964. The last shop closed in Edinburgh in 1965.
Buttercup Dairy Shops
Buttercup Dairy shops were designed by the architect James Davidson Cairns (1866-1947), who was also responsible for the firm’s offices, warehouses and farm buildings. At least 23 shops survive in Scottish towns in a recognisable form.
Edwardian photographs, for example of the relatively plain Kirkintilloch branch of 1906, show that the house style was not imposed at the outset. It must have been introduced after Cairns started independent practice in 1908, most probably around 1915, when he became involved in designing Buttercup’s Leith headquarters.
Once established, the house style was adhered to throughout the life of the chain. It would have proved impossible to maintain – in terms of craftsmanship, materials and sheer expense – had Buttercup continued to expand and modernise after the Second World War.
Some Buttercup shops, like Innerleithen, were double fronted. The standard shop, however, had a single window alongside a lobby entrance.
The lobby wall was clad in a tiled scheme with an oval pictorial panel. This depicted a young girl wearing a blue bonnet and a pink dress. She held a buttercup to the chin of a placid brown cow (as if asking ‘do you like butter?’) whilst gathering buttercups in the folds of her apron.
The panel was based on a painting by the Scottish artist Tom Curr. It was presumably a commercial commission, like Curr’s well-known image of a kilted shot-putter, created for Scott’s Porage Oats. As well as featuring in the lobbies, a transparent roundel of the Buttercup girl hung in windows above a large ‘Buttercup’ sign.
Above the tiled panel, framed by a buttercup garland and swags, was the Buttercup monogram, with the signature of James Duncan & Co, who supplied the tiles.
The distinctive tube-lined technique is typical of Duncan’s work elsewhere, for other retailers and for Glasgow’s tenement (‘wally’) closes. He decorated blanks from various manufacturers, including Maws of Jackfield, who sent Duncan tiles for the branch at 48 Warrender Park Road, Edinburgh, in 1917. This has recently been restored to accommodate the offices of a firm of architects.
The Buttercup name or monogram was repeated in the usual way on the stallrisers, the globe lamps, the lobby floor and the fascia. Surviving Buttercup fascias with gilded lettering under glass have been uncovered in Selkirk and in Warrender Park Road, Edinburgh.
Cairns carefully considered every aspect of Buttercup’s shop design, creating a cohesive aesthetic effect by using a predominantly green, yellow and white palette, and by repeating decorative motifs in different materials.
The arts and crafts tradition was reflected in the chequered borders (also favoured by early R. & J. Templeton shops) and in the heart motifs which adorned the iron grilles that closed lobbies and protected windows at night (see Warrender Park Road and Haddington), as well as featuring in the tiles. Buttercup garlands and swags reappeared in transom lights at the branch in Warrender Park Road and can be seen on hanging signs in old photographs.
Shop interiors were reportedly clad in white tiles with green borders, though the surviving interior of the Buttercup Dairy in Denny, Stirlingshire, has painted tongue and groove panelling. Denny retains some original shelving units with a buttercup pattern adorning the uprights. A dark green tiled counter front, decorated with the Buttercup monogram, is displayed in the People’s Palace Museum, Glasgow.
It is well worth keeping an eye open for these gorgeous shopfronts whilst exploring Scotland’s historic towns.
The Wallis chain of women’s fashion shops was a familiar presence on British high streets for 97 years. It started out as a standard ‘costumier’, selling dresses and coats – called ‘mantles’ in the trade – including furs.
The first shop opened at 54 Chapel Street (now Chapel Market), Islington, in 1923. The founder, Raphael Nathaniel Wallis (1890-1948), was born in Russia as Nathan Raphael Tatarsky. From the start, he manufactured most of the merchandise in his own workshops. Wallis subsequently accumulated several subsidiary manufacturing companies, including a factory dedicated to making fur garments and, during the Second World War, a company that manufactured military clothing for the Ministry of Supply.
Wallis had at least four London branches by 1930 and 15 by 1935, when the business floated as N. W. (Costumiers) Ltd. A year later it changed its name to Wallis & Co. (Costumiers) Ltd. By 1939 there were 25 shops, occupying prime shopping positions in large towns and cities throughout the country.
Some premises were purpose-built for Wallis, including a branch in Gallowtree Gate, Leicester, designed by the architect J. L. Cohen c.1935. This seems to have been later acquired and rebuilt as the end bay of Marks & Spencer’s store.
By the end of the 1930s every branch of Wallis had departments for millinery and furs, and in 1939 a subsidiary company called John Keene Ltd. was formed with two retail outlets (in London and Manchester) specialising in furs. One was damaged by enemy action a year later. Despite the impact of the War and, in its aftermath, the Luxury Tax, this experiment lased for a decade, if not longer.
Jeffery J. Wallis, the founder’s son, took responsibility for a scheme to enlarge and modernise the largest branches in 1946. Until the mid-1950s managers had to be male and had to ‘possess specialised Mantle Display experience to enable them to dress a good selling Mantle Window’.
Under Jeffery J. Wallis, the company became known for its affordable reproductions of Parisian designs. Notoriously, Christine Keeler is said to have worn a different suit supplied by Wallis each day throughout the Profumo trial of 1963.
Burton acquired a substantial stake in Wallis in the early 1960s but disposed of its holding following an unsuccessful takeover bid in 1971. At that time, the Wallis family retained a majority stake in the company. The Wallis Fashion Group – as the company was now called – expanded in the mid-1970s, with a new Oxford Street store and outlets in Europe.
In 1980 Wallis became part of Sears Holdings, which also owned Richards, Warehouse and Miss Selfridge. Philip Green took over ailing Sears – dragged down by the British Shoe Corporation – in 1999, and within months he had sold its high street fashion multiples, including Wallis, to Arcadia for £151 million. This was the former Burton Group, which already owned Dorothy Perkins, Evans, Principles and Top Shop, and which had recently demerged from Debenhams.
Wallis still had around 219 outlets at the turn of the Millennium. In 2002 Philip Green, who by then owned BHS, made a successful bid for Arcadia. On 30 November 2020 Arcadia entered administration. The Wallis brand, but not the shops, was bought by the online retailer Boohoo.com – together with Burton and Dorothy Perkins – in February 2021.
Millets, the outdoor retail specialist, has maintained a strong presence on the British High Street for over 100 years.
Recently I began to dig into Millets’ company history for my forthcoming book on chain stores. Before long I had stumbled across numerous different inter-connected Millet or Millett businesses and disappeared – for a great deal longer than I intended – down the proverbial rabbit hole.
Much remains mysterious, but I have reached the conclusion that the Millet family must have set up a syndicate that sourced and supplied merchandise for multiple family firms – multiple multiples – all of which specialised in government surplus after 1918 before moving into motoring gear, camping equipment and, eventually, casual outdoor clothing.
This approach was not unique. At least two other Jewish families in the men’s clothing trade created national retail chains in just this manner – as family syndicates that shared buying, wholesaling (and sometimes also manufacturing) facilities – in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Modern Millets is rooted in businesses founded by the sons of Sharje Millet (born 1830): Max, Morris, Peter, Zalek and Charles. The brothers left their home in Dabrowa, in modern Poland, to settle in Portsmouth and Southampton in the 1880s and 1890s. They started out as pedlars or hawkers but eventually opened shops as drapers or outfitters. In the hands of their descendants, many of these single outlets sprouted branches and became successful multiples trading under the Millet or Millett fascia. The family’s big opportunity came in the aftermath of the Great War, when they won government contracts to retail army surplus.
The company sometimes referred to as ‘Bristol Millets’ originated in 1893 when Israel Marcus ‘Max’ Millet (1867-1949) opened an outfitter’s shop in Southampton as J. M. Millet & Sons. In 1919 he was selling army surplus as ‘government clothing contractors’. His son-in law, Bernard Spielman, opened a Bristol branch under the J. M. Millet & Sons name in 1921 and steadily developed a chain, with five shops by 1939. As well as army surplus, he sold motoring clothing and, by the mid-1930s, ‘camping requisites’. In 1970 an ill-fated merger was announced with a similar family business, R. & A. Millett of Twickenham, or ‘London Milletts’.
The roots of ‘London Milletts’ can be traced back to Morris Millett (1879-1937), who opened premises — his third branch — in Croydon in 1926. The painted yellow and blue signage of Milletts can still be seen on the side of Morris’s shop.
There were eight men’s outfitter’s shops by 1948, when Morris’s son, Alan C. Millett (1928-2016), joined the firm. This expanded to 19 shops, but in 1961 Alan struck out on his own as A. C. Millett & Co. with a menswear shop in Richmond. He had 33 shops (including 13 acquired in 1962 from E. G. Millett & Co.) by 1964 and 83 shops (including 50 from G. H. Lavey & Co Ltd.) by 1966, when he was joined by his brother Robert and formed R. & A. Millett (Shops) Ltd.
The E. G. Millett & Co. taken over in 1962 appears to have been a London-based firm with branches in Exeter and Norwich by 1926. Like other family firms, it sold government surplus. The manager was Gabriel Fierstone (1902-1980), the husband of Eva Millett (1893-1948), a daughter of Peter Millett. The E and G in the name may, therefore, have referred to Eva and Gabriel.
Shortly before contemplating merger with ‘Bristol Millets’ in 1970, R. & A. Millett Ltd. had been interested in buying yet another family concern – Milletts Stores (1928) Ltd., known as ‘Leicester Milletts’ – but this was snapped up and absorbed by Black & Edgington.
Milletts Stores (1928) Ltd. had floated in 1928 to acquire and expand the existing businesses of J. E. Millett & Co. and Milletts Stores Ltd. whose 27 shops – scattered throughout the country from Aberdeen to Plymouth – specialised, as usual, in army surplus. ‘J. E.’ may have been Peter Millet’s daughters Jessie (1888-1966) and Eva, who were joined in business after the Great War by their sister Florence (b.1890) and her husband and first cousin, Michael ‘Mickey’ Millett (1890-1966), a son of Zalek Millett (1863-1930). Milletts Stores appears to have been started by Zalek himself. Mickey ran Milletts Stores with his cousin Isaac Moses ‘Denis’ Millett (1899-1966).
Like their relations elsewhere, Mickey and Denis sold army surplus and moved into camping goods. In 1966 Anthony D. Millett (1936-1985), Denis’s son, became chairman and tried to modernise the company image. By 1969, when the 27 shops were refurbished with a black and orange colour scheme and the slogan ‘the good sense store’, the emphasis had shifted away from army surplus to jeans and camping.
It was to the chagrin of ‘London Milletts’ that Black & Edgington bought ‘Leicester Milletts’ for £1.3 million in 1970. Its property was subsequently valued – conservatively – at £1.5 million, and four key city-centre sites (including the famous 25 Church Street, Liverpool, where Woolworth’s started trading in 1909) were sold on the open market, raising £1 million. Having brokered this excellent deal, Black & Edgington launched Blacks Outdoor Stores, starting in Leeds, Birmingham and Liverpool. Blacks went on to take over Greenfield Milletts in 1985.
Greenfield Milletts Ltd. was run by the Greenfield family, who had probably married into the Milletts. When the company floated in 1970, it was already trading as ‘Milletts’, apparently catering for younger customers by ‘selling a range of casual, leisure and protective clothing as well as camping equipment’. Its slogan was ‘The Store for All Seasons’, and its trademark was, reportedly, overfilled windows. It expanded as a chain from 17 shops in 1971 to 37 in 1975 and 51 by 1978, when it planned expansion into Scotland. The only blot on the company’s reputation was its purchase of the luxurious houses of its joint managing directors, John and David Greenfield: following a Sunday Times report, this was referred to in a House of Commons debate as ‘a racket’.
When ‘Bristol Millets’ and ‘London Milletts’ failed to reach agreement in 1970, they continued their separate trajectories. There were 17 branches of Millets of Bristol (Holdings) Ltd. – as J. M. Millet & Sons had become – by 1982, when it was acquired by Foster Brothers. In 1985 Foster Brothers was bought by Sears, who disposed of it – keeping Millets – in 1992.
In the Sears stable, Millets was united with by the former ‘London Milletts’, with which it had so nearly merged in 1970. This had 84 branches by 1971, specialising in jeans and camping gear. It moved from Twickenham to new headquarters in Northampton in 1973 and floated as a public company, Milletts Leisure Shops plc, in 1978. In the same year it set up Milletts Shops Scotland with Black & Edgington, taking full ownership in 1984. Also in 1984, it acquired Wakefield Stores. Sears snapped it up in 1986 when Alan Millett retired.
After 1986, within Sears, the Millet chain of 64 shops merged with Milletts’ 122 shops to form Millets Leisure Ltd. In 1996, following a management buyout – a rather predictable course of events within Sears at this time – Millets Leisure became The Outdoor Group, with around 158 stores. It had grown to 195 stores by 1999, when it was acquired by Blacks Leisure plc (which already had a chain of 221 shops, including 43 Blacks Outdoor stores). JD Sports bought Blacks Leisure, including Millets, in 2012.
Today Millets remains one of the UKs main retailers of outdoor clothing, footwear and equipment. Its 90 or so shops have recently had a revamp – the old bright blue and yellow fascias have been replaced in grey and white, with a bright green arrow logo.
If anyone can shed further light on Millets or Milletts stores, and how the various companies were coordinated, please leave a comment below!