The Legacy of David Greig

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Introduction

Conditions were ripe for the success of multiple (chain) retailing in the late 19th century, including provision dealers and grocers such as Home & Colonial Stores, Maypole Dairies, Lipton’s, Sainsbury’s and David Greig. From a base established in Brixton, south London, in 1888 David Greig expanded to include around 220 shops. These were located throughout London and the Home Counties, with some scattered at far west as Wales and Torquay.

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The company made a fairly successful transition into the supermarket age after the Second World War, though never on the scale of its more confident rival, Sainsbury’s. After being taken over in the early 1970s, its freehold properties were sold off: a classic case of asset stripping. Within a few years the name had vanished from the high street . . . . but not in its entirety. For even today the words ‘David Greig’ and the monogram ‘DG’ can be spotted occasionally on façades and mosaic floors, while the company’s plump thistle logo – a nod to the family’s Scottish antecedents – might be seen on the pilasters, consoles and stall risers of shopfronts. Some rare and precious tiled interiors also survive. One of the best is now the restaurant Le Chadron (The Thistle) at 65 Lordship Lane, Dulwich. Another, at 177 Streatham High Road is a Caribbean restaurant, and is a Grade II listed building.

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Lordship Lane. According to the Tiles and Architectural Ceramics Society, the tiles for David Greig shops were manufactured by H & R Johnson.

The Story of David Greig

The date of the establishment of the David Greig chain is considered to be 1870, when the founder’s mother opened a small provisions shop at 32 High Street, Hornsey, north London. His father, David Murray Greig (1841-1931), originally from Leith in Scotland, worked as a cabinet maker for the shopfitter Frederick Sage & Co of Grays Inn Road. While the shop in Hornsey was initially in the charge of Mrs Greig, by the time the Census was taken in 1881 D. M. Grieg was himself described as a ‘provision dealer’. He had evidently joined in her enterprise. Fine decorative tiling survives at either end of the shopfront of 32 High Street, and the historical significance of the shop is commemorated by a green plaque.

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Deptford

David Greig (1866-1952) decided to strike out on his own as a provision dealer in 1888, and acquired a corner shop – previously a grocer’s shop – at 58 Atlantic Road, Brixton. He and his father fitted up the premises themselves, but the surviving tiling and thistle logo are later in date. The principal lines of merchandise were butter, cheese and eggs, with bacon sold at a counter in the open window, probably a sash raised over a marble slab. In 1889 Greig married, and the couple lived over the shop. His wife, Hannah (‘Annie’) Susan Deacock (1863-1941), later published an account of these early years in her book, My Life and Times being the Personal Reminiscences of Mrs David Greig (1940). Like Greig, she had a background in the retail trade, having worked as a child in her father’s dairy – later a David Greig branch – on Leather Lane, Holborn. From their young days the Greigs counted John Sainsbury and his wife – who also had a dairy in Holborn – amongst their friends.

Around 1890 Greig opened a second shop at Loughborough Junction, near Brixton. This was probably the small shop at 232 Coldharbour Lane where a wooden ‘David Greig’ fascia with ‘Brilliant cut’ gilded lettering has recently been uncovered beneath a modern sign for a futon workshop. It was followed by a third branch, a shop selling poultry and pork on the opposite side of Atlantic Road. Many other David Greig shops subsequently opened in the Brixton area, and beyond.

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Deptford

Reflecting their commercial prosperity and growing family, in 1894 the Greigs graduated to a three-storey terraced house called ‘Montrose’ at 55 Josephine Avenue, Brixton. In 1901 they moved again, to a larger house at 51 Brixton Hill, before finally, in 1912, settling at The Red House, Southend Road, Beckenham, Kent. This mansion had its own museum and expansive grounds; neighbours included the Roberstons of marmalade fame and the Craddocks, later to excel as TV cooks. In addition, the Greigs had a seaside villa at Westgate (acquired c.1914) and a country house, Oversley Castle in Warwickshire (acquired 1919). The founder was followed into the business by his son David Ross Greig (1891-1964), who became the Chairman. Until 1972 key board positions were occupied by members of the Greig family – whether direct descendants of the founder or cousins – and they remained the principal shareholders.

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Lordship Lane

Although he could draw on the skills of his joiner father, David Greig probably engaged in building work, as well as specialist shopfitting, from the 1890s. Exteriors were often clad in polished pink granite, as indeed were Sainsbury’s shops. Like other provision dealers, David Greig’s shops featured large sash windows with marble slabs to either side of the doorway; those who traded additionally in dry goods, like Lipton’s, generally had a fixed window to one side and a sash to the other. Two long counters ran the length of the shop to either side of a central gangway with a black-and-white chequered floor. A shop of this exact type survived completely intact until very recently on Deptford High Road. To the rear was the cash booth and a cold store. The walls and counters were clad in decorative tiles in rich ochre and oxblood colours, and the thistle motif was prominent. By the time of the First World War if not earlier, own-brand goods with the ‘thistle’ label – including groceries – were sold in David Greig’s shops.

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By the 1920s David Greig’s architects’ department was headed by Philip Woollatt Home (1877-1947) who had designed kitchenless houses for Brent Garden Village in 1909-11 and was in partnership with William Hollis until 1912. Home’s name crops up in relation to David Greig stores in several locations throughout the 1920s and 1930s, including Exmouth Market, London (1924), Windsor (1927), Basingstoke (1930) and Clacton (1932-33). He may also have had a hand in designing the Hitchin branch, with its faience front. In general, Home appears to have engaged local builders to execute works for David Greig.

Around 1928 David Greig’s headquarters moved from Ferndale Road, Brixton, to ‘The Scotch House’ at 145 Waterloo Road. This imposing listed modern building was designed by Payne & Wyatt, with a façade on the model of Selfridge’s store. It fell victim to façadism around 1979-80, with all but the front elevation being demolished to make way for a new development. Part of Greig’s depot to the rear on Webber Street was photographed prior to demolition.

The most celebrated building associated with David Greig’s business is the store at 23 St George’s Street, Canterbury, designed by Robert Paine & Partners and built in 1954. It is listed (at Grade II) as a ‘butcher’s shop’, though described at the time as a ‘grocer’s shop’. Significant alterations were made when the premises were taken over by Superdrug around 2000. A rather wonderful painting of 1954 by Gordon Davis depicts the construction of the shop, with its distinctive row of ‘floating’ gables, in a quarter of the city which had suffered particularly badly from bomb damage during the war.

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Canterbury in 2009

Moving into the world of the supermarket, David Greig had to expand its merchandise beyond its traditional specialisms. In 1962 it amalgamated with Colebrook & Co, a chain of butchers and fishmongers with shops throughout the south and Midlands. Expansion and modernisation were clearly on the agenda and in 1963 the company advertised in The Times for a ‘qualified architect to assist in development and maintenance of shop property spread throughout Southern England. Age about 30.’ I have not identified the successful candidate.

In 1972 David Greig was taken over by Wrensons Stores, a Birmingham supermarket group led by Martin and Peter Green. The price was £10 million. At this time David Greig had 156 shops with an annual turnover of £30 million that can be compared with Tesco’s £300 million and Sainsbury’s £262 million. Wrensons was subsequently renamed David Greig. Before long six freehold stores (Bromley, High Wycombe, Maidenhead, Ramsgate, Torquay and Plymouth) had been sold for £1.9 million, and the Waterloo Road headquarters was on the market at £3.25 million.

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Lordship Lane

In April 1974 a controversial bid was made for the David Greig Grocery Group by Combined English Stores (CES). The initial bid of £12,250,000 million later dropped to £8.5 million, yet CES shareholders voted against the acquisition. This was immediately followed by a successful bid of £6 million from Fitch Lovell (Key Markets), largely recouped – in the usual dubious but time-honoured way – by selling shop property worth £3.4 million. By the end of 1976 only 85 David Greig shops remained. Despite talk of opening new shops under the David Greig name, before long the chain was extinct. The survival of so many examples of David Greig’s shopfitting 40 years later can only be ascribed to its superb quality.

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Samuel Deacock’s Dairy, Leather Lane, London. Where Mrs David Greig worked as a girl.

For more David Greig shops see The Legacy of David Greig: Part 2
Acknowledgement: thanks to the Tiles & Architectural Ceramics Society for telling me that H & R Johnson manufactured David Greig’s wonderful tiles.
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7 Responses to The Legacy of David Greig

  1. Steve says:

    my father who worked for Greigs told me that the reason why the family had to sell up in the 1970s was due to inheritance tax. The family also had a house in Maidstone also called The Red house and a farm in Four Elms both in Kent. This was a company that truly looked after their staff. I can recall as a child an annual inter branch 5 a side football tournament and a Garden Party at the house in Maidstone. There was Also an informal arrangement arranging that there would never be a Sainsburys and Greigs in the same town. Greigs baked their own cakes, smoked fish and made their own cooked meats from their factories behind thevWaterloo store. After the demise of the company, Robert Greig opened his own store in Footscray in Kent

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    • Gordon Dennington says:

      When I worked in Sainsbury’s Stamford Street Head Office in the late 1950s it was widely believed there was a distant family connection with David Greig’s. Don’t know if true. Rather ironic that under the informal arrangement between them not to compete in the same districts, David Greig living in The Red House, Beckenham (now a nursing home) he was unable to open up in Beckenham itself. Sainsbury’s was there ! Meanwhile, Sainsbury’s was kept out of adjacent Bromley – Greig’s name carved in stone may still be seen in Bromley Market Square.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. James David Greig, MD says:

    All very interesting Thank you

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  3. Brian Murfitt says:

    I can always remember as a child, way back in 1971. Holding my mother’s hand and staring in to the window at the Scotch House, 145 Waterloo Road (Greig’s HQ store). The wide window on the left on the ground floor, was their butcher’s/provisions department and being mesmerised by the young men, carving the meat and serving customers. to this day it’s etched on my mind. Those days, they would hang up at the window large legs of lamb and large hams, along with the occasional rabbit, of course these days it wouldn’t be allowed of health and safety grounds. I was too young to remember the name of the store, but later found out it was David Greig’s. If memory serves me correctly the store was still open until circa 1975 and sadly thereafter it closed. The store really was the highlight of Waterloo Road back then. Now it’s just a dull facade for the Department of Health, but every time I pass it that cherished memory comes flooding back. Thank you who ever created and added David Greig stores to this website. I shall definitely place it in my bookmarks/favourites.

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  4. Derek Stocker says:

    I worked at the Orpington branch of David Greig when I left school at 15 around 1963.
    A school pal of mine who was a little older and already worked at the shop got me an interview and I started as tea boy and provisions assistant and ended my time there as assistant prep room manager which is not quite the “plush” job it may sound.
    I enjoyed my time there and during my working time at the shop it was completely re-furbished to become one of the earliest supermarkets I believe based on Cater Brothers example as they possibly had looked at the way things were in the USA with their super markets and the UK followed, along with messers Sainsbury of course.
    The re-furb was a totally different setup and we actually had a two checkouts WOW!
    I also did a training course at a small Berkshire town called Wargrave and whilst on that course we visited other David Greig shops in, and I think this is correct, Staines, and also definitely Reading which at the time Reading was the “flagship” shop taking a whole £10k a week!
    The course I was on lasted two weeks but we could go home at the weekend and was held at the “Thistle College” which I believe had been a school and is now possibly a private home possibly called Thistle House.
    I left the shop after about five years where I had been on a starting wage of £3 and ten shillings a week, which in those days was not that bad for a fifteen year old, and took up my first love, driving for a living.
    Some good memories of days long gone now.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Tom Nicholas says:

    As a schoolboy in the 60’s I used to work Friday evenings and Saturdays at DGs in Staines (Branch 33). The manager was James Gladwell. Jimmy (as we called him behind his back) became manager of Branch 33 on his 21st birthday and I am led to believe, was manager there until he died. The provisions manager was Chris Bacon (know as Major) and in the office we had Miss Tandy and Carol (can’t think of her surname). Jimmy ran a very tight ship and I learned a great deal from him. I can still picture him now strolling around the shop wearing a fresh white apron and grey jacket, hands behind his back making polite conversation with regular customers. A Saturday afternoon duty that his admiring customers adored.

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  6. Liz Goldring says:

    My great grandfather, William Green, was a butcher and worked with David Greig, in south London. A family story says they had a difference of opinion, their partnership dissolved and DG ended up in a horse trough in the street. This would have been before 1st World War. William died young in 1917. A few years later, DG gave a job as a delivery van driver to my Grandad, H. M. Green, who carried on delivering even through the General Strike (1926).

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