Some of the most ornate and distinctive shopfronts created by British provision chains in the late 19th and early 20th centuries belonged to the Maypole Dairy Co. These are highly recognisable and well worth looking out for, though examples are usually fragmentary. A replica was created at 5 Crane Street, Cefn Mawr, near Wrexham, in 2010 (below).
The features that are most likely to survive inside former Maypole shops– something to be aware of when these premises are being refitted – are pictorial tile panels. Indeed, some original tiles were found while work was in progress in Cefn Mawr.
The History of the Maypole Dairy Co
The Maypole Dairy Co came into being in 1891, not 1887 as is usually reported.
Maypole’s roots go back to 1861, when George Jackson took over a provision warehouse in Birmingham. Three Watson brothers, relatives of a previous owner, became his apprentices in the late 1870s. Together, in 1887, Jackson and the Watsons started a national chain of butter and margarine shops called The Danish Dairy Co., with Jackson trading in the South and East of England and the Watsons elsewhere. Once they began to manufacture their own butter in the UK in 1891-92 the Watsons renamed their shops Maypole Dairy Co, while Jackson called his Medova. These two chains amalgamated as a public company in 1898, with William George Watson (1861-1930) as Chairman. The Medova shops were renamed Maypole.
At this point Maypole had 185 shops and 17 ‘creameries or butter factories’ in England and Ireland. Until 1924 the business operated a co-partnership system, sharing profits with employees.
Maypole Dairies specialised in butter and margarine, but also sold eggs, tea and condensed milk – a narrow range of basic working-class staples. The Medova name eventually vanished (except as a brand name for produce) and Maypole grew to 800 branches in 1913, rising to 889 by 1918.
The Great War, however, disrupted Maypole’s organisation. Although the company manufactured its margarine in England and Ireland, it obtained oils and fats abroad. Unable to access these crucial supplies from August 1914, Maypole had to seek new sources of crude oil for its refining works at Erith. In 1915 Otto Monsted’s vast factory in Southall, Middlesex, became the Maypole Margarine Works.
Meanwhile Maypole’s competitors continued to receive deliveries of the finished product from Holland (Lipton’s from Van den Bergh and Home & Colonial from Jurgens). A ‘buy British’ campaign was launched, but government interference in food pricing and distribution, including rationing, caused additional headaches for the Maypole management.
Despite wartime problems, Maypole maintained good profits until the early 1920s, when a series of low returns opened the door for Home & Colonial to take over the company in 1924. Maypole thus became part of the large Home & Colonial group, eventually coming under the Allied Suppliers umbrella. It nevertheless continued to expand (with 1,040 shops in 1928) and retained its identity until around 1970.
Maypole’s Buildings and Shopfitting
Maypole’s shopfronts were splendid – much more so than Home & Colonial’s – and it is no surprise to learn that some of the top shopfitters in the country, including Harris & Sheldon and Parnall & Sons, were engaged by the company in the early 20th century.
The typical Maypole shop comprised a single lobby entrance to one side of a plate-glass display window with ornate spandrels and a ventilation strip. The Maypole name was emblazoned on the fascia in gilded lettering with forked serifs and was repeated on the glass shades of the arc lamps, the window sill (stall plate), the entrance lobby floor, and the canvas shop blind. An intricate ‘MDC’ monogram adorned the consoles and the elegant push-plate of the door. In addition there was often a wrought-iron railing (or cresting) above the fascia with a central monogram. The shopfronts were framed by mirror glass pilasters and soffit, and the tiled stallrisers were dark green, a colour also favoured by Lipton’s.
As Maypole advertised: ‘Our Maypole shops are uniquely adapted and specially fitted for the supply and serving of butter, margarine and tea. You will find within the shop-coolness, counter-cleanliness and quick-courteous service, which our customers rightly expect and justly appreciate’ (from Times 12 June 1918, 8). Inside the shops, the Maypole name – just in case you’d missed it! – was repeated on the fronts of the marble counters and on signage around the walls.
A complete Maypole interior is said to survive on Mersey Road in Widnes (present condition unconfirmed). Walls were often decorated with pictorial tile panels, some of which are still visible, notably a maypole scene in Ludlow (Church Street) and (unseen by the author) two arcadian scenes in Jesmond (Acorn Road). Maypole apparently commissioned tiles from several different firms in the inter-war period, including Pilkingtons. The Jesmond panels are signed ‘JE’.
The architect W. A. Lewis, well known for his association with Marks & Spencer, designed two large new buildings in London for Maypole following the Home & Colonial takeover in the 1920s. The first was Maypole House at 27-28 Finsbury Square, which featured in The Builder in May 1927. A year later a new tea packing and blending warehouse was built at 179-189 City Road, London, opposite Lipton’s headquarters. Special permission was obtained from the LCC for this building to exceed normal height limits. Both of Lewis’s buildings for Maypole have been demolished.
One Maypole building that does survive is the Maypole Institute, Merrick Road (previously Margarine Road), Southall. For photographs taken by the architectural photographer Bedford Lemere in 1911, see Historic England Archive. In addition, some of the old margarine factory buildings still stand to its east.
My uncle, Reg Gregory was a manager for Maypole shops in Sheffield and Chesterfield and then an area manager based in Staffordshire. He left me a set of large brass scales and weights which were used for butter and cheese. They had to be scrupulously cleaned every day (including removing debris from the chain links holding the pans) so that the Weights and Measures man wouldn’t find fault if he made a spot check!
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My first appointment in Allied Suppliers was as trainee manager, then Asst Manager at Maypole in Holton Rd., Barry. My first store as manager was Maypole in Merthyr Rd., Whitchurch, Cardiff when I was 19. Immediately after I took over the fascia was changed to Lipton’s.
Those were the days of strict district & area management, characters like Jimmy Skidmore, Eric Beard & Len Simpson. Worked with some great managers during my training, no more so than Blythian Davies & John Jones (Barry), Ben Hopkins & Mr Roberts (Porthcawl).
I always felt I was lucky enough to be taught by some of the “last of the real grocers” to cut & skin a cheese and bone bacon….no vac packs then!
Here’s the Mersey Road, Widnes branch in 1980. There’s no longer any trace of it on the exterior but perhaps the interior does survive.
Hi, I’m enquiring on behalf of an elderly lady (Mrs Magaret Osbourne (86)) who has decided to trace her familys roots. Past down the line is a sad storey of Margarets Great Grandfather (Mr Norman Busby) who in the 1890-1892ish commited suicide due to gambling debts
Mr Busby owned a Grocers shop in the Sparkhill district of Birmingham which Margaret belives was sold to the Maypole group. Would any one know if any old photographs of the original Grocers shop still exist in Maypole archives, or be able to point me in the right direction.
I have been doing some family history research, and discovered that the second husband of one of my ancestors was a Branch Manager for the Maypole Dairy Company in the 1939 pre-war list of everyone in the UK. They were living in Twickenham at the time, although I do not know which branch he was manager of.
I meant to add, his name was Rodney Arthur Bowden.
I am searching for facts about a Joe Vincent. It is told that he was a kind of maneger for Maypole Diary and a very rich man.
He was married to a danish lady -and they had a “summer-castle” (Heatherhill -near Rågeleje in Denmark). -And I am making a reserach abot this place.
I hope to hear from You! Many thanks Mads Haugsted from Denmark
Hi. I am searching for a person related to Maypole Diary.
His name is (was) Joe Vincent and I think he was kind of a maneger for the company. He was married to a danish woman -and they had a huge summerhouse (reather a litte castle) i Denmark (name: “Heatherhill”) -he ws very rich. . I am writing an article about their house in Denmark. I know that they lived at Bussock Wood House, England. Thank You! Mads Haugsted from Denmark
Hi Mads. Vincent is mentioned a couple of times in Peter Matthias’s book, Retailing Revolution. This explains his role in the company. All best, Kathryn.
ThankYou very much -a great help!
My Dad, Joseph (Joe) Watt worked for Maypole Dairy in Belfast mostly, Shankhill Road during the war and then managing Upper North Street Branch until 1958 when he realised his ambition to own his own sweet shop. On his 80th birthday, my Mum bought him a new white coat, white apron and butter pats and with great expertise he weighed out the margarine, patted it into shape and showed us, yet again, the art of packing the block. What a special day!
My Grandfather was manager of the Redcar branch of Maypole pre and post WWII Mr Ronald Orton. He served in the RAF during the war.
I have a picture of the front of the shop dated 1937 and also have a newspaper clipping from a special edition of the Cleveland Evening Gazette Claiming it was the first self service shop in Redcar instead of waiting to be served in line the then novelty of carrying a basket around and helping yourself to your own groceries which happened in 1960.
However you still had to wait for your butter or margarine to be cut and shaped into blocks. I still have my grandads butter pats to this day. My older brother and I had fond memories of being aloud to play or help out in the warehouse out the back. My Grandad taught us how to ride the conveyor belt to and from the second floor.
Sadly he only had about one year of retirement before he passed away of lung cancer.