For a full century, between 1884 and 1985, Hepworth’s was a thriving national chain of men’s clothing shops, with a strong line in ready-made and made-to-measure suits. Rivals in the same field included Montague Burton, The Fifty Shilling Tailor (later renamed John Collier), Alexandre and Jackson’s.
Hepworth’s shops were converted to the Next format in 1982-85. The premises had never been quite as striking visually as Burton’s – the company did not construct so many complete buildings and did not engage in such all-encompassing shopfitting – yet traces of Hepworth’s can still be spotted on the high street.
Hepworth’s was founded by Joseph Hepworth (1834-1911), the son of a ‘cloth dresser’ from Lindley near Huddersfield. Joseph followed in his father’s footsteps while he was still a schoolboy, becoming a part-time woollen cloth dresser at a local mill. Because he had to start work at an early age, Joseph always felt that his education was neglected. He compensated for this, however, with business nous.
Joseph married a local girl, Sarah Rhodes, in 1855. Six years later he was living in his mother-in-law’s house and working as a ‘teazel setter and woollen draper’, probably at George Walker’s Wellington Mill in Huddersfield. Teasels were used to brush the surface of the woven cloth, to raise the nap. In 1864 Joseph and his brother-in-law, James Rhodes, entered business together as ‘Juvenile Clothing Manufacturers’ in Scarborough Buildings, Bishopgate Street, Leeds. Although this partnership was dissolved in 1867, Joseph continued to specialise in the manufacture and wholesaling of juvenile clothing, employing 2 men and 20 women in 1871.
In 1878 Norris Rhodes Hepworth (1857-1914) became a partner in his father’s business, which was known thenceforth as Joseph Hepworth & Son. By 1881 the firm gave employment to 272 hands: they used outworkers as well as employing machinists in the factory at 25 Wellington Street, Leeds.
Shortly after this, on Norris Hepworth’s initiative, the firm adopted a new strategy. It cut out the middleman. Instead of continuing to act as a producer and wholesaler that supplied the trade, Hepworth’s began to retail direct to customers, not just in Britain but also in the Colonies. The decision was taken to open shops in ‘all important towns’ as rapidly as possible, rather than to build up a chain gradually. Amongst the first retail branches, which opened in 1884, were South Shields, Middlesbrough, Birmingham, Derby and Aberdeen. A year later there were 53 shops, promoted as ‘The World’s Clothiers’ or ‘the Great XL’ (seemingly a pun on ‘excel’). When the Wellington Street showrooms were extended in 1885, the basement was lit in the most modern fashion, by electricity.
In 1891, with 81 shops, Hepworth’s became a limited liability company with capital of £360,000 (Leeds Times, 14 November 1891, 4). This followed the opening of a large new factory, the Providence Works on Claypit Lane (Leeds Times, 17 January 1891, 8), designed by the London architect H. A. Cheers. Unfortunately, it had to be rebuilt after a fire just four years later, in 1895. By the eve of the Great War, Joseph Hepworth & Son was probably the largest clothing manufacturer and retailer in the country, a position usurped by Montague Burton in the early 1920s.
Fragments of several Hepworth’s shopfronts have survived, as does their painted sign in Hepworth’s Arcade on Silver Street in Hull. This L-shaped shopping development was designed by the architects Gelder & Kitchin specifically for Hepworth’s, who relocated there in 1894. In the mid-20th century Hepworth’s shops were characterised by deep entrance lobbies (maximising window display area), low stall risers of pearl granite (bringing the clothing to the same level as window shoppers) and deep fascias (signboards) with large lettering reading, simply, ‘HEPWORTHS’.
Hepworth’s changed its image in 1961, becoming closely associated with Hardy Amies, the Queen’s dressmaker. It opened shops named ‘The Hardy Amies Tailoring Shop’ within several Debenham Group department stores, such as Woollands of Knightsbridge, Pauldens of Sheffield and Plummer Roddis of Southampton. A new production centre opened at Ashington. Expansion remained strong throughout the 1960s, with 13 new shops opened and another 19 planned in 1966 alone.
Hepworth’s set off in a different direction in the 1980s. This began when the designer and retailer Terence Conran, then associated principally with Habitat, was brought in as Chairman. Hepworth’s sales were lacklustre in 1981, when the company bought the womenswear chain Kendall & Sons of Leicester, with 79 shops, and used this as a springboard for a new chain of women’s shops called Next. George Davies was brought in to nurture this development. The first Next opened in 1982, followed by Next for Men in 1984, and the chain was augmented by the acquisition of Lord John shops in 1985.
Next proved so phenomenally successful that Hepworth’s name was eradicated from the high street by the end of 1985, absorbed by the new brand.