Montague Burton was not the first to establish a successful chain of tailor’s shops throughout Britain: Joseph Hepworth and his son Norris had opened their first shops in 1884. Nevertheless, between the 1920s and the 1960s, Burton was the country’s predominant high street tailor. The company manufactured made-to-measure suits at its factories in Leeds and Worsley, dealing directly with customers through its impressive shops. In the 1920s and 1930s these ‘modern temples of commerce’ were built on a large scale in town and city centres, often with upper-floor billiard halls that attracted potential customers. When fashions changed and the demand for suits plummeted, Burton diversified into general outfitting. It is now one of several retail brands in Philip Green’s Arcadia Group, with around 400 UK outlets.
1900 to 1918
The founder of Burton, Meshe David Osinsky (1885-1952), emigrated in 1900 from the province of Kovno (within the Pale confining Russia’s Jewish population; modern Lithuania) to England where he initially took the name Morris, or Maurice, Burton. Although he claimed to have borrowed £100 from a relative to set himself up in business in 1900, Burton evidently started out as a pedlar. By 1904, however, he was running a small outfitter’s shop at 20 Holywell Street, Chesterfield. This was followed by additional shops in Chesterfield and Mansfield, selling ready-made clothing to working men.
Burton began to offer made-to-measure (‘wholesale bespoke’) suits in 1906, but contracted out their manufacture until he opened his own workshop two years later. This was reportedly located in part of ‘Progress Mills’ (known only on letterheads) before moving to Elmwood Mills in Leeds.
Following his marriage to Sophia Amelia (‘Cissie’) Marks in 1909, Burton took British citizenship and moved to Sheffield where he opened a ‘Burton & Burton’ store at 101-103 The Moor. The second ‘Burton’ was probably Burton’s brother Bernard, who remained a lifelong business associate. By 1914 Burton & Burton had 14 shops, mainly occupying leased premises on high streets throughout northern England and the Midlands (including Manchester, Leicester and Stockport).
Burton was excused military service during the Great War and in 1916 won a lucrative contract to manufacture uniforms. One year later, Burton & Burton was transformed into a limited liability company called Montague Burton, The Tailor of Taste Ltd. The man himself now assumed the name Montague Maurice Burton. By 1919 he had 36 shops, of which many (including Coventry, Dudley, Swansea and Wandsworth) had opened in the course of the war. Eight branches were in Ireland.
Burton’s shops enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with his factories. Customers would visit a shop, peruse catalogues, inspect fabrics, have their measurements taken, place their order and pay a deposit. Their suit was then manufactured (made to measure, to the customer’s specifications) in one of Burton’s factories. The main production facility from 1914 was Concord Street Mills, Leeds. With the pressure of war work, however, Byron Street Mills was taken on in 1917 as an auxiliary clothing factory. Other facilities were located on Woodhouse Lane, Melbourne Street and Millroyd Street.
1918 to 1939
Growth did not stop with the Armistice. The demand for ‘demob’ suits enabled Burton to take over the vast Hudson Road Mills in Leeds from the wholesale clothiers Albrecht & Albrecht. These were said to be the largest works of their kind in the world, and were greatly expanded by Burton.
The first canteen at Hudson Road Mills, built in 1922, could accommodate 1,000 at a sitting. Its successor, which was completed in 1928, could seat 4,000 workers, but was itself superseded by a new canteen for 8,000 (by architect N. Martin), which was opened by Mary, the Princess Royal, in October 1934. By this time there were 10,000 employees at Hudson Road Mills. As well as its state-of-the art catering facilities the factory had a medical clinic and rest rooms. Sports field and recreation grounds were provided in 1935.
Suits were despatched from this great factory to the branches by a fleet of 24 motor vans. The chain of shops expanded rapidly. There were 36 in 1919 and 200 in 1923. When the company went public, with capital of £4 million in 1929, it had 364 sites (197 freeholds) and 293 shops. By 1932 there were 380 shops, and by 1939, 595. From the early 1920s these premises were purpose-built by the company, on an enormous scale. Click to read more about these buildings, or to consult a spotter’s guide to Burton’s shops.
In 1937 Burton’s architect, Nathaniel Martin, collaborated with the architects Wallis Gilbert & Partners on a subsidiary clothing works on the Great Lancashire Road at Worsley, near Manchester (The Builder, 10 March 1939, 478). Conceived as a Garden Factory and built in a modern style, this was dubbed ‘Burtonville Clothing Works’. It opened in October 1938 – the year Burton decided to open ready-to-wear departments in all branches – but soon had to be supplemented by Halliwell Road Mills in Bolton, which was acquired in 1939.
Within months the country was once more at war – and Burton once again switched its resources to military clothing.
1945 to 2017
Burton bought a lot of property cheaply during the Second World War, and so by 1945 the company owned 130 key high street sites which it was not using. Many of these properties never became shops. Throughout the 1940s it was difficult for Burton to fulfil orders due to shortages of cloth and other materials. Expansion of the retail chain was arrested – indeed, replacing war damaged shops was a priority until 1950 – but in 1947 the bomb-damaged Peter Robinson store at Oxford Circus in London, was acquired. This was developed into a women’s fashion chain with branches in Brighton, Gloucester, Cheltenham and elsewhere.
Sir Montague Burton, who had been knighted in 1931, died in 1952, when there were 616 Burton branches. In 1953 the firm merged with Jackson the Tailor. Lionel and Sidney Jacobson (sons of the founder of Jacksons) took over the management of the company and refurbished the shops, starting with the Newcastle branch. The Hudson Road factory had a staff of just 5,000 in the late 1950s: half of the number employed there in 1939.
Burton began to diversify by stocking lines associated more with outfitters rather than with tailors: ties in 1969 and shirts in 1974. During the 1970s and early 1980s most of Burton’s factories, including Hudson Road Mills, ceased production. The Burton Group (as the company was called from 1969) began to concentrate on women’s wear: the manager of the Peter Robinsons chain, Ralph Halpern, launched Top Shop in 1964. Top Man started up in 1978 and freestanding Top Shop outlets opened from 1974. Later acquisitions were Evans Outsize (1970), Dorothy Perkins (1979), Debenhams (1985) and John Collier (1986). Principles was launched in 1984, followed by Principles for Men in 1985.
In a 1990s review of its property portfolio (‘Townprint’) the Burton Group rationalised its use of space, often co-locating shops within a single building. Thenceforth Burton often had to share its premises with other house brands, such as Dorothy Perkins. In 1998 Debenhams was demerged and the Burton Group was renamed Arcadia Group. Through the purchase of Sears in 1999, Arcadia acquired Richard Shops, Miss Selfridge and Wallis. Since 2002 Arcadia has been owned by Philip Green’s family.
Many Arcadia brands have come and gone over the years. Jackson the Tailor, for example, was wound down in 1978. Burton, though no longer a traditional tailor and much transformed from its heyday, has remained trading throughout. Often there is still a snooker hall on the first-floor, over the shop.
Principal Sources: Ideals in Industry, 1936 (3rd edn); Eric M. Sigsworth, Montague Burton – the Tailor of Taste, 1990; K. Morrison, English Shops & Shopping, 2003. Thanks to @LaidByMonty via Twitter for supplying a few elusive dates. If anyone can plug any gaps, I would love to hear from you.
Postscript. On 30 November 2020 Arcadia entered administration. The Burton brand, but not the shops, was bought by the online retailer Boohoo.com – together with Dorothy Perkins and Wallis – in February 2021.