Jesse Boot (1850-1931) followed in the footsteps of his Wesleyan parents, John (1815-1860) and Mary (1826-85), by becoming a medical botanist, or herbalist, providing remedies to the poor. John had opened the ‘British and American Botanical Establishment’ at 6 Goosegate in Nottingham in 1848. The family lived nearby, at 71 Woolpack Lane, in 1851, but by the time John died, aged 44 in 1860, they had moved to 6 Goosegate, presumably over the shop. Jesse Boot assumed control of the business in his mid twenties.
Alongside his own concoctions, Boot began to sell patent medicines at discounted prices for cash (rather than credit, as most chemists would have done at this time). As a result the business – called ‘Boot’s Patent Medicine Stores’ – took off. The premises, now at 16 Goosegate, were enlarged and rebuilt on an ambitious scale in 1881-3 to designs by the architect Richard Charles Sutton (1834-1915). The two-storey cast-iron shopfront, with its barleytwist colonnettes and plate glass windows, survives today. Coinciding with this rebuild, ‘Boot’s Patent Medicine Stores’ was renamed ‘Boot & Co Ltd.’
Boot’s mother, Mary, worked alongside him until her death in 1885. A year later, suffering from overwork (and probably also grief), he had a breakdown and sought recuperation in the Channel Islands. There he met Florence Annie Rowe (1863-1952), who worked in her father’s book shop in St Helier, Jersey. After their marriage, Florence helped Jesse to develop his business. She took an active interest in the design of the shops, which grew rapidly in number from the late 1880s and accrued new departments. In the largest branches these included books (from 1889), stationery (from 1895), toiletries (from 1896), artists’ materials, leather and fancy goods. Boots Booklovers Library, a subscription library usually positioned on the first floor, was established in 143 branches between 1898 and 1903.
The first Boots branch outside Nottingham had opened at 17 Snig Hill, Sheffield, in 1884, just before Boot’s sojourn in the Channel Islands. This was followed – in 1887, after his recovery and marriage – by a branch in Lincoln. For a short time, in the early 1890s, Jesse and Florence Boot lived in Sheffield.
In 1888 Boot announced that he had spent months ‘hatching a surprise’ on Goosegate. This surprise was described as ‘a gorgeous structure of Mahogany Panels, Gilt Beading and Plate Glass Mirrors, which might pardonably be mistaken for a corner section of a Pullman Palace Car’ (Nottingham Evening Post, 14 December 1888, 2). It was, in fact, ‘an American elevator’, operated by hydraulic power, which served the basement (Artists Materials) and the first floor (Dispensing Department, Ladies’ Department, and Ladies’ Waiting Room – in other words, the lavatory).
A private company with around 18 investors was formed to finance expansion in 1888; this was the ‘Boots Pure Drug Co. Ltd.’ The shops, now trading as ‘Boot’s Cash Chemists’, were managed by qualified chemists. In 1890 there were four shops in Nottingham, three in Sheffield and two in Lincoln; the company employed 100 people, including 13 qualified chemists. Two years later the chain had increased to 24 outlets, dispersed throughout nine different towns.
There were 60 Boots shops in 1896, 181 in 1900, 251 in 1901 and 560 by 1914: a tremendous rate of expansion which required a restructuring of the company. In batches, the retail establishments held by the Boots Pure Drug Co. Ltd. were transferred to associate companies. First of all, in 1892, a limited liability company called ‘Boots Ltd.’ was formed to take over branches in the Midlands and Eastern counties. This was chaired by the grocer Mr James Duckworth (1839-1915), mayor of Rochdale – a self-made man who had a great deal in common with the Managing Director, Jesse Boot. In February 1900 ‘Boots Ltd.’ changed its name to ‘Boots Cash Chemists (Eastern) Ltd.’ Other regional companies were: ‘Boots Cash Chemists (Western)’ formed in 1897, ‘Boots Cash Chemists (Lancashire)’ in 1899 and ‘Boots Cash Chemists (Southern)’ in 1901. The latter was founded after the acquisition of Day’s Drug Stores, which provided Boots with 65 ready-made branches in the south-east. ‘Boots Cash Chemists (Northern)’ came into being in 1911, after the acquisition of J. H. Inman of Newcastle.
The shops held by these companies were supplied by the Boots Pure Drug Co. Ltd. Many were purpose built to designs by the Nottingham architect Albert N. Bromley, or by Boots’ in-house architect and his team. In 1892 it was announced that the ‘central depot’ was moving from Goosegate to 2-10 Pelham Street ‘where premises have been specially built from the designs of the managing director’ (Nottingham Evening Post, 19 August 1892, 4). Boot reportedly loved building, a passion evidently shared by his wife. Due to street improvements, the Pelham Street depot was rebuilt, in the style of a large emporium, in 1903.
Boots’ manufacturing process had expanded beyond the premises on Goosegate. In 1889 Boot rented three rooms in Elliot’s lace factory on Island Street, Nottingham; by 1892 he had taken over the entire mill. At that time the firm employed nearly 300 people: 150 in the branches and 150 at the warehouse and laboratory (managed by E. S. Warning) on Island Street. Boot went on to lease every building lying between the Nottingham Canal and the Midland Railway Station. Here were the printing works, shopfitting department, general office and pharmaceutical laboratories. In 1908 an old Gas Works to the east was purchased and the site further extended.
During the Great War, 4,000 Boots employees joined the forces, which made it difficult to fulfil demanding Government contracts. These included chemicals previously imported from Germany, which now had to be made on home soil. In addition, Boots developed and manufactured box respirators, which protected soldiers from the effects of gas. They also produced saccharine, and tablets for sterilising water. Despite wartime conditions, new shops continued to be built.
Jesse Boot was knighted in 1909, became a baronet in 1919, and was raised to the peerage as Lord Trent of Nottingham in 1929. His philanthropy greatly benefitted his native town of Nottingham, where he was given the Freedom of the City in 1920. He financed the new University College, opened by King George V in 1928, and Highfields Park. In addition, he contributed generously to the Harlow Wood Orthopaedic Hospital (‘the Cripples Hospital’) of 1928-29. It was built, at no charge, by the ‘Sir Jesse Boot Property & Investment Co.’, which had been formed in 1920. Boot also erected housing for war veterans and workmen, in Nottingham and in Jersey.
From the age of 50 Boot was crippled by rheumatoid arthritis and his motor car had to be specially built to accommodate his invalid chair. In 1920 he sold his company to the United Drug Co. of America and in 1922 decided to retire to Cannes, subsequently settling in Jersey. Boot remained Chairman of the company for some time, but eventually handed responsibility to his son John Campbell Boot (1889-1956). He died in Jersey in 1931.
When the United Drug Co of America bought Boots, it comprised 630 shops, extensive production facilities and 10,000 employees. By the time the Americans sold to British investors in 1933, two years after Jesse Boot’s death, the chain operated over 900 shops.
A new site in Beeston had been acquired in 1927 to augment the cramped factories in the city centre. A Soap Factory opened there in 1929; Sir Owen Williams’ Wets Factory (D10) opened in 1933, and his Drys Factory (D6) in 1936. D10 and D6 are both Grade I listed. A new headquarters building by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill was erected in 1966-68.
The rival national chain Timothy Whites & Taylors was acquired by Boots in 1968. In 1971 the Boots Pure Drug Co. changed its name to ‘The Boots Company Ltd’. ‘Boots Opticians’ was formed in 1987 and became an important subsidiary chain. ‘The Boots Company PLC’ merged with Alliance UniChem in 2006 to become ‘Alliance Boots’. It is now a subsidiary of Walgreen Boots Alliance, and has 2,500 shops in the UK and Ireland.
Stanley Chapman, Jesse Boot of Boots the Chemists. A Study in Business History, Hodder & Stoughton, 1974
Kathryn A. Morrison, English Shops & Shopping, Yale University Press, 2003
My thanks to Sophie Clapp of The Boots Archive for giving me permission to publish images from their collection. For Alan Murray-Rust’s image see Geograph.