The Story of H. Samuel: ‘Britain’s Largest Jeweller’

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Terrazzo floor, Union Street, Torquay, photographed in 2000.

The multiple jeweller H. Samuel has been around for at least 140 years, and has always made extravagant claims, from ‘The Empire’s Largest Jeweller’ to ‘Britain’s Largest Jeweller’. This last boast possibly remains true today.

Like most jewellers, H. Samuel generally set up shop in existing buildings. But from the mid-1950s until the 1970s it erected a number of purpose-built premises in a robustly modern style, with deep lobbied shopfronts lined by display windows. Some attractive period details survived into the 21st century, but these are vanishing fast.

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Bridgwater, Somerset, in 2016.

The Samuel family background is fascinating and, at times, mysterious. ‘H. Samuel’ – sometimes referred to as ‘Mr’ in Victorian newspapers – was, in fact, Mrs Harriet Samuel (1835-1908).

Harriet was born in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, where her German father, Shriener Wolf was a ‘curiosity dealer’ and her mother Matilda a ‘jeweller’. By 1851 the family had relocated to Manchester (Census 1851), but around 1854 they moved on to Liverpool, where Shriener died in 1859, followed by Matilda – who had remarried – in 1869. Contrary to many published accounts, Shriener was NOT the first mayor of Kimberley, the diamond-mining town in South Africa; this honour instead fell to his son, Aaron Wolf (1833-82).

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Herbert Wolf’s shop on Lord Street, Liverpool, in 1901. Herbert was a grandson of Shreiner and Matilda Wolf. (Reproduced by permission of Historic England Archive; Bedford Lemere 16781)

In Liverpool, Harriet and her sister Rachel married brothers, Walter and Henry Samuel, who ran separate businesses as wholesale watch and clock manufacturers close to one another on Paradise Street in the city centre. Their sister Emma married a third Samuel brother, Alfred, who ran ‘Samuel’s National Watch and Clock Depot’ on Manchester Street.

It seems astonishing that these three sisters should marry three brothers, all of whom specialised in timepieces, following in the footsteps of their father Moses and (more successful) uncle Louis. In fact, Moses and Louis had themselves, many years before, married sisters. The Samuel family was evidently not as close-knit as all of this inter-marriage might suggest, for in 1861 the three brothers were arrested and fined for fighting one another in the street (Liverpool Daily Post, 16 February 1861, 7)

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Crude (and recent) obliteration of the H. Samuel name, West Street, Horsham, in 2017.

In 1960-61 H. Samuel celebrated the centenary of opening its first shop in Manchester (The Times, 19 July 1961, 18) – but documents suggest that this was slightly premature. A hundred years earlier, in 1860-61, Harriet’s husband Walter was in business at 20 Paradise Street. A year later, in March 1862, he purchased the business of his brother Henry Samuel at 10 Paradise Street (Liverpool Mercury, 31 March 1862, 8). Henry had decided to move with his family to London, while Walter intended to ‘carry on this same business but in a far more extensive manner, embracing a large quantity of every description of watches, clocks and jewellery’. Walter’s former premises at 20 Paradise Street were vacated and advertised to let.

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Neon-tube lettering and over-painted mosaic tiling in Derby, photographed in 2000. This branch opened in 1964.

However, things did not pan out as expected for Walter, who became seriously ill. In spring 1863 his entire stock was disposed of at auction and A. White took over the shop at 10 Paradise Street (Liverpool Mail, 25 April 1863, 8; Liverpool Mercury, 30 April 1863, 2). On 3 December 1863, Walter died. When the will was proved in January 1864, Harriet was staying with her sister Rachel (Henry’s wife, also a jeweller) at 49 Strand, London. By 1871, however, she had returned to Liverpool and was living at 93 Church Street (near the corner of Ranelagh Street – a prime commercial location). Harriet was described in the Census of that year as ‘jeweller’, but it is not known whether she had already established her own business.

H Samuel Catalogue image

H. Samuel catalogue in J. W. Evans & Sons jewellery workshop (est. 1881), Birmingham, in 2008. (c. Historic England Archive)

By 1876, Harriet Samuel had moved to the ‘Lever Watch Factory’, 97 Market Street, Manchester – selling by mail order as well as from the premises. In the Census of 1881 Harriet was described as ‘watchmaker’ and her son Edgar as ‘jeweller’. Edgar opened a branch in Preston in 1890. This was followed by shops in Rochdale, Bolton and Leicester. The growing chain improved its national coverage in 1908, with the acquisition of Saqui & Lawrence, who had shops in the London area. A few years later the firm moved its headquarters to Hunters Road in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter: a new factory was built in 1913 and extended in 1937. Both Saqui & Lawrence Ltd. and H. Samuel Ltd. were incorporated as private limited companies in 1917.

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Falmouth in 2000.

During the Second World War 49 H. Samuel shops closed, including 25 destroyed or damaged by bombing. Although H. Samuel floated on the stock exchange in 1948, the family – Harriet’s grandsons – retained control. At that time, 104 H. Samuel shops were trading, but the company owned 137 premises: 38 freehold and 99 on long leases. Quite a few war-damaged shops had not yet been repaired.

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English Street, Carlisle, photographed in 1998.

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Carlisle in 1998.

By 1954, when building licences were lifted, there were 146 H. Samuel shops in Britain. One of the first significant new buildings to be erected by the firm was Ranelagh House, 41-43 Ranelagh Street, Liverpool – very close to the site where Harriet Samuel lived in 1871 (see above). This modern building, completed in 1954, occupied a corner site and, therefore, had two principal elevations. Each had a curtain-wall panel within a pale stone frame, probably of Portland stone, with horizontal bands of windows separated by bands of green (Westmorland) slate tiles. In the fashion of the 1950s, the shop was separated from this upper elevation by a solid projecting canopy with curved edges. McDonald’s now occupies the premises.

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Church Street, Liverpool in 2000.

Ranelagh House seems to have set the template for new H. Samuel shops over the next couple of decades. In 1960 the company rebuilt the main Manchester store (at 103-105 Market Street, ‘next to the one occupied one hundred years ago’); this was later subsumed by the Arndale Centre. New H. Samuel shops were narrower than stores generally built by multiple retailers, and although different materials were used from place to place, the use of horizontal windows and a generic shopfront established a distinctive H. Samuel ‘look’. The branch on Church Street in Liverpool (next door to the first Woolworth’s store in the UK; now Kurt Geiger) was uncompromisingly Brutalist in style.

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Church Street, Liverpool, in 2017

H. Samuel made a number of acquisitions in the late 20th century, including Paragon in 1969/70, Watches of Switzerland (by 1973), and the James Walker chain in 1984. It merged with Ratners 1986, though the Ratners name vanished after Gerald Ratner’s famous gaffe in 1991: ‘People say “How can you sell this for such a low price?” I say “Because it’s total crap”’. Subsequently, many Ratners shops were rebranded as H. Samuel. Today H. Samuel, with 300 shops, is part of the Signet Group, which also owns Ernest Jones and Leslie Davis.

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Sheerness, Kent, in 2016

It is rather sad, but inevitable, to see the 1960s styling of H. Samuel’s shops gradually vanish. The blocky red ‘Egyptian’ style lettering, the mosaic tiles, the deep lobbies with their striped pink terrazzo floors, the projecting clocks – a deeply familiar house style that enjoyed great longevity on the British high street.

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West Street, Horsham, in 2017

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35 Responses to The Story of H. Samuel: ‘Britain’s Largest Jeweller’

  1. Malcolm Wrapson says:

    You have 2 pictures of the H Samuel clock on the shop in Horsham, which is no longer an
    H Samuel store. However the old clock is still in situ and wonder if you know how old the clock is.


  2. Susan Collins says:

    I have a small cardboard box with metal corners which was used when H Samuel sold watches by mail order. The box shows the address as 103, 119 & 121 Market Street, Manchester. I understand that H Samuel vacated these premises in 1912 which makes the box over 100 years old. It is still intact and in good condition.


  3. What a fabulous and interesting family. I wonder if Michael Wolf a Jeweller I frequented and had bought some lovely diamond rings from his shop in Church Street, any connection ?


    • erchrdsn says:

      Thanks for mentioning Michael Wolf. I’m working on genealogy that touches on the Samuels and also on a Wolf family. The genealogy of some of the inter-married Jewish families with interconnected business can get very confusing. But I’ve come to this page via a very circuitous route (via US smugglers who came from the south of England).


      • Simon Wolf says:

        Michael was my uncle and was Herbert’s grandson. After the family business broke up he kept the store which has originally been the Alfred Wolf one and kept running a jewellery business from there.


      • C.Smith says:

        Sara Wolf married Jacob (John) Saqui in 1859.
        The Saquis were also jewellers.


    • sjdick says:

      Michael Wolf was one of the sons of Herbert Wolf, who founded the eponymouse chain of jewlery stores. They had stores in Liverpool and London, mostly famously within the Strand Palace Hotel. The Wolfs were related by marriage to the Salmon and Gluckstein families who owned J. Lyons & co, and a string of hotels including the Strand Palace.


      • Eve Richardson says:

        Thanks. Now I’ve got more work to do, entering extra details. 😉 🙂


      • swolf6b6a5adaa2 says:

        Michael was Herbert’s grandson (and my uncle) and was part of the last generation of Wolfs to run the family business. After it broke up he continued in the jewellery trade in the Liverpool shop which had been Alfred Wolf.


  4. Sylvie Mellersh says:

    I have a watch inside it’s original box, stamped Wolfe’s Watches, perfect time-keepers, only address 81 Church St Liverpool. The watch itself is stamped made in England and has a patent number and what I think are makers marks. Could this have been made by Harriet or one of her sisters? Your information above gives an address of 93 Church St so almost next door to Wolf the shop.


    • Julian Jacobs says:

      My Great Grandfather ‘ Alfred Wolf ‘, Older Brother of Herbert may have made your watch?!, as 81 Church St. was his only Shop in Liverpool! Regards Julian Jacobs.


      • sylvia mellersh says:

        thank you so much, there are lots of mysteries in the world right now, it feels wonderful to have one of them solved. Best regards


  5. sean says:

    i have a ring box by Herbert Wolf ltd, 3 tottenham court road, london 1 w
    est 1830??
    can find no trace of him?


    • Simon Wolf says:

      That shop was part of the group of Herbert Wolf shops which was set up by him and continued as a family business to his grandchildren, one of whom is my father. He is the Herbert Wolf mentioned in the article.


    • swolf6b6a5adaa2 says:

      The shop on Tottenham Court Road was part of the Herbert Wolf chain of shops which is mentioned in the main article.


  6. erchrdsn says:

    Harriet Samuels may well be related to the Saquis, another Jewish family. I arrived at this page while looking for information on the Saquis who are distantly connected to other families I’m researching. I’ve been reading a book about them (on smuggling in the US; the central character is probably a distant cousin of mine, originally from Portsmouth) and I’m pretty sure the book mentions H(arriet) Smith. I’m going to have to work backwards via more census and marriage records to sort this out. One thing perhaps to bear in mind if you aren’t already aware of it is that many of the old jewelers, watchmakers and early opticians were Jews who were already trained in these fields, or branched out from having pawnshops. Many intermarried (hence the three sisters to three brothers, which doesn’t surprise me at all); these arranged marriages occurred because one, business connections were one way of finding marriage partners in small endogamous groups, and two, they cemented business partnerships and kept money in the family. I hope this isn’t irrelevant to your research. Your research here is certainly relevant to mine. Thank you. (If I work out a Samuel -Saqui connection, do you want to know what it is?)

    Liked by 1 person

    • mrs sylvia mellersh says:

      Yes please. If there’s an answer to a mystery it’s always good to find it.


    • Cedra Smith says:

      I am a descendant of the Saquis you mention here; Abraham Horatio Saqui is my great-grandfather. Could you please expand on this book about smugglers you mention – is that around the Saquis or one of the other families mentioned here? I would love to learn about what you’ve uncovered.


      • I’ve just published a short post about Saqui & Lawrence here, clarifying the relationship with H. Samuel. Please let me know if any facts are wrong. If anyone could help with illustrations I’d be very grateful. Thanks folks!


      • Eve Richardson says:

        Hi Cedra,
        Thank you for posting. At the moment I’m stuck abroad (thank you, coronavirus) and don’t have access to the book to do an index search. My ancestors were an early Lazarus family from Exeter. They link up with some other Lazarus families, including one of Portsmouth. The smuggler in question is the Charley L. Lawrence (born Charles Lewis Lazarus) of the book Contraband. Many other people – Anglo-Jews among them, including Abraham Hoffnung, son of the minister Samuel Hoffnung (Exeter and Montreal) – are part of of his story. I can’t recall offhand in what way the Saqui connection comes in and I can’t check it till I return home. They may not have been directly involved, but it’s through the link that I became interested in them and pursued the connections, so I think the or some of their connections were involved in some way. This is the kind of history that isn’t generally recorded in articles about families like the Hoffnungs, whose bios tend to focus on their charitable works rather than on where their wealth came from. Here is the link to a review of the book:


  7. Chris Loveday says:

    In the 1960/70s Samuel’s sold a watch brand “Everite” which I believe was an own brand, whatever happened to that?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. erchrdsn says:

    Re H.Samuel and Saqui & Lawrence, this is what I’ve sorted out.
    H.Samuel was Harriet WOLF, daughter of Shreiner Wolf. She married Walter SAMUEL in 1852. Walter was a Liverpool watch maker; his father’s name was Moses and he may have been descended from a family of jewellers. I haven’t followed through on this, but there is a family history page that states ” Moses’ [Moses Samuel’s] business flourished after his death to become H. Samuel, the largest jewelry chain store in the United Kingdom.”

    The above misses a step or too (typically leaving out the woman’s role). Walter Samuel died in 1863, leaving Harriet with four children ages 8 to 14. She carried on the business of watch maker, eventually (according to the Palgrave Dictionary of Anglo-Jewish History) “left its day-to-day retail side to her son Edgar, busying herself to mail order custom.” (The dictionary can be found on

    Where does the Saqui business come in? Harriet’s sister Sarah Wolf married John Jacob Saqui in 1859. I don’t know when Saqui & Lawrence was founded, but their son Horatio (Abraham Horatio Saqui) seems to have been the face of it. I haven’t figured out who the “Lawrence” half of the business was (if there was one). Neither do I know when Horatio Saqui sold or retired from the business, but by 1910 newspapers reporting cases of theft identied Edgar Samuel Edgar (formerly Edgar Samuel) as “trading as Saqui and Lawrence, jewellers, 54, Strand”.

    I’ve put this together from various sources, including census records and newspapers (available online from the British Newspapers Archive).

    Edgar Samuel Edgar died a very wealthy man. He was also extremely controlling of his children, as evidenced by reports of his will and a subsequent court challenge. His sons weren’t to inherit until one of them (not sure if the elder or younger) turned 45, and then they would lose any right to inherit if they married out of the Jewish faith, traded on the stock market, or entered public office. The challenge came about when the sons wanted to enlist in 1939. Edgar’s daughter would inherit a large fortune if she married a man born into and still practicing the Jewish faith; if she remained single she’d get a small annual income. I’m not sure what she did, but I kinda hope she ditched the wealth for love.


  9. Candy Gordon says:

    I have very fond memories of my first job in a Northwich jewellers run by the late Michael Wolf’s wife, Judith; sadly ‘Mr Michael’ as he was known to the staff had at that point already passed away, and so I never met him. Working there was a wonderful experience which led me to explore my own Jewish heritage and spend time in Israel. Strangely enough, I then ended up working in a pub in Oxfordshire, and the landlord was also related to the Salmons and ‘Granny Gluckstein’…small world.

    The most bizarre thing, though, is that Mrs Wolf’s maiden name was Gordon…which is also my surname. I’m told my grandfather’s family were jewellers in London. I often wonder if there is any connection. Can’t believe I stumbled across this page.


  10. Eve Richardson says:

    If the name Gordon is from your Jewish line/s it may not be a coincidence. Gordon wasn’t exactly a common name for Jewish families. I usually pursue such possibilities. Also, I’ve found it worthwhile (over 20 years of research) to periodically do random Google searches (name I’m interested in, plus some other word/phrase related to the person) because that frequently turns up pages like this that aren’t directly related to genealogical research, yet provide a wealth of information.


  11. Michael Watson says:

    Pity no mention of G& M Lane. It’s ‘arrival’ created Watches of Switzerland, see where that ended up !


    • Quite right – I popped it in, with Paragon. I’m hoping to add posts on other chains jewellery eventually. Meanwhile – do you know exactly when H. Samuel acquired Watches of Switzerland?


  12. Daniel R Meyer says:

    I have here a gold ring on my wedded finger that has a H.S marking with Birmingham anchor and datemarked 1862. Would this be Harriet or Henry Samuel?


  13. David says:

    I recently bought a 1920’s Herbert Wolf Half Hunter Pocket Watch in the original box. I’ve really enjoyed reading this thread and wondered if anyone knows where the “Magno” name comes from?


    • Simon Wolf says:

      It was simply a marketing name which someone, possibly Herbert himself, came up with. My dad thinks that it was inspired by magnets being able to affecting watches but he may have made that bit up!

      The company head office in the 1970s, which was in Bootle, Liverpool, was called Magno House in honour of it.


  14. David says:

    Thanks Simon, everything I learn about it helps.


  15. David Man says:

    I found this post about H. Samuel very interesting and thank you for it. I note above a reference to the web page I maintain that includes the Samuel family. I would like to also point out that the Samuel brothers – Henry, Walter, and Alfred had a sister Marian who married Jonas Reis and they had (among others) two sons: Charles Lionel and Alphonse Louis (my great grandfather) who together had jewelry stores in: Dublin (2), Cork, Belfast, Glasgow, Edinburgh (2), Aberdeen and Dundee. This would suggest that the Samuel family (including the Reis branch) divided the British Isles into two: the male Samuel branch established jewelry stores in England and Wales while the Reis branch took Ireland and Scotland.


  16. Haydn Welch says:

    It seems there are two Harriet Samuel women, one (nee Wolf) who started the H Samuels jewellers and another Harriet Samuel (Samuel being the maiden name) who bon in Liverpool, married jeweller John Elkan. Can anyone shed light on this to match up their relationship? Does anyone know what happened to John Elkan Jewellers, whether it was merged into H Samuels?


    • The younger Harriet Samuel was our Harriet’s niece, daughter of Rachel Wolf who had married Henry Samuel – their family moved from Liverpool to London in 1862. Harriet junior married John Elkan, who briefly went into partnership with Herbert Wolf senior, the brother of our Harriet and Rachel. I have no evidence, but suspect connections were maintained between Elkan’s business and those of the Wolf/Samuel families.


      • Haydn Welch says:

        Great thank you. That resolves a genealogy conundrum. I believe John Elkan’s Jewellers was taken over by his son Clarence Elkan OBE DSO in the late 1920s but do not know whether it is still trading under a different name or simply closed upon Clarence retiring. What makes this more interesting (for me) is that my recent DNA test showed up a Jewish grandfather via the Elkan line, and myself, son and brother are also jewellers (something clearly runs in families).

        Liked by 1 person

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