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.

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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 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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