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.
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, 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).
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 surprising 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.
In 1963 H. Samuel celebrated the centenary of opening its first shop in Manchester – but documents suggest that this was premature. At the start of the 1860s, Harriet’s husband Walter was still in business at 20 Paradise Street. In March 1862, he purchased the business of his brother Henry Samuel at 10 Paradise Street. 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.
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 Anthony White, Harriet’s uncle, took over the shop at 10 Paradise Street. 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.
Little is known of Harriet’s activities immediately after Walter’s death in December 1863, but in 1871 she was living with her children at 93 Market Street in Liverpool and practicing as a jeweller. In 1876, shortly before Anthony died, Harriet seems to have entered partnership with his son Beren who, as well as being her cousin, was now her son-in-law. While White moved from 4 Paradise Street to take charge of White & Samuel’s new shop at 21 Parker Street, Harriet relocated to Manchester, opening Samuel & White’s at 97 Market Street.
After the partnership was dissolved in October 1877, Harriet began trading on her own as H. Samuel, calling her premises the ‘Lever Watch Factory’ and selling by mail order as well as from the premises. The centenary of the firm should, therefore, have been celebrated in 1977 rather than in 1963.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.