Stumbling across the wonderful Star Supply Stores on Lowestoft’s historical High Street – now Raphael Crafts – prompted a bit of research into this retail business. Star was one of many chains of grocers and provision dealers that thrived in English towns during the late 19th and early-to-mid 20th centuries.
Indeed, the chain which eventually became Star Supply Stores was one of the first national multiples to be established in England. It was at the cutting edge of a retail revolution. Despite this – unlike comparable chains such as Lipton’s or David Greig’s – its story is not particularly well known.
Star Supply Stores had its roots in the Star Tea Company, founded in Manchester around 1873 by Joseph Cadman (1820-1897) and James Fish (1836-1913). Cadman, the principal partner, was a successful grocer and tea merchant based on Downing Street in Manchester. Fish lived in nearby Chorlton and worked as a commercial traveller in the tea trade. It is easy to imagine how these men brought their two sets of skills together to create the Star Tea Company, selling tea bought in bulk for cash (‘ready money’) through several outlets – the new method of so-called ‘multiple’ retailing.
In the late 1870s Cadman moved his family and business to Derby. By the time Fish retired in 1888, and the partnership was dissolved, they had amassed an impressive portfolio of retail businesses (listed in the Western Daily Press, 4 January 1888, 8). Most of their shops – of which there were over 40 throughout England – traded as ‘The Star Tea Company’. Other were:
- The Gresham Café, Star Medicine Stores and The Star Provision Stores, Stafford
- The Gresham Café and Parrot Inn, Gloucester
- The Star Medicine Stores, Burton-on-Trent
- The Star Medicine Stores and Carfax Cigar Stores, Oxford
Because several unrelated companies had similar, or identical, names in the mid-19th century, it is difficult to discover just when Cadman and Fish opened their first branch shops. In the mid-1870s, however, they claimed to have between 30 and 40 branches of the Star Tea Company, with three ‘head establishments’ – at 271 Walworth Road, London, 17 Wheeler Gate, Nottingham (which opened in 1875), and 75 Downing Street, Manchester (where Cadman had his own shop in 1861 and 1871). Even if they exaggerated, they certainly had over 20 branches by 1877.
The first shop to adopt the name ‘Star Supply Stores’ appears to have been the branch at 5 Queen Street, Oxford, in 1887. After Star became a limited liability company in 1892, however, this name supplanted that of the Star Tea Company on fascias across the chain.
Big changes followed Fish’s retirement. First of all, Cadman’s colourful son-in-law joined the firm. This was the dashing Australian cricketer Frederick R. Spofforth (1855-1926) who, in his heyday, was known as ‘the demon bowler’. Spofforth had married Cadman’s daughter in 1886. They lived in Australia for two years before returning to England in 1888 and, eventually, settling in Surrey. Spofforth became a regional director, then chairman and managing director of Star.
In 1890 Cadman retired to Brighton, leaving the business in Spofforth’s hands. He sold his home, shop and stores in Derby. This considerable property included a house called ‘The Cedars’ in Breadsall, a shop at 182 Normanton Road, together with commercial premises bounded by Haarlem Street, Waterloo Street and Britannia Street in Derby with ‘ . . . the extensive Mill Premises, Warehouses, Stores, Engine Sheds, Yards, Dwelling-house and appurtenances . . .’ (Derbyshire Advertiser & Journal, 12 December 1890, 1). Today this site is covered by a major traffic interchange – even the street names have been eliminated. Cadman enjoyed a short retirement in Brighton before dying in 1897. He left a colossal fortune of £95,000.
Star’s headquarters moved to purpose-built offices and warehouses at 292-314 Old Street in the City of London. By 1908, the chain comprised over 200 shops.
In 1922 the Star Tea Company, with 321 shops, acquired control of Ridgways Ltd., a London-based tea importer and dealer founded in 1836. The two companies had been closely associated for some time. In 1928-29, however, the Star Tea Company (with Ridgways) was taken over by the International Tea Company, a similar business founded in 1878. International had manufacturing capacity – something never developed by Star. After 1929 many Star outlets were rebranded, refurbished or redecorated.
The Star Supply Stores name endured until around 1972, when the International Stores Group was taken over by British American Tobacco. Surviving shops were later renamed Gateway, and subsequently Somerfield.
Star Supply Stores had very smart shopfronts – very like those of the International Tea Company – topped by large facscias brandishing the name in brilliant-cut gilt lettering covered by glass. To one side of the entrance was a sash window, and to the other fixed glazing. This was the pattern adopted by other multiples in the same trade, such as David Grieg’s or Lipton’s.
Very few Star Supply Stores shopfronts are known to survive – Lowestoft is rare – and those recorded in old photographs suggest that there was no hard-and-fast house style. However, the company regularly installed brass stall plates engraved with the Star name. Some transom lights held glass etched with a star (something to look out for!) and occasionally a star-shaped hanging sign projected from the frontage. The name was repeated on an opaque lamp shade over the entrance lobbies – the hook for this can still be seen at Lowestoft.
Ghost signs are another reminder of Star Supply Stores. One on Hall Croft in Shepshed, still reads: ‘Star Supply Stores. The Money Saving Grocers’.