The Story of Dunn’s the Hatter

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Thornton’s, formerly Dunn & Co., Lincoln

Introduction

Dunn & Co. was the most recognisable chain of men’s hatters throughout the first three-quarters of the 20th century. By the late 1920s it was also a men’s outfitters. A failure to keep up with changing fashions – which no longer involved hats – led to the company’s demise in the 1990s.

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Lush, formerly Dunn & Co., Bournemouth (photo: 2010)

Mr Dunn

Dunn’s was founded by an idealistic Quaker, George Arthur Dunn (1865-1939), who was born and raised in Birmingham. Dunn’s father switched profession to a remarkable degree: leather cutter (1861), hardware dealer (1871), publisher’s manager (1881), then cigar merchant (1901). By 1881 George was working as an assistant to a hatter.

George’s wife, Lucy Day, came from Gloucestershire and in January 1886 they moved to Cheltenham with their first child. George took up work as a grocer’s assistant. The family seems to have moved briefly to Gloucester (where Ellis Randolph Dunn was born in 1886), then to Stoke Newington in north London (where Lloyd Stafford Dunn was born in 1888). By 1889 they had settled at 140 High Street, Shoreditch (now The Golden Horn / Present London). It was probably in London, around 1887, that George Arthur Dunn started his own business as a hatter, and began to open branch shops.

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Formerly Dunn & Co, Ilford (photo: 2002)

As Dunn grew prosperous on 3s. 9d. hats, he moved his family to Maida Vale and then, in 1905, to ‘The Aubrey’s’, Redbourne, Hertfordshire. The Dunns were strictly vegetarian –  rice cutlets took pride of place on the menu for Ellis Randolph’s coming-of-age party in 1907. All of Dunn’s sons refused, for ethical reasons, to enter their father’s business. Embracing ‘Back to the Land’ principles, they took up experimental market gardening on individual plots adjoining ‘The Aubrey’s’ – land jointly referred to as ‘The Four Brother’s Farm’ – refusing even to mulch their fruit trees and vegetable beds with animal manure. They were granted exemption from service during the Great War as conscientious objectors, on condition they worked as farm labourers. Somewhat inevitably, the story in the local paper was headlined ‘Cranks at St Albans’.

Dunn shared his son’s values, saying: ‘There are a great many things in my business of which I disapprove, and I am scheming gradually to get out of it, to hand it over for the benefit of those engaged in it, with a limit, I hope, to the amount anyone may make out of it before retiring’ (Liverpool Echo, 4 May 1916, 4).

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Thornton’s, formerly Dunn & Co., Lincoln

And so, around 1929 Dunn transferred the company to his managers. His retirement project was a ‘food reform’ hydro, the Branksome Dene Hotel in Dorset, which was ‘fruitarian and vegetarian’. Dunn died in August 1939, and his fruitarian hotel died with him.

Dunn’s Shops

At the time of Dunn’s retirement there were around 300 Dunn’s hat shops throughout the country, plus franchises. Already, despite the small size of many of the outlets, Dunn’s had branched out into men’s formal wear.

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Middlesbrough in 1923: mock-framed but no stained glass!

It was probably in the 1920s that Dunn’s developed a particularly distinctive form of shopfront which endured as the house style for many years. This had a mock-timber-framed surround, including open spandrels filled with leaded glass. Across the top of the doors and display windows, a band of transom lights was filled with stained glass, depicting the coats of arms of major British cities against a textured emerald green glass ground. Fascias were usually bookended by fluted brackets and bore rounded lettering – ‘Dunn & Co.’ and ‘Hat Makers’ – in a vaguely Celtic font.

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Thornton’s, formerly Dunn & Co, Lincoln

The shopfronts are ascribed, on surviving plans, to ‘G. A. Dunn & Co. Estate Department’, but there is no evidence that the company made a habit of designing and erected new buildings – it simply installed its shops in existing premises.

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Formerly Dunn & Co., Ilford (photo: 2002)

The olde-worlde style of Dunn’s shopfronts reveals a similar approach to W. H. Smith and Boots the Chemist. The idea of making references to cities where Dunn’s had branches – demonstrating its national reach – can be compared with Burton’s more modern-looking ‘chain of merit’. Indeed, since Dunn’s was also a men’s outfitters this might be viewed as an act of plagiarism – though it is unclear who came up with the idea first!

The End

Dunn’s performed reasonably through the middle of the 20th century, though the number of shops had dropped to 180 by 1962. By the early 1990s, Dunn’s was facing serious difficulties. Forty shops were sold in 1991 to Hedges, who kept the Dunn & Co name. In 1994, however, a major stake was sold, and just two years later, in December 1996, the receivers were brought in to wind up the business. At that time 130 shops still bore the Dunn’s brand name – this was bought by Ciro Citterio, which itself went into administration in 2005.

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Thornton’s, formerly Dunn & Co., Lincoln

Dunn’s, like so many other stalwarts of the 20th-century British High Street, has left a legacy of shopfronts in a national house style, which can still be spotted – once you know what to look for!

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15 Responses to The Story of Dunn’s the Hatter

  1. The Dunns shopfront owned by Lush in Bournemouth has recently been radically changed back to the original pre-Dunn style to match the other original shop fronts in the same building. Wonder what happened to the windows?

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  2. Andrew K says:

    The windows in the Liverpool branch on Ranelagh Street were covered up for about 20 years but were revealed a year or so again when it became a pub: http://c8.alamy.com/comp/GPRP4W/lanigans-irish-bar-in-ranelagh-street-liverpool-city-centre-GPRP4W.jpg

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Keith H says:

    The former Luton store has a “Dunn & Co, Hatters” tiled/mosaic entrance. I have a photo but wouldn’t know how to link to it.

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  4. Bernard M Whitfield says:

    The forty shops referred to were sold to HODGES not Hedges which was owned by Brian Greenwood who was the brother of the late Denis Greenwood of Greenwoods Menswear I worked for G A Dunn and Co for 30 years and for Greenwoods for 16 years . I worked in the Ranelagh Liverpool Branch of Dunns for 7 years from 1967 to 1974 and in later years in the same building for Greenwoods..During my 46 years in retail I have worked in 40 different branches. Retired in 2007. .

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  5. Bernard M Whitfield says:

    When an old shop front was removed from a G A Dunn & Co shop the stained glass panels depicting the various Coats of Arms were returned to the Estates Department for further use. They did have a supplier who made them at a reasonable price but in later years the price became so expensive that the newer branches had Coats of Arms printed on a single sheet of glass.

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  6. Jennifer says:

    I have a top hat from Dunn’s it’s in a bit of a sorry state now but still comes out occasionally as of tonight as my son needs it. It also has two metal initials inside, the letters are E& L does anyone know any reference to these.?

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    • Bernard Whitfield says:

      The initials which I remember were oval and about a third of an inch high were those of the original purchaser of the hat

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  7. nigel Cooper says:

    My grandfather was Eliis Randolph Dunn. He did work in the business. I have framed copies from the head office staff congratulating him on his marriage(1923) and another on his retirement( no date unfortunately )

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    • David Morgan says:

      Hello Nigel My late father Albert Morgan worked for Dunn’s in Camden Town Office for 50 years and his brother Herbert Morgan worked at the nearby cap factory for 51 years .I use every day a brown wallet embossed in gold letters Dunn and Co founded in 1887.

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      • Bernard M Whitfield says:

        When the Company celebrated their 75th anniversary in 1962 each member of staff received £1 for every years service. As I had started in 1960 I got the princely sum of £2 ( I was then on around £6 a week plus commission on sales. I did receive one of the wallets and I think that was for the centenary in 1987.

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  8. John Nowell says:

    Really pleased to have found something about Dunn & Co at last.
    My late father used to work for them…..In fact when he first joined, he worked in the Lincoln branch and also Luton.
    When he was called up for war, he was promised by the Dunn family his job would be there for him when he came back.
    (The sons of Mr Dunn were conscientious objectors and all worked on or under the land)
    On his return after being in Stalag, my father was branch manager of Lincoln but was given the new Nottingham branch in 1950 where he worked until his retirement.

    The shop windows were famous with their Oak wood surrounds and a French polisher would come the day after the window cleaner to give it all “the once over”.
    He would then work on the inside for the oak wood fixtures and fittings..

    The window display stands and boxes would be covered (stapled by the wall gun) with felt and would change colours according to the season.
    Yes the stained glass windows were there…..but the shop had a re make and all the original ones were just smashed to bits before throwing away in a skip…… My father managed to save Durham which is now a window for us and the Plymouth one is somewhere wrapped up but slightly damaged.

    The “New” style/make of windows were put in, but when the Nottingham branch finally closed they were pulled out and were going to be sent to America as someone had requested and bought them.

    As for the Lincoln shop, they suddenly had the phone call to say they were now closed and were not allowed to tell other branches,,,,,,,Strange behaviour indeed.

    They were going to experiment in 1987 with a “Younger” look type of shops to encourage the youth of the day. I was given a complimentary baseball jacket, jeans, shirt and suit to try out,,,,,,, I cannot remember the name they were going to call the line of shops…..DC springs to mind. and also Arthurs..but I could be wrong.

    Rumours over the demise were rife, one being the collapse of some of the Harris Tweed factories plus the over spend when using a top grade creative agency who started to give the London branches a new feel and look of “Brideshead Revisited” by having expensive pieces of antique furniture and décor within the store and paintings/photographs of Dunn & Co and staff from the past in various sporting pursuits,

    I did meet some of the directors and high management team from head office whilst growing up. Have fond memories of talking to them……all very kind and eager to promote the firm.

    Not sure if the headquarters that was in Camden Town still have the windows.

    Hope this is of some interest…….

    Liked by 1 person

    • The French Polishers we had visited the branches annually and in Lancashire were a father and son team. They seemed to know all the gossip from around the Company The felt covered blocks were brought in in the early 60’s when the new concept of window display was brought in which dispensed with the old idea of filling the windows from top to bottom and front to back with goods on sale because of the belief that men would not come in Inness they saw what they wanted in the window. The new policy was “Space Sells” and windows were dressed in pyramid shaped groups. It was then I started window-dressing as the manager could not cope with the new designs. I was with Dunn’s until they left retail in 1991 (31 years) and thereafter with Greenwood’s Menswear until Iretired 12 years ago.

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