The Story of Dunn’s the Hatter

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Thornton’s, formerly Dunn & Co., Lincoln


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 – but listing other branches on shopfronts was common amongst multiples in the early 20th century.

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 Hodges, 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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137 Responses to The Story of Dunn’s the Hatter

  1. Roy Dempsey says:

    Dear Mr. Bradshaw I am certain I worked with you at Corp St. When you took over from Peter Jagger. Do you remember Kieth and Simon Tonks, Simon Poole and Duggie Tustin. I was transfered to 068 from 071 Wolverhampton. If I remember right you were a pro footballer and Sheffield Wednesday fan. You were very,very kind to me and gave me my happiest memories of working for Dunn & Co.
    Wonderfull to hear from you.


    • Mike Bradshaw says:

      God Bless you Roy. Yes I remember you. Always had a smile for everyone and very polite and respectful. You were an excellent member of the team at Corporation St and I valued that.
      I hope that life has and will continue to be kind to you and that this reply finds its way to you.
      We now live in Matlock, Derbyshire but will be moving down to Alex’s area in Cirencester within the next few years. You may remember Alex my son, he occasionally helped out at the local Midland branches on Saturday’s. He and his brother Tim have made a good life and have lovely families.
      So good to hear from you Roy and thank you for your thoughtful words,

      Mike Bradshaw


      • Roy Dempsey says:

        Dear Mr Bradshaw
        Thank you so much for your kind reply, the last Dunn & Co reunion I went to was with Dave Smith nee Jurisic from Dudley branch to mark the retirement of Brian Jeavons the former manager of Dudley branch in April 2000. Our former Area Director Mr. Moore was also there. He too was a very kind and thoughtful man (is he the person referred to as Malcolm Moore in other posts) It is so nice to catch up with you and to relive old times, also I do remember Alex a fine young man even then.
        Please keep in touch if you can
        Kindest Regards
        Roy Dempsey


  2. Roy Neal says:

    Just came across this website looking for photos of Dunn & co stores as my son who had just been to worcester was asking about my time as manager there and where about the shop was situated. I started at 16 at 068 corporation st birmingham with sid marshall the manager and worked on 1st floor with Les humphries, Jack lumb, Mike smith, Steve martin, Bill dempster and Len potts who taught me everything regarding window dressing, i remember John clay and Dougie tustin on the ground floor who were both so knowledgable about headwear, and regarding johns question about clothing codes i think 2 might relate to umbrellas but not 100 per cent, i remember all the other codes you mentioned as i used to write all the days sales in the daily sales pad and total them all up at the end of the day, i did manage to find a photo of worcester location which is now a Betfred shop, best wishes to all former collegues who knew me.


  3. Brendan Rose says:

    I started work at Dunns in Twickenham in 1959. The manager was Mr. Brown.over the next 7 years I worked at Hounslow, Richmond, Picadilly, under Mr Lucy’s.Regent St under Mr. Starlings, Victoria, Fleet Street, Edgware Rd, West Ealing. For the last couple of years I was a relief manager. I left in 1966 as my girl friend got fed up with me Working Saturdays,


  4. Mike says:

    2 – Umbrellas?


    • Roy Neal says:

      Hi mike, john clay was asking above regarding bar code computer tickets from each item and asking if anyone can remember which item started with number 2 and i thought it was umbrellas, as i used to write all the days sales down in sales pad. before cashing up for the day, and as you know there were quite a few when you worked at 068 corporation st.


      • Mike Bradshaw says:

        Yes Roy, on a busy trading day I used to get writers cramp! Give my regards to John please.


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