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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!