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!

This entry was posted in Fashion and Clothing, Fashion Retailers. Bookmark the permalink.

38 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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    • Stephen Allen says:

      I never worked at Dunn & Co but when I was a child my family used to holiday in Devon at the same hotel as George Pedrick and his family – year after year. George was, I believe a long serving Director of the company. He was such a kindly man and although of an age where he could be forgiven for having little tolerance for other people’s young kids he put up with me being a complete nuisance. We would dig the sand away under the back of his deck chair while we was trying to read in peace and sabotage his pipe with exploding charges sold to children to prank pipe and cigar smoking adults! Anyway such a decent chap left me with a positive view of Dunn and Co – although I never shopped there:

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      • Bernard Whitfield says:

        Thanks for that. Mr Pedrick was indeed a gentleman. He was I believe the only man to hold alone the position of Managing Director and Chairman, these were normally held as joint position with another person.. He lived I believe at Hatch End London. I remember that when he retired the staff bought him a sit on lawnmower.He sadly never used it as he passed away a short time after.

        Bernard M Whitfield

        ________________________________

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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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      • E Evans says:

        Hello,
        Just found this when browsing (wasting time) on the Internet. My late father worked at Camden Town for 50 years, both in the office and the cap factory at various times. I think your Uncle Herbert must have been the Herbert he used to talk about – apparently he was asked to make a bowler hat for a baby elephant (by a film company) and produced a cracker but would never tell them what he’d used to model it on. He’d actually taken the wooden seat off the toilet and used that to model the frame. He was told he could do very well working in the film industry but preferred the security of working for Dunn’s.

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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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    • Brendan Donaghy says:

      Hello John,
      Your recollections about Dunn’s exploring clothing directed at younger people rings true. I was in my 20’s at the time and save for a Crombie overcoat, the company didn’t stock clothing I’d want to buy. There was a Buying Department and I remember one or two persons there introducing modern suits that I liked but, I felt they were fighting against tradition and though those buyers probably had their finger on the pulse of retail trends,it seemed they were shackled and unlikely to entirely have their say.

      That said, we were required to wear suits when representing the Company. Once a year there was a warehouse sale when I could buy a suit for £5 or so. In the days before ‘mix and match’ the suits never fitted off the peg and I had the trousers tailored. The low investment was a happy compromise because inevitably, I’d visit a store and damage the suit by inadvertently contacting a newly painted surface.

      After I left, I was told a management consultancy was introduced to advise the then MD/Chairman. If I recall correctly, the management consultancy may have even left his employer to take over at Dunn’s full time. That would have marked a major break in tradition because before, the MD’s/Chairmen were time servers who typically had served their time on the shop floor. I recall talk of ideas to appeal to younger customers but don’t know if that idea gained traction and if it resulted in actual shops.

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  9. Peter Searle says:

    All this talk of stained glass shop windows I’ve just bought a double sided oval metal Dunns sign . It has two hook hangers so ” where did it hang ?” . Looks to lightweight to be outside in all weather.
    Any old staff recall ???

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  10. Brendan Donaghy says:

    Lovely to discover something on Dunn and Co. history. I previously worked in the drawing office of the Estates Department and produced drawings of the English oak shopfronts and intricate coats of arms. Everything was drawn by hand onto tracing paper using Rotring ink pens. I did some design alteration work on the Ilford store pictured in the article. My uncle Jim Drew worked at Dunn’s before me. And I worked under the direction of Les Fretten and Peter Shadbolt.

    The original shopfront designs were expensive to create and the traditional layouts included deep and dark entrance lobbies and in some cases grand staircases to upper trading floors. But these features didn’t suit modernising retail trends. So the Estates Department ran two parallel design and fit-out approaches:
    1) Mini-refits for stores that were maybe flagging. This involved reducing the entrance lobbies, which in many cases gained lots of indoor retail space. Alterations often involved cutting and carving to reduce the original oak shopfront. Some refits included modern display systems lining the shop walls and shops on two floors were condensed to one floor. If possible, side entrances were fitted and the old upper floors could be let as office space. Conversions of this type gave Dunn’s another income stream in cases of properties they owned freehold.
    2) New fit outs to entirely new stores. In the 1980’s these were characterised by two-tone wooden frieze in the shopfronts instead of coats of arms, which were expensive to make. There was also the question of if the coats of arms were fitting for a retailer with one eye on modernisation. Unfortunately, many of the new store fronts were also made from aluminium frames and while this is typical for most modern retail units today, it marked a major shift in Dunn’s identity.
    3) The gaelic shopfront lettering remained and I recall exploring different script sizing and styles – again with one eye on modernisation. But, that idea met with lots of resistance and the newer shop signs were only ever marginally different to those that had gone before.

    There were many shop burglaries. This led to putting roller shutters in shopfronts. And it included early use of laminated glass, which in the case of an Oldham store, resisted breakage from someone going at it with a paving slab. We had to think about other security issues too. This included thieves using car jacks to lift off rooflights allowing them to lower themselves into stores and take the goods. Someone was once caught using a fishing rod to hook and remove clothes through the door letter plate. And there was a story of a thief still being on the premises when the police arrived and attempting to pose as a manikin in the shopfront!

    During my time at Dunn’s I recall the retail outlets numbered maybe 180 to 200 say. I kept a list on which I highlighted those stores visited in the course of my work. And, a high proportion (maybe as much as 60%) were freehold assets with the remainder being leasehold. Some of the freehold outlets had been in Dunn’s ownership for many years, experiencing enormous growth in capital value, which was much to do with their location on mainstream shopping high streets. A legal advisor to the firm once described the property portfolio as a Pandora’s Box, owing to its apparent value!

    Dunn’s demise happened many years after I left and was sad to see. I don’t know the nuts and bolts of the demise but often wondered if the property assets could have been leveraged or alternatively used to keep the company going in one shape or another.

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    • Hi Brendan. This is all fantastically useful and interesting information. Thank you so much for sharing it. K

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    • John Nowell says:

      Many thanks for sharing that piece of information about the fronts etc….. My father who was the manager of Nottingham Listergate would shout at anyone caught sticking their chewing gum on the shop front….. In those days you could do that!!!!!

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      • Bernard Whitfield says:

        I understood that a large part of the property portfolio was in the assets of the Pension Fund

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    • Bernard Whitfield says:

      Hi Brendan. Thanks for a very interesting contribution. As the last manager and only manager in the new branch in Oldham which closed in 1991 I do remember the glass breakages. In one weekend we had 3 windows broken and that after they had already been replaced with laminated glass. Even though the police station was 200 yards away the theives still found enough time to stand in front of glad and makes hole large enough to steal goods from the display. I understood from Les Fretton that the company carried the cost of replacement glass as the cost of insurance was prohibitive. Following the damage during that weekend it was decided to install security shutters. A branch I worked in for seven years was Ranelagh Street Liverpool and that in 1967 was typical of the deep fronted store with an arcade style entrance and a huge oak staircase going up to another sales floor and another staircase leadin to a second storages and staff rooms on the second floor Later years saw bothered upper floors rented out.

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      • Brendan Donaghy says:

        Hello Bernard,

        I do remember talk of the company contributing to the beneficiaries of the pension fund (the former Dunn’s employees) but don’t know if this involved leveraging the property or directing sales income into the fund. Evidently, the Oldham branch suffered persistent attacks. I also worked on the refurbishment of the Ranelagh Street, Liverpool branch. The drawing office joined the Display Department. That department had a mock shop display. They’d dress the displays using felt wrapped riser blocks and manikins, photograph the arrangement and then print the photographs in their own dark room. The display prints were then sent to the shops to copy. Though I don’t know how they dealt with the fact that some shops had small display areas while others had comparatively large displays owing to the original cavernous entrance lobbies. There was a school of thought that the old lobbies hindered sales because they were dark and uninviting. They also meant too much stock was displayed outside the shops rather than inside.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Bernard Whitfield says:

        I followed the display plans which were very adaptable to most display windows. We did get a directive to remove the doors which blocked the view into the branch. That was a completely different concept to the way the shopfronts were in the Branch I started in in St Helens which originally had a shopfront dating from around 1914 with a display case blocking the view through the entrance door. The display widows in 1960 were both around 12 ft wide by around 8ft deep and had to be dressed so they were completely full front to back and top to bottom. I remember the Area Manager insisting a cap being placed onto an uncovered spot on the window bed. Every item of stock had to be represented in the displays. I believe in those days it was thought that men would not come in to shop unless they could choose first of all from the window displays

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  11. David Skelham says:

    I worked from 1970 to 1991 at the kettering branch.The site has now become a bakery,but the original oak frontage remains,but without the stained glass panels.

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  12. Brendan Donaghy says:

    The drawing office retained all the tracing paper shop drawings in metal cabinets on suspended hangers. When I began, the country was already on metric measurement. Most shop plans were drawn to a scale of 1:50 and with larger details produced at 1:20 or 1:5 say. But, we were also required to work on old tracings when modernising a store. Those floor plans were traditionally drawn at a scale of 1/4 inch to 1 foot. This converted to a metric equivalent of 1:48 and we bought special scale rules to allow working this way.

    Architecturally, we had to identify with terminology like ‘stallrisers’ which was the panel between the pavement and window cill. I gather the term came from traditional riser blocks used to elevate market stalls. Those panels were originally in oak but again, they were deemed expensive and in non conservation areas, ceramic tiled panels were used instead. The ‘pilasters’ were the column facings that framed the shopfronts on each side. These could be any combination of oak panelling, tiling and in some cases we used stone like travertine marble. This was an area in which the local planning authority might take interest and to some extent they could dictate requirements to feature in the finished design. The glazed panels and arched ends were generically termed ‘spandrels’ and that term is still in use today on modern buildings.

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  13. John Nowell says:

    More stories about the Nottingham branch on Lister Gate near the Broad Marsh……… Reading the most recent posts have jogged a few memories…… I do have a photo of my father standing in the original entrance with the Mosaic floor which all went when they had a make over…. I will have to find it…..Also an image of the windows from the 50’s when everything that was being sold was on view…….There was only the one sales floor with a little office…..to get to the staffroom there were some narrow winding stairs. The room was very primitive with just a table and chairs…sink and a toilet. but you could hear the lift going up to the floors above us.
    There was a side entrance to get to the upstairs floors but no idea if Dunns owned the whole building.

    The offices were supposed to be for law firms but one year it was discovered that is was being used as a high class escort agency at night time where clients would arrive and the ladies would come down from the top floor to be chosen.
    My father had to be on a police raid!!!!….You could get through to the side entrance/lift/office stairs through the shop. At closing time he had to wait a few hours with a number of police men to unlock the fire exit!!!!!…. I remember my mother telling my father to take care but don’t bring home a prostitute…….When he had gone I asked my mother what was a prostitute and was told..”Ask your father!!!!”

    The raid was a success and the place closed down, but my father was told that he and the rest of the staff could help themselves to all of the furniture in the two floors. We had two office chairs, but the young staff members took the rest as a couple of them were getting married and setting up their homes. This would be the late 60’s early 70’s
    When Nottingham finally closed, it first turned into the Games Workshop……but the floor started to warp and after a safety check it was found that the floor would collapse into the cellar below.
    They moved out and a café opened and turned the cellar into part of it’s establishment. It was there for quite some time.

    Santander Bank then took over still using the cellar area as part of it’s premises.

    In recent years it has become a charity shop……but you would not guess that it was once part of Dunn & Co.
    Hope these tales amused you and I will try and find the photographs……

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  14. Pamela Loye says:

    My father, Bill Davidson-Page joined Dunn & Co before the war. His job was kept open and he returned there at the end of the war. He was Manager of Twickenham, Elephant & Castle, London where The Crays bought their hats, he then moved to Staines and finished his career in Aldershot.
    He retired in 1986 and died shortly afterwards. We lived above the Wimbledon shop for 16 years.

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  15. Iain Altuccini says:

    I still lament the passing of Dunn’s. Their presence on our local High Street (Wembley) maintained a sense of respectability long after the ambience of the general area turned a little lackluster.
    I recall in the late 70’s, in my late teens, buying an olive green Tweed jacket – not at all fashionable at that time, but absolutely desirable in my eyes, and wearing it throughout the late 70’s and early 80’s. Maybe I was the only Punk and New Wave fan at the time sporting the look, but I didn’t care – it was (and still is) my favourite Tweed.
    The same pattern can still be found in Vintage stores and online – I just bought a new overcoat in the same fabric!
    I’ve often wondered how Dunn’s sourced their Tweeds – I’d love to know about their providence and the official names of the patterns.

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    • Bernard Whitfield says:

      I always understood that Dunn & Co were the largest retailers of Hand Woven Harris Tweed in the world. When I started work in the St Helens branch 59 years ago the cost of a Jacket was £6-5shillings. When the company based in Camden Town closed in 1991/2 the cost was approaching £90. When Dunn’s had Jackets at £6+ their northern competition Greenwood’s Menswear were retailing just two patterns at £4/17/6. The pattern you describe was for quite a time the best seller and the same pattern was used for an overcoat at £9/9/0,a hat at around £2 and a cap at 14/6. Hard to believe that the tweed was all hand woven.

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      • Iain Altuccini says:

        Thanks Bernard. Incredible to think that those fabrics are still around today and still performing well. The workmanship (Workpersonship?) on all the garments was I think exceptional by today’s standards.
        I also recall the dedication and knowledge of the people I encountered in Dunn’s stores over the years. Very knowledgable and great service as a general rule.

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  16. Jill Dunn says:

    Wow, this stuff is fascinating. I am the great-great-granddaughter of G A Dunn, and the last Dunn in this line at least ….how interesting to hear all these stories.

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    • Nigel Cooper says:

      Hello Jill, I am a great great grandson of G A Dunn.My grandparents were Randolph and Hettie Dunn, my mother was Monica Dunn. Hello cousin. regards Nigel Cooper

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      • John Nowell says:

        Hello Nigel and Jill,,,,,, This is exciting to read about you two finding each other. Don’t panic I am NOT related!!!!,,,,,,, Just a thought for the pair of you. Ever considered writing a history on the family and how the business was created?… After all over the years it was a very iconic shop in looks etc. I also feel the history behind the sons during the war would make an added bonus and twist to the normal war tales, and also how George A. Dunn helped his workers would also be another way of promoting the interest.. Being a Quaker could be a chapter on it’s own. You also could gather inputs from ex staff.
        I would be very happy to help over the Nottingham branch and about my late father who was the manager there.
        With all good wishes to you both…… John

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  17. Nigel Cooper says:

    Hello John,
    I wish that my knowledge was good enough
    to be able to help you unfortunately it is restricted to very little I learned as a young child. The adult version of me would be fascinated to know more.
    Regards. Nigel Cooper

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