Throughout much of the 20th century, Timothy Whites (later Timothy Whites & Taylors) was Boots the Chemist’s greatest rival. The chain was eventually swallowed up by Boots.
In 1848, at the age of 23, Timothy White (1825-1908) took over William Bilton’s business in Portsmouth as a ‘wholesale and retail Druggist, Oil and Colour and Seed Merchant’. Concocting drugs is not far removed from mixing oils and colours, and so the trades of druggists and oil and colourmen were often combined in the mid-19th century. From those beginnings, White’s business developed two distinct – but related – strands, as a chemist and as household stores.
Twenty years later White rebuilt 158-160 Commercial Road, Portsmouth as a double-fronted shop with accommodation above for his family. This coincided with the passage of the Pharmacy Act, requiring chemists and druggists to pass examinations and register with the Pharmaceutical Society before they could dispense dangerous drugs and poisons. White registered for the first time with the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain in December 1868.
In 1880 a test case established that corporate bodies could sell poisons, so long as they were dispensed by a qualified person. This opened the door to multiple retailing in the sector, and in the mid-1880s – around the same time as Jesse Boot – White began to open local branches. The business grew from three shops in 1885 to eight in 1889.
White had made his fortune by 1890, when he bought the Salle estate near Aylesbury in Norfolk, where he retired around 1893. His restoration of the parish church was thought to have weakened its roof but ‘he proved that he had the courage of his opinions by sitting in his pew in the nave, whilst the remainder of the congregation assembled in the chancel’. A stubborn man.
Woolmer White (1858-1931) took over the firm, propelling its development as a multiple retailer. By 1890 shop locations were advertised as ‘Landport, Portsea, Southsea, Hyde Park, Buckland, Somers Road, Broad Street and Gosport’, governed from headquarters on Chandos Street. Each shop had two sides, one trading as a chemist and the other as household stores. Branches spread along the south coast. In 1904 the Bognor Regis shop was organised into four different departments: pharmacy (which included perfumery, toiletries and photographic appliances), ironmongery, china and glass, and stationery.
Despite having large shops, Timothy Whites did not engage in building works to the same extent as Boots. The company’s shopfitting was, nonetheless, striking. Before the First World War – like Boots – large-scale gilded lettering often extended over entire façades: at Guildford signage was arranged around the building’s pediment and in Dover the premises were signalled as ‘Timothy Whites Corner’.
Shopfronts, such as Penzance, had art nouveau style colonettes between the display windows and trefoil shaped wrought-iron cresting above a salient fascia which usually read ‘Timothy White Coy Ltd’ in a distinctive font with two diagonal bars inside the letter ‘o’. By the 1920s the shops had gained a band of arched transom lights or panels that ran across the central entrance lobby. Each unit named a line of merchandise found in the shop, from ‘paints & enamels’ to ‘dispensing’.
By 1928 Timothy Whites had 105 freehold and leasehold shops in the south of England, a freehold factory and a laboratory. In that year the company was taken over by the financier Philip E. Hill (1873-1955). Hill sought to create a retail group that would challenge, if not surpass, Boots. A year earlier he had bought Taylors, a northern chain, and Squires, which manufactured ‘Chocoloids’ for constipation and ‘Lobeline’ for bronchitis at its Stirchley laboratories. Timothy Whites now entered into agreements, defining trading territories, with Taylors and Squires, whilst remaining a separate company under Hill’s chairmanship.
In 1935 Timothy Whites took over Taylors. Philip Hill argued for this merger by pointing out that Timothy Whites’ shops were nearly five times as profitable as Taylors’ due to their ‘double’ character, with a chemist’s business on one side and houseware and hardware on the other. Hill now wanted to enlarge Taylors’ smaller outlets, adding household departments wherever possible. Upon merger, the name of the new company became Timothy Whites & Taylors Ltd. The shops belonging to the group were named either ‘Timothy Whites’ or ‘Timothy Whites & Taylors’. Of 765 shops, just 172 were what Hill called ‘double’ shops.
Timothy Whites built some notable modern buildings in the mid-1930s, before and after full merger with Taylors. This included two ‘double’ stores designed by the notable retail architect Joseph Emberton for branches in Southsea. Both were destroyed by bombing during the war.
One of these – its exact address uncertain – attracted press attention after its opening in summer 1934 and featured in the New York Museum of Modern Art exhibition ‘Modern Architecture in England’ in 1937.
The central storey of this flat-roofed modern building was blind, faced in panels of opaque rough-cast glass with steel strips covering the joints, forming a non-structural skin with a geometric pattern. This created a foil for neon and aluminium tube lettering and a stylised carboy. The name Timothy Whites, executed in illuminated lettering, was affixed to a glass strip above a wavy art-deco style band. The store entrance was central, as usual, with lettering on the sills of the display windows: ‘Everything for Health and Home’ to the left and ‘Where Everyday Needs are Cheaper’ to the right. Inside: ‘The floor space is like a lake, through which the customer is floated, past inviting, rounded islands to his destination, and then efficiently returned to the street’.
Emberton’s second Southsea store, at 34-36 Palmerston Road, opened in winter 1934. More in keeping with contemporary trends, this was faced in Bath (‘Monks Park’) stone with an overall vertical emphasis, extremely simplified pilasters and a notional pediment. The interior was arranged over two floors – including a first-floor library – and much was made of the glass counters, the curved stairway and rounded cash desk.
A simple streamlined style was adopted for other new Timothy Whites stores, for example in Penzance, Felixstowe and Sittingbourne. Most of these buildings were of brick with continuous pale stone bands and metal windows. Beneath the fascia, the transom bands of standard Timothy Whites’ shopfronts included two long rectangular compartments: on double shops these read ‘household stores’ on one side and ‘dispensing chemist’ on the other.
Timothy Whites & Taylors, with over 600 shops, was taken over by Boots in 1968. Rationalisation eventually left Timothy Whites with just 196 shops selling ‘houseware’, but the name disappeared in 1985.
Many thanks to Sophie Clapp, Senior Archive & Records Manager at Books UK, for giving me permission to include some of their images. Check out the wonderful Walgreens Boots Alliance Archive Catalogue for more historic pictures and other treasures!