Millets, the outdoor retail specialist, has maintained a strong presence on the British High Street for over 100 years.
Recently I began to dig into Millets’ company history for my forthcoming book on chain stores. Before long I had stumbled across numerous different inter-connected Millet or Millett businesses and disappeared – for a great deal longer than I intended – down the proverbial rabbit hole.
Much remains mysterious, but I have reached the conclusion that the Millet family must have set up a syndicate that sourced and supplied merchandise for multiple family firms – multiple multiples – all of which specialised in government surplus after 1918 before moving into motoring gear, camping equipment and, eventually, casual outdoor clothing.
This approach was not unique. At least two other Jewish families in the men’s clothing trade created national retail chains in just this manner – as family syndicates that shared buying, wholesaling (and sometimes also manufacturing) facilities – in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Modern Millets is rooted in businesses founded by the sons of Sharje Millet (born 1830): Max, Morris, Peter, Zalek and Charles. The brothers left their home in Dabrowa, in modern Poland, to settle in Portsmouth and Southampton in the 1880s and 1890s. They started out as pedlars or hawkers but eventually opened shops as drapers or outfitters. In the hands of their descendants, many of these single outlets sprouted branches and became successful multiples trading under the Millet or Millett fascia. The family’s big opportunity came in the aftermath of the Great War, when they won government contracts to retail army surplus.
The company sometimes referred to as ‘Bristol Millets’ originated in 1893 when Israel Marcus ‘Max’ Millet (1867-1949) opened an outfitter’s shop in Southampton as J. M. Millet & Sons. In 1919 he was selling army surplus as ‘government clothing contractors’. His son-in law, Bernard Spielman, opened a Bristol branch under the J. M. Millet & Sons name in 1921 and steadily developed a chain, with five shops by 1939. As well as army surplus, he sold motoring clothing and, by the mid-1930s, ‘camping requisites’. In 1970 an ill-fated merger was announced with a similar family business, R. & A. Millett of Twickenham, or ‘London Milletts’.
The roots of ‘London Milletts’ can be traced back to Morris Millett (1879-1937), who opened premises — his third branch — in Croydon in 1926. The painted yellow and blue signage of Milletts can still be seen on the side of Morris’s shop.
There were eight men’s outfitter’s shops by 1948, when Morris’s son, Alan C. Millett (1928-2016), joined the firm. This expanded to 19 shops, but in 1961 Alan struck out on his own as A. C. Millett & Co. with a menswear shop in Richmond. He had 33 shops (including 13 acquired in 1962 from E. G. Millett & Co.) by 1964 and 83 shops (including 50 from G. H. Lavey & Co Ltd.) by 1966, when he was joined by his brother Robert and formed R. & A. Millett (Shops) Ltd.
The E. G. Millett & Co. taken over in 1962 appears to have been a London-based firm with branches in Exeter and Norwich by 1926. Like other family firms, it sold government surplus. The manager was Gabriel Fierstone (1902-1980), the husband of Eva Millett (1893-1948), a daughter of Peter Millett. The E and G in the name may, therefore, have referred to Eva and Gabriel.
Shortly before contemplating merger with ‘Bristol Millets’ in 1970, R. & A. Millett Ltd. had been interested in buying yet another family concern – Milletts Stores (1928) Ltd., known as ‘Leicester Milletts’ – but this was snapped up and absorbed by Black & Edgington.
Milletts Stores (1928) Ltd. had floated in 1928 to acquire and expand the existing businesses of J. E. Millett & Co. and Milletts Stores Ltd. whose 27 shops – scattered throughout the country from Aberdeen to Plymouth – specialised, as usual, in army surplus. ‘J. E.’ may have been Peter Millet’s daughters Jessie (1888-1966) and Eva, who were joined in business after the Great War by their sister Florence (b.1890) and her husband and first cousin, Michael ‘Mickey’ Millett (1890-1966), a son of Zalek Millett (1863-1930). Milletts Stores appears to have been started by Zalek himself. Mickey ran Milletts Stores with his cousin Isaac Moses ‘Denis’ Millett (1899-1966).
Like their relations elsewhere, Mickey and Denis sold army surplus and moved into camping goods. In 1966 Anthony D. Millett (1936-1985), Denis’s son, became chairman and tried to modernise the company image. By 1969, when the 27 shops were refurbished with a black and orange colour scheme and the slogan ‘the good sense store’, the emphasis had shifted away from army surplus to jeans and camping.
It was to the chagrin of ‘London Milletts’ that Black & Edgington bought ‘Leicester Milletts’ for £1.3 million in 1970. Its property was subsequently valued – conservatively – at £1.5 million, and four key city-centre sites (including the famous 25 Church Street, Liverpool, where Woolworth’s started trading in 1909) were sold on the open market, raising £1 million. Having brokered this excellent deal, Black & Edgington launched Blacks Outdoor Stores, starting in Leeds, Birmingham and Liverpool. Blacks went on to take over Greenfield Milletts in 1985.
Greenfield Milletts Ltd. was run by the Greenfield family, who had probably married into the Milletts. When the company floated in 1970, it was already trading as ‘Milletts’, apparently catering for younger customers by ‘selling a range of casual, leisure and protective clothing as well as camping equipment’. Its slogan was ‘The Store for All Seasons’, and its trademark was, reportedly, overfilled windows. It expanded as a chain from 17 shops in 1971 to 37 in 1975 and 51 by 1978, when it planned expansion into Scotland. The only blot on the company’s reputation was its purchase of the luxurious houses of its joint managing directors, John and David Greenfield: following a Sunday Times report, this was referred to in a House of Commons debate as ‘a racket’.
When ‘Bristol Millets’ and ‘London Milletts’ failed to reach agreement in 1970, they continued their separate trajectories. There were 17 branches of Millets of Bristol (Holdings) Ltd. – as J. M. Millet & Sons had become – by 1982, when it was acquired by Foster Brothers. In 1985 Foster Brothers was bought by Sears, who disposed of it – keeping Millets – in 1992.
In the Sears stable, Millets was united with by the former ‘London Milletts’, with which it had so nearly merged in 1970. This had 84 branches by 1971, specialising in jeans and camping gear. It moved from Twickenham to new headquarters in Northampton in 1973 and floated as a public company, Milletts Leisure Shops plc, in 1978. In the same year it set up Milletts Shops Scotland with Black & Edgington, taking full ownership in 1984. Also in 1984, it acquired Wakefield Stores. Sears snapped it up in 1986 when Alan Millett retired.
After 1986, within Sears, the Millet chain of 64 shops merged with Milletts’ 122 shops to form Millets Leisure Ltd. In 1996, following a management buyout – a rather predictable course of events within Sears at this time – Millets Leisure became The Outdoor Group, with around 158 stores. It had grown to 195 stores by 1999, when it was acquired by Blacks Leisure plc (which already had a chain of 221 shops, including 43 Blacks Outdoor stores). JD Sports bought Blacks Leisure, including Millets, in 2012.
Today Millets remains one of the UKs main retailers of outdoor clothing, footwear and equipment. Its 90 or so shops have recently had a revamp – the old bright blue and yellow fascias have been replaced in grey and white, with a bright green arrow logo.
If anyone can shed further light on Millets or Milletts stores, and how the various companies were coordinated, please leave a comment below!
All photographs c. K. A. Morrison