Circumstances surrounding the founding and naming of Foster Brothers, the men’s clothing retailer, are rather mysterious. When the founder, William Foster (1852-1914) died, his obituaries noted that he had opened his first shop with his brother in Pontefract in 1876. However, later accounts claim that Foster had no brother, but used two different photographs of himself in the firm’s publicity material.
Foster’s sons, William Henry (1880-1960) and Edgar (1899-1976), eventually took over the business, which became a private limited company in 1894 and floated as Foster Brothers Clothing Co. Ltd. in 1951.
Although Foster Brothers was primarily a working-class clothier, outfitter and tailor, selling cheap ready-to-wear garments to men and boys on low incomes, William Foster – like Robert Dyas in the oil and colour trade – was also a bankruptcy auctioneer, disposing of the stock and shopfittings of clothiers who had gone out of business.
Foster Brothers moved from Pontefract to Birmingham in 1884 – the very year Norris Hepworth set about creating a chain of shops in the North of England – and began to sprout branches throughout the Midlands and the South. There were 40 branches by 1904, 118 (23 of which were in and around Birmingham) in 1926, and 146 in 1939. Five shops were destroyed by bombing during the Second World War, and 20 closed.
Unlike Hepworth’s, which started as a manufacturer and later entered retailing, Foster Brothers initially had no manufacturing capacity. A small tailor’s workshop appears to have been attached to the shop at 13-16 Parade, Birmingham, in the 1890s. This sufficed until 1906 when Stammers Ltd. of Walsall became a subsidiary company. Made-to-measure suits continued to be made in workshops behind the Parade branch until 1936. Since ready-made clothing remained Foster’s mainstay, this operation was on a much more modest scale than that of Montague Burton. Like other manufacturing menswear companies, Foster’s turned to making uniforms during both world wars. A second factory opened in Brownhills in 1955 but the company’s reliance on its own production dropped from 40% in 1968 to 13% in 1973. Similarly, in 1968 80% of its clothing was made in Britain but this had reduced to 45% by 1973. Stock was increasingly imported from Hong Kong and other countries.
Much of Foster Brothers growth was due to the acquisition of other chains. For example:
- An unknown acquisition doubled the size of the company around 1902.
- In 1965 Foster’s bought W. L. Thomson & Son, with its chain of Dormie dress-hire shops in Scotland.
- In 1966 buying Jessops (Tailors) Ltd., with its Batley factory and 14 shops, allowed Foster’s to spread into the North of England.
- In 1973 Foster’s bought the childrenswear chain, Kids In, which had 5 shops. It was renamed Adams Childrenswear after its former proprietors. By 1983 Adams had 82 stores selling babywear, prams, nursery furniture and clothes for children up to 12.
- Also in 1973, Foster’s bought the rainwear manufacturers and retailer, Stone-Dri. This had started off in Lancashire in 1948 as The Direct Raincoat Company. By 1977 it was deemed a failure and most of its shops were converted into Foster Brothers outlets.
- Bradley (Chester) Ltd. was acquired in 1970, with 165 shops in the North-West and Wales.
- Discount for Beauty, which sold cosmetics and toiletries in 22 self-service shops, was added to the group in 1978.
- Foster’s final important acquisition, in 1982, was Millets of Bristol (Holdings) Ltd., which sold leisurewear and camping equipment.
Other initiatives in the late 1960s included a small chain of fashion boutiques named Mr Christopher, and a brief experiment opening joint stores with Dorothy Perkins, including a ‘walk-around’ store in Brentwood, Essex.
As Foster’s chain grew, so did its need for ever-larger warehouse premises. The first was behind the shop in Coventry Street, Birmingham. This was superseded by the former law courts in Moor Street and then a four-storey building in Albert Street. In 1961 the creation of the inner ring road forced the firm to move from Albert Street to Bradford Street and in 1968 – mindful of access to the expanding national motorway network – new purpose-built headquarters (by Harper Fairley Associates, architects) opened at Shirley, Solihull. The single-storey top-lit warehouse was capable of servicing 700 shops, with room for expansion, although the chain then stood at 225. An entire wing housed the computer – a Honeywell 200 – for stock control: when items were sold, tags were removed and returned to headquarters for scanning. Goods were moved by an overhead conveyor system and transported to branches by a fleet of 30 lorries.
Foster Brothers had just refurbished its 400 menswear shops when, in 1985, Ward White made an unsolicited bid for the company. A counterbid by Sears, for £113 million, was accepted. Sears went on to acquire Horne Brothers and Your Price to build up its menswear division. This didn’t thrive and in 1991 Sears announced the sale of Horne Brothers and Dormie, and the closure of 100 other menswear shops. A year later a depleted Foster’s and Your Price were sold for £1 to a management buyout team, whilst Sears kept Adams and Millets. Naturally, Sears also kept the freehold and long leasehold properties, for which the new owners paid rent.
Your Price (90 shops) and Foster’s (reduced to 250 shops) merged, but Foster Menswear Ltd. went into administration in 1998 ‘after a failed attempt to move away from its 1980s-type denim clothes range in favour of sportswear’. Its 39 remaining shops, mainly located in malls, were bought from the administrator by the Scottish entrepreneur Tom Hunter, who planned to move Foster’s headquarters from Solihull to Ayr. It ceased trading around 2002.
Photographs copyright K. Morrison