Irwin’s was a popular regional grocery chain from the 1880s until 1960, when it was taken over by Tesco and phased out. The shops spread from the company’s Liverpool heartland, along the North Wales coast.
The founder, John Irwin (1839-1920), was the son of a farmer in Clones, County Armagh. He seems to have served an apprenticeship with a grocer in Dublin before moving to England in either 1864 or 1867 (reports vary!) and opening a grocery shop in Westminster Road, Kirkdale.
In the early 1870s Irwin travelled to the States, but disliked the experience and returned after six months. He then began to open branch shops, starting in Kirkdale and Bootle. As the business grew, Irwin concentrated on Liverpool’s suburbs, just as Sainsbury’s was then colonising the suburban centres of London. He had 15 shops by 1887.
By 1891 John Irwin had moved with his family to Birkdale, outside Southport. A year later, on 11 November 1892, John Irwin, Sons & Co. Ltd. was registered as a private limited company described as a wholesale grocer and provision dealer. Shares were held by Irwin in partnership with his eldest son – James Nathaniel Irwin (1865-1944), who was in business in Crosby – together with a corn merchant, a warehouseman, a bookkeeper, a clerk and an accountant, presumably Irwin’s associates or employees. By 1902 Irwin’s had branches in 21 districts in the vicinity of Liverpool.
In later years it was another son, John Arthur Irwin (1872-1923), who succeeded his father as managing director of Irwin’s. On his death, the founder made a generous bequest of shares to employees, ranging from directors to humble shop assistants. No family member was in a position to follow John Arthur. Until 1930 the business was managed by W. C. Harrison, who introduced a profit-sharing scheme in 1925.
Irwin’s provided a higher level of service than many multiple grocers and provision dealers. By 1920 it was offering a cash-on-delivery service within the Liverpool area. Groceries were delivered by Irwin’s fleet of red vans. A red livery was also adopted for the shops, which were often referred to in the firm’s advertising as ‘The Ruby Red Stores’. One of the earliest purpose-built stores survives on Green Lane, Liverpool. At the top of the red brick façade the name of the company is proclaimed on the parapet, in moulded terracotta lettering.
One of Irwin’s main products in the 1890s and 1900s was Lansdowne butter from a creamery in Kenmare, Ireland. Fine mosaic panels advertising both Irwin’s and Lansdowne butter survive on the exteriors of shops in Wallasey and Wavertree. It is possible that the cost was shared with the producer, in the manner of tobacco manufacturers.
Irwin’s had 165 branches by 1920. Several of the new stores erected in the subsequent decade – mainly under Harrison’s supervision, and often with involvement from the Liverpool architects Medcalf & Medcalf – were larger than their predecessors and took the form of bungalow (single-storey) units, rather like contemporary stores built by William Jackson’s around Hull. Some of these were detached. Land values were obviously lower than in the London suburbs where Sainsbury’s was now expanding by taking central units in shopping parades.
Irwin’s bungalow stores invariable displayed red brick – in keeping with ‘The Ruby Red Stores’ moniker – but ranged from completely plain (for example Wepre Drive, Connah’s Quay, 1924) to decorative tiling (for example in Mold and Prestatyn, c.1924), and even glazed terracotta or faience (as at Rhos-on-Sea, c.1925). Irwin’s love of mosaics appears to have ceased. Instead, blind flank walls incorporated simple red and yellow tile advertising panels with decorative borders. Those bore the slogan ‘Irwins Cash Grocers’.
In 1960, Jack Cohen bought 212 shops from Irwin’s. This was Tesco’s launchpad for expansion throughout the North-West of England, and the end of Irwin’s chain.
All photographs © Kathryn A. Morrison, unless otherwise stated.
I’ve posted in a local Colwyn Bay/Rhos Facebook group. Comments here if you’re interested
Thanks Huw! Shame I didn’t have photos of other Welsh branches!
Further comment on Irwin’s in Llandudno here –
Thank you very much Huw.
And thanks to Rob Lloyd Jones, I’ve had a pic of Irwin’s Penmaenmawr, now Spar I think. How can I share it – there doesn’t seem to be a facility here to attach an image
Have you done anything on Spar btw?
Hi Huw. Due to technical incompetence (or perhaps using an antiquated WordPress template!) I have never worked out how to let people share images on the site! However, if you email it to me I can add it to the post – if you want to do that you’d better give me text for a caption! As for Spar, because it’s a ‘voluntary group’ rather than a chain I’ve not looked into its history. I know there was a lot of interest in establishing voluntary groups in the 1930s, but that most came into being in the UK after the war. I bet someone out there specialises in their history! K