Bouncing back: Rabbits & Co

Edward Harris Rabbits established one of the largest shoe factories in the world. His financial backing for Charles Booth helped to establish the Salvation Army.

Edward Harris Rabbits
Edward Harris Rabbits (1818 – 1874) was born the son of an agricultural labourer in Frome, Somerset.

E H Rabbits borrowed a capital of half a crown and established himself as a shoe maker and retailer in Newington, London. His factory was at the Elephant Buildings, Newington Butts.

Edward Harris Rabbits (1818 – 1874)

E H Rabbits was a argumentative and characterful man. Originally a Wesleyan Methodist, he tired of the formality of the church and became a Methodist Reformer, and later a dedicated member of the evangelical Methodist New Connexion.

E H Rabbits employed 90 men and 85 women by 1851. He operated multiple retail branches by 1856.

The E H Rabbits shoe factory was described as one of the largest in the world by 1861. With a height of 68 feet, it was one of the tallest industrial buildings in London. The warehouse constantly employed nearly 400 people. Well-heated and well-lit, it also contained a sixty foot-long lecture hall for the discussion of religion and philanthropy.

E H Rabbits first met William Booth (1829 – 1912), a penniless yet gifted Methodist preacher, in 1850. He encouraged Booth to continue as a preacher, provided him with financial support, and introduced him to his future wife, Catherine Mumford. Booth went on to establish the Salvation Army in 1865.

E H Rabbits died in 1874. He had been a keen donor to religious and philanthropic causes throughout his life.

Rabbits & Sons
The business passed to William Rabbits (1827 – 1878), brother to E H Rabbits, who was also a boot maker with a factory at St Thomas’s Works, Whites Grounds, Bermondsey. The business was renamed Rabbits & Sons.

William Rabbits was a modest and hard-working man. He died with an estate valued at under £70,000 in 1878.

The business was managed by his executors until 1880, when it was taken over in partnership by his sons, William Thomas Rabbits (1847 – 1908) and Charles Joseph Whittuck Rabbits (1854 – 1901). By this time the firm had 18 retail outlets across London.

William Thomas Rabbits left the partnership in 1887, likely due to ill health, and Charles Rabbits became sole proprietor.

Charles Rabbits registered the business as a private limited liability company in 1891. Rabbits & Sons ranked as one of the largest shoe manufacturers in London, rivalled only by Pocock Brothers in scale.

A workforce of 671 was employed in 1893. Charles Rabbits was recognised as a model employer, who supported pension schemes and sickness insurance for his staff.

Charles Rabbits died in 1901, with a gross estate valued at £321,179.

Rabbits & Sons was acquired by Freeman Hardy & Willis, a larger shoe retail chain, in 1903.

The Elephant Buildings at Newington Butts had become an engineering store by 1909.

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