Category Archives: Retail

Suite success: Maple & Co

Maple & Co was the largest furniture retailer in the world.

In 1840 John Maple (1815 – 1900) partnered with a Mr Cook to form Maple & Cook, furnishers and drapers of Tottenham Court Road, London. The business had a capital of under £500. Cook left the firm shortly afterwards.

By 1880 the business was being managed by his son, John Blundell Maple (1845 – 1903). The subsequent growth of the business was mainly to his credit. Maple had “unbounded energy, enterprise and commercial genius” according to the Leeds Mercury.  An obituary would later describe his “great shrewdness and energy, and capacity for acquiring a complete mastery of all the details of the business”.

The firm was converted into a limited liability company with capital of £2 million in 1891.

At J B Maple’s initiative, the firm furnished many of the great hotels and houses throughout the British Empire and Europe. One furnishing bill for a great London hotel amounted to £100,000.

Maple & Co was the largest furniture retailer in the world by 1885, with acres of showrooms. By 1903 the Tottenham Court Road premises was thirty times larger than it had been in 1863. At the headquarters alone, 3,000 people were employed.

John Blundell Maple’s estate was assessed for probate at £2,153,292 in 1903. He had been a generous philanthropist throughout his life.

An Argentinian subsidiary was established in 1906.

Maple & Co was acquired by Macowards of Cardiff in 1972 for £14.4 million. That year the Tottenham Court Road head office and flagship store was closed for redevelopment. The resulting fiasco saw shares plummet to ten percent of their 1972 value by 1977.

In 1977 there were 45 British and two French stores.

The firm was acquired by Waring & Gillow, a furniture retailer, in 1981 for £9.7 million. In 1989 Waring & Gillow was acquired by Asda, a supermarket chain. In 1993 Asda sold Maples to its management.

Maples entered into receivership in 1997, a result of high debts and poor trading. The firm targeted the upper mass market, had 24 stores including nine larger out-of-town sites, and a staff of 340.

The Tottenham Court Road location was acquired by Furniture Village. Eight stores were sold to Allders.

Thomas Furness & Co

Thomas Furness & Co was one of the largest grocers and provisions merchants in Britain.

John Furness (1808 – 1885) was a coal trimmer from Boroughbridge, Yorkshire. He married the daughter of a colliery owner, Averill Easter Wilson, and established a grocer’s shop in Hartlepool in 1850.

His son, Thomas Furness (1834 – 1905), served apprenticeships in Stockton and Manchester before opening his own grocery business on Church Street, Hartlepool in 1854. In 1861 the business employed two men and one boy. It was normal for grocers to work 90 hours per week.

A trade was soon established between Hartlepool and wholesalers in Denmark and Sweden. This venture was to prove immensely profitable.

In 1870 his brother Christopher (1852 – 1912) joined the firm as a sales representative. He was made partner in 1872.

In 1877 the firm bought its own ships. By 1878 the firm had become the first in the North East of England to directly import produce from America, initially with Boston, and also later New York.

Christopher left the partnership in 1883, in order to develop the shipping side of the business.

John Furness died in 1885, and his Northern Daily Mail obituary hailed him as “one of the fathers of West Hartlepool”.

Thomas Furness was a Methodist and a temperance advocate. A staunch Liberal, in 1891 he became the first native of the borough to become Mayor of Hartlepool. He was not considered a particularly gifted man, but he was hard-working, conscientious and shrewd.

By 1891 the business was one of the largest provisions merchants in Britain.

In the mid 1890s the firm acquired the Shipowners’ Stores Supply Association of London.

In 1895 the firm was established as a limited company called Thomas Furness & Company’s Stores Ltd, with a capital of £200,000. Sir Christopher Furness was chairman of the directors, and Thomas and John Thomas Furness (1861 – 1932) were joint managing directors.

By this time the firm had offices at West Hartlepool and Newcastle upon Tyne, and shops at West Hartlepool, Darlington, Stockton, Saltburn, Thornaby and Richmond. In 1899 a branch was opened at Castleton, North Yorkshire.

In 1897 the firm established a small manufacturing arm called Northern Counties Manufacturing Co. Based at Mainsforth Terrace, it produced jams, cakes and biscuits. Plant, machinery and edifice cost £15,000.

Thomas Furness & Co sales in 1902 were a “disappointing” £477,116.

In 1903 James Newton Reid (1876 – 1923) of Liverpool joined the firm, which from 1909 began trading as Furness Brothers & Reid.

Thomas Furness died in 1905 and his estate was valued at £26,478.

Northern Counties Manufacturing Co was liquidated in 1908. The Castleton branch closed in 1909.

J T Furness’s only son, Guy Haswell Furness (1887 – 1952) was placed in charge of the business.

In 1924 Furness Brothers & Reid was entered into voluntary liquidation.

Milking the profits: Maypole Dairy


What Lipton did for tea in late nineteenth to early twentieth century Britain, Maypole Dairy did for margarine. Like Lipton, Maypole was also absorbed by Unilever, who continue to have a 30 percent share of the global spreads market today.

Brothers George (1861 – 1930), Charles Henry (b.1864) and John Alfred (1865 – 1931) Watson were born into a prosperous farming family just outside Coventry. They served as apprentices and later assistants to George Jackson, a Birmingham dairy merchant.

By buying butter directly from Danish farmers, Jackson had pioneered the sale of pure dairy butter at affordable prices, and by 1893 he was the largest retailer of butter in the world, with 30,000 tons sold every year.

Jackson’s strong reputation for butter meant that he was reluctant to branch out into margarine, which although gaining in popularity, was hampered by a downmarket image. However George Watson was free to take the chance, and he opened a margarine shop in Wolverhampton in 1887. He was soon joined by his brothers, and outlets were opened across the Midlands. The shops also began to sell cheese and butter.

Maypole Dairy was a high volume, low margin business, and outlets were concentrated in working class areas, to whom the products provided a cheap source of protein.

Watson introduced a profit-sharing scheme for management in 1890, but shortly afterwards, in a pioneering move, the programme was extended to all employees.

Maypole Dairy was the largest retailer of margarine in Britain by 1895. The business had 60 shops, 8 creameries in Ireland and one in England, and buying offices in Denmark and Sweden.

Maypole and George Jackson underwent a merger in 1898, and the company was incorporated with a share capital of £1 million. George Watson became chairman. The company had 185 retail shops and 17 creameries.

Maypole acquired a margarine factory in Godley, Manchester, from Otto Monsted Ltd, a Danish company, in 1902. It was capable of producing 200 tons of margarine every week.

By 1908 Maypole had 560 retail shops, and Maypole was the largest retailer of tea, butter and margarine in the United Kingdom.

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A Maypole Dairy Store in Hartlepool

In 1912 Maypole reported a net profit of over £550,000 (£425 million in 2015), of which all but £50,000 was distributed among shareholders as a 212.5% dividend.* By this time there were 712 stores across the United Kingdom, and the leading lines were margarine and tea. That year, George Watson was appointed a baronet.

Maypole, and the Dutch producers Jergens and Van den Bergh produced most of the margarine sold in Britain, with Maypole producing almost as much as the other two combined by 1913.

The Manchester margarine factory was sold to Lever Brothers in 1914.

Maypole acquired Otto Monsted’s margarine factory in Southall, Middlesex, and an edible oils refinery in Erith, South East London in 1915. The Southall factory covered 22,500 square yards, employed around 650 people and was the largest margarine factory in the world. It had a weekly output of 700 tons of margarine.

southall
The Southall factory

Maypole margarine differed from competitors in that it was produced from tropical nuts and seeds rather than animal fats. Maypole established a groundnut operation in West Africa to provide raw material for margarine production in 1915. 25,000 to 30,000 tons of groundnuts were produced annually by 1919.

Maypole dominated the sale and manufacture of margarine in the United Kingdom, with a 50 percent market share by 1918. Margarine accounted for 85 percent of Maypole sales.

Maypole capital amounted to £3 million (equivalent to just under £1 billion in 2015) in 1919. Turnover exceeded £36.5 million (£13.8 billion in 2015) in 1921.

maypoleinterior
The interior of a Maypole Dairy shop

However shortly afterwards the company began to struggle in the face of cheap imports and the failure of its West African business. Six directors retired in 1924, including the chairman, George Watson, and they sold their stakes to Home & Colonial. Now the majority owner, Home & Colonial was itself controlled by Jurgens.

Maypole increased its product lines to include jam, marmalade and lard from 1925. In 1928 biscuits were added, and cheese was re-introduced in packaged form.

Maypole had over 1,040 retail outlets by 1929. That year, Jurgens and Van den Bergh merged with Lever Brothers of Britain to form Unilever. Maypole was now contractually obliged to purchase all of its margarine from Unilever. The Maypole margarine manufacturing sites were made redundant by the Unilever purchase, and were re-appropriated for the production of Wall’s sausages and ice cream.

In 1930 Unilever created a holding company for its grocery chains; Lipton, Home & Colonial and Maypole Dairy, called Allied Stores. The company had a capital of £13.3 million. Each retail company continued to be run independently, but there was co-operation in various aspects of the business.

George Watson died in 1930, leaving an estate valued at over £2 million (about £805 million in 2015).

Maypole’s West African venture was sold to the United Africa Company, which was controlled by Unilever, in 1931.

Maypole sold over 200,000 eggs in 1938.

There were 977 Maypole stores and 6,334 employees in 1939. Rivals began to emerge such as Tesco, which utilised bulk purchasing from suppliers, instead of the Maypole vertical integration model.

In 1943 all but two company directors, and practically all senior executives, were men who had started in the bottom ranks of the company and worked their way up.

In 1947, faced with continued rationing after the war, the company began to extend its product range to include additional staples such as bacon.

The independent management of Maypole ended in 1964. The Maypole name was phased out in the 1970s, when increased competition from supermarkets saw Allied Stores decide to concentrate on their Home & Colonial brand. Allied Stores eventually morphed into Safeway (UK), and the rights to the Maypole brand are now owned by Morrisons Supermarkets.

* Currency conversions are calculated by measuring wealth relative to the total output of the economy at the time. All calculations are from measuringworth.com

Meat the House of Vestey

By 1925 Vestey Brothers was the largest meat retailer in the world. The company controlled one third of the refrigerated storage capacity in Britain and two thirds of multiple butchers shops. It accounted for 20 percent of all meat imported into Britain.

William (1859 – 1940) and Edmund Hoyle Vestey (1866 – 1954) were born to Samuel Vestey, a Liverpool provisions merchant.

William Vestey
William Vestey (1859 – 1940)

William Vestey was sent to America in 1876 to scout for opportunities. He was surprised at the amount of meat that was wasted, and a factory was established to can this as corned beef and ship it to Britain.

William moved to Argentina in 1890 where he utilised the new refrigeration process to export frozen partridges. Later, beef and mutton were added. Being among the first to realise the potential of the new technology gave Vestey Brothers an advantageous head-start on its rivals.

In 1897 Vestey Brothers established Union Cold Storage as a subsidiary to handle their meatpacking and distribution network.

From 1906 Vestey began to export eggs and chicken from China. Eggs had previously had poor availability, and Vestey’s frozen egg mix was a major factor in the growth of catering giants such as J Lyons.

From 1909 Vestey began to acquire its own refrigerated fleet, called Blue Star Lines.

Between 1913 and 1920 Vestey Brothers acquired ranches and freezing works in Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil.

In 1914 Blackfriars Export Co was acquired.

In 1915 the Vesteys relocated their business from Britain to Buenos Aries, in order to avoid income tax, which had been increased to fund the war in Europe. The business grew rapidly during the First World War, following a surge in meat prices.

By 1919 Vestey Brothers had operations all over the world, and a capital of over £20 million. It was one of the largest British industrial concerns, and larger than all the other British freezing and cold storage companies combined. In meat-packing, only the American firms of Armour and Swift were larger.

In 1920 Vestey acquired £7 million of beef from the British government in a single deal. Also that year, Eastmans Ltd, who had a chain of butchers shops in Britain, was acquired.

By 1920 Union Cold Storage was the largest cold storage company in the world, with a share capital of £4,780,000. The Blue Star Line was the largest refrigerated fleet in the world.

William and Edmund became so rich that they didn’t live off the interest of their wealth, but the interest of the interest. William was raised to the peerage in 1922.

In 1923 Union Cold Storage spent £4 million to acquire the subsidiaries of the Western United Investment Company. This included the British Argentine Meat Company and Fletcher’s butchers shops.

In 1924 Vestey Brothers acquired the Liebig company’s freezing facility at Fray Bentos in Uruguay.

In 1925 Vestey Brothers was the largest retailer of meat in the world, with a chain of 2,365 butchers shops in Britain. Vestey was responsible for 25 percent of the meat that was exported from South America.

In 1925 Union Cold Storage employed over 30,000 people, with a capital of £9.6 million. It had over 450,000 cattle on ranches in Australia, South America and South Africa. The company handled 20 percent of Britain’s frozen meat imports, and operated a third of the country’s cold storage capacity.

In 1927 Vestey opened a new refrigeration plant in Buenos Aires, Argentina. With a capacity of 1.5 million cattle and 2.5 million sheep annually, it was one of the largest in the world. The plant employed 3,000 people.

In 1934 Vestey acquired the William Angliss & Co meatpacking company of Australia.

In 1940 William Vestey conservatively valued Vestey Brothers at over £90 million. The family became the richest in Britain, after the Royals.

Edmund Vestey died in 1954 and left an estate valued at £737,738.

The company retained its position throughout much of the rest of the century. In 1968 it was still the largest cold storage operator in Britain, and had also become a leading supplier of chicken. It remained on par in terms of scale with Armour and Swift.

The family’s massive tax avoidance scheme was revealed in 1980, to public outrage.

In the 1980s Vestey Brothers was considered to be the largest privately owned multinational in the world. It was the world’s largest retailer of meat.

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In 1984 Vestey sold off five of its seven North Australian ranches. Before the sale it had been the largest private landowner in Australia. After the sale it still raised about 10 percent of all cattle in the country.

In 1991 speculation in the property market saw Union Cold Storage hampered by short term debt of £423 million.

In 1992 Vestey announced it would close 600 of its 1,000 Dewhurst butchers shops. The chain had been adversely affected by the growth of the supermarkets.

In 1995 both Dewhursts and Union Cold Storage entered administration. 213 of the Dewhurst shops were saved by a management buyout. In 1996 the remnant Australian estates were sold off. In 1998 the Blue Star Line was sold to P&O Nedlloyd for £60 million. The sale of the fleet allowed the group to finally re-emerge free of debt.

Vestey Group continues to trade today as a smaller organisation, focused on sourcing, distributing and processing meat. The Vestey family are still wealthy: they ranked 160th on the Sunday Times Rich List 2015, with an estimated fortune of £700 million. Actor Tom Hiddleston is a direct descendant of Edmund Vestey.

The rise and fall of Marks & Spencer (1955 – 2001)

Read part I of my history of M&S here.

In 1955 Marks & Spencer employed 28,403 people.

In 1963 M&S was the fifth most highly valued stock in Britain, at £435 million. By 1970 this value had risen to £615 million. In 1968 M&S overtook Woolworth as Britain’s leading retailer in terms of both sales and profits.

In 1972 M&S employed 37,094, putting it just outside the top 50 employers in Britain. In 1973 the company enjoyed a turnover of £360 million and employed capital worth £160 million.

M&S began to sell frozen food from 1972. By 1973 convenience food was being sold at 100 stores.

It was in the early 1970s that M&S began its first foreign expansions. In 1973 the company acquired a 50 percent stake in three Canadian clothing retailers. A controlling interest was acquired three years later.

In 1975 a store was opened in Paris. By the mid-1990s this store ranked among the company’s top ten worldwide in terms of sales and profitability.

1982 sales were just under £2.2 billion. By 1982 M&S, with a market capitalization of $3.7 billion, was the fifth highest valued public company in Europe.

In 1984 the first non-family member was appointed as chairman and chief executive.

The first location outside a town centre was opened in Gateshead in 1986.

In 1988 the company made two American acquisitions, Brooks Brothers, the clothing retailer, and Kings Supermarkets. Brooks Brothers cost M&S $750 million, and included 47 stores.

By 1990 M&S operated 275 stores in Canada and eight stores in France. That year the company opened its first store in Spain.

In 1992 M&S employed 55,750 people. It was the twentieth largest company employer in Britain.

In 1994 M&S was the only retailer in the world with a AAA credit rating. The retailer had a reputation for quality and value for money. It boasted a turnover of over £5 billion and 679 stores.

In 1999 profits took a sudden slump. Excessive profit margins eroded customer loyalty. The company withdrew from Canada that year.

In 2001 M&S announced a radical restructuring of its operations. The UK business was revamped and its US retail operations and company owned stores in Europe were divested.

News to me: W H Smith

W H Smith is a British retail chain. It sells items such as newspapers, magazines, books and stationery.  In 2013 it had almost 1,300 branches, a turnover of over £1.1 billion and just under 15,000 employees.

Henry Walton Smith set up his first news stand on The Strand, London, in 1792.  The company became involved in distributing newspapers throughout the provinces. Smith was succeeded in business by his son, William Henry.

The company opened its first railway station bookstall at Euston in 1848. Railways were the booming industry of the period. By the 1860s Smith’s had bookstalls on all the major railway lines, and many secondary lines. Smith’s, and its main newsagent rival John Menzies, were the first large-scale retail chains to emerge in Britain.

The business became a partnership when William Henry was joined by his son, William Henry II.

The Smith’s bookstalls became a national symbol in Victorian England. By 1888 turnover had surpassed £1 million (c. £115 million in 2014).

Inevitably, the railway companies became greedy and began to demand extortionate rents from the news stands. Smith’s realised that its bookstalls received about half of their business from non-train users. Worried about its dependence on the railway companies, from 1905 it began to open stores in high streets.

In 1911, 8,285 people were employed. In 1914-5 turnover topped £2 million (c.£200 million in 2014), and reached £4.2 million (c. £220 million) by 1924-5.

W H Smith opened their first branch overseas in Paris in 1903. Brussels followed in 1920 and in 1936 the Queen Mary liner got its own branch.

In 1929 the partnership was registered as a private limited company in order to pay the death duties of Freddy Smith.

By 1933 Smith’s had 48 wholesale branches, 311 bookshops and 1,400 bookstalls. The company employed around 13,500 people and was one of the single largest employers in the country.

By 1947-8 turnover was £10.4 million (£355 million). In 1948, W H Smith was valued at £9.75 million. William Smith, 3rd Viscount Hambleden died that year, and his stake in the company was valued at £8.2 million. Smith’s was forced to go public in 1949 in order to fund the 75 percent death duty owed to the government.

The Canadian market was entered in 1950, when the first shop opened in Toronto.

In 1955, 18,104 people were employed at the company.

In 1951 there were 944 railway stalls, but by 1971 this number had fallen to 319. This reflected a trend towards high street outlets, which were larger and more profitable. In the 1960s outlets of  a previously unprecedented size were opened in Bradford, Brighton, Stockport and Nottingham.

Smith’s ran a private library service until 1961. It was never particularly profitable, but the company reasoned that it attracted visitors to the stalls, who often bought other items. Lower book costs and the rise of the public library spelled the end for the venture. However, the loss of the library trade was more than made up for by Smith’s taking on gramophone records and cassette tape sales.

Smith’s employed capital of over £21 million in 1965 (around £365 million in 2014). By 1966 the company had 19,547 employees.

In 1992 the W H Smith Group employed 29,320 people worldwide, including around 26,000 in the UK.

Today, around half of Smith’s units are in “travel” locations (railway stations, airports, motorway services) and half are located on high streets. Recently the company has announced plans to roll out a franchise network of independent newsagents.

Source: First With The News (Jonathan Cape: 1985), Charles Wilson

The rise of Marks & Spencer (Part I)

Marks & Spencer is a British retail chain specialising in clothing and food.

Marks & Spencer’s origins date to 1884, when Michael Marks, a Russian-Jewish immigrant, set up a “Penny Bazaar” in the Kirkgate open market in Leeds, Yorkshire. Marks sold haberdashery goods, and no item cost more than one penny.

Marks soon opened a stall in Leeds’ covered market, which was open seven days a week. Outlets were soon opened in the booming cotton towns, such as Warrington, Birkenhead and Wigan.

Marks & Spencer Penny Bazaar in Cardiff
Marks & Spencer Penny Bazaar in Cardiff

The steady expansion of the business saw Marks recruit Thomas Spencer, a cashier, as a partner in 1894. By 1901 there were 12 shops and 24 stalls in covered markets.

In 1903 Spencer retired, and Marks & Spencer became a limited liability company.  Marks died in 1907, and his son Simon took over the business, which now boasted over 60 retail outlets.

In the 1920s, Simon Marks noted the rapid growth of the low-price Woolworth chain. In 1924 he undertook a fact-finding mission to the US. What he learned there was to revolutionise the business.

Marks cut out the wholesaler, and decided to deal directly with manufacturers. On the basis that it was the merchant rather than the manufacturer who knew the customer best, Marks & Spencer would design its own clothing and goods, and then find a contractor who could produce to the specifications and cost.

The First World War put an end to the penny pricing system, but in 1924 a new 5 shilling price-ceiling was introduced.

By 1926, Marks & Spencer had 125 stores, and floated on the stock exchange to fund further expansion. That year, Marks was joined by his brother-in-law, Israel Sieff, as joint managing director.

By 1935 Marks & Spencer employed 11,555 people, placing it as the 55th largest employer in Britain.

Opening new stores, and the redevelopment of existing stores, allowed Marks to reposition the company from a working class market to a classless one. By the mid 1930s, M&S had repositioned itself so that Woolworth was no longer a competitor. Symbolically, a state-of-the-art outlet was opened on Oxford Street, London, in 1938.

The company began to concentrate on clothing, which accounted for two thirds of sales by the 1930s. By 1938, 80 percent of sales were of clothing, and 20 percent were in food. The company began to position itself inbetween the value stores and the department stores. By 1939 the company was able to boast that 92 percent of its goods were manufactured in Britain.

Roaring trade: a history of J Lyons (1894 – 1949)

J Lyons was the largest catering company in the world in the first half of the twentieth century. It developed the first business computer. It introduced household-name brands such as Ready Brek and Wimpy Hamburger. Today, the Lyons brand itself has all but disappeared.

Barnett Salmon and Isidore Gluckstein arrived in London from the Netherlands and Germany in the 1840s. Originally tobacco wholesalers, by the 1880s they had established a tobacconist chain which undercut rivals by passing on bulk discounts to customers. With 140 shops, they were the largest retail tobacconists in Britain when they were acquired by Imperial Tobacco in 1902 for £400,000.

In the 1880s, Montagu Gluckstein, a travelling partner in the firm, complained that pubs were the only place he could find refreshment. Gluckstein had identified an opportunity, and suggested that the company enter the business of non-alcoholic refreshment for themselves. A trial was established whereby the company catered for the Newcastle Exhibition of 1887. Contracts for other exhibitions followed.

In 1894, a new public company was established with capital of £120,000 to pursue catering further. The original stakeholders were Montagu, his brother Isidore, brother-in-law Barnett Salmon (Nigella Lawson’s maternal grandfather) and distant relative Joseph Lyons. The Lyons name was adopted to distinguish the company from the Salmon & Gluckstein business.

The first Lyons tea shop opened in September 1894 at 213 Piccadilly. It had 200 seats and a £30,000 lease. After a year the shop had made a profit of £11,400, and the company was able to pay a dividend of 10 percent.

The first Lyons Tea Room was sited at 213 Piccadilly
The first Lyons Tea Room was sited at 213 Piccadilly

The early tea room exteriors were enticing and extrovert, and the interiors were often glamorous, and intended to evoke the great Victorian exhibitions and Parisian cafes.

In 1895 the Lyons tea shop girls went on strike, in protest against low wages.

In 1896 Cadby Hall was opened in Hammersmith to centrally produce baked goods for the company’s 17 tea shops. By 1900 there were 37 tea shops in London, and expansion had begun in the provinces, with six branches in Manchester, four in Liverpool, and two each in Leeds and Sheffield.

Quality was good and prices were reasonable. The tea rooms were particularly popular throughout the daytime with lower middle class office workers. Cinema and theatre-goers patronised the chain on evenings.

In 1909 the first Lyons Corner House was opened on Coventry Street. The Corner Houses were much larger than the tea rooms, with a greater appeal to the middle classes. Live bands and an informal atmosphere cemented their popularity. The Coventry Street outlet became the Lyons flagship, and seated 2,000 diners on multiple floors. It was the largest restaurant in the world. A second Corner House at the Strand opened in 1915, capable of seating 1,200 diners.

J Lyons was one of the largest caterers in the world by 1911. Half a million meals were served every day throughout 200 shops and restaurants. The company employed over 12,000 people, including 2,000 people at Cadby Hall. The Cadby Hall works covered ten acres and included sixteen bakehouses, five cold storage rooms and three butchers’ shops.

20,000 people were employed by 1913. J Lyons was the largest baker in London, the largest tea merchant in the world and the largest restaurant operator in the world.

Lyons also expanded into hotels, building the Regent Palace Hotel in London at a cost of £600,000. When it opened in 1915 it was the largest hotel in Europe with 1,028 bedrooms.

By 1915 Lyons tea was far and away the market leader: five million packets were sold every week by 160,000 shopkeepers. The company accounted for one in four cups of tea sold in London. That year the Surrey Mirror heralded Lyons as a national institution, ranking only behind the Tower of London and the British Museum.

In 1917 Lyons had over £2 million in capital. By 1919 there were 182 tea shops, making it easily the largest chain of its kind in the country.

Tea, coffee, bread, cakes, ice cream and groceries which had originally been produced for the tea rooms began to be sold directly to the customer, all manufactured at the company’s Hammersmith site.

In 1918 Lyons acquired two leading packet tea companies, positioned second and fourth place in the market respectively: Horniman of London and Black & Green of Manchester. The acquisitions were intended to increase Lyons’s market share in the North of England: Horniman was strong in Yorkshire and G&B strong in the North West.

In 1919 the company had a share capital of £3.5 million. By this time Lyons was likely the largest catering company in the British Empire.

By 1919 Cadby Hall was struggling to keep up with demand, so Lyons acquired a 30 acre freehold site at Greenford, on the outskirts of London. In 1920 the company opened the largest tea packing plant in the world there. Coffee, cocoa and confectionery production were also transferred to Greenford. By the early 1920s the company was the largest food producer in Europe.

In 1922 it was calculated that seven million people drank Lyons tea each week.

In 1922 Lyons opened the Cumberland Hotel at Marble Arch, which was the largest hotel in Europe. In 1923 the Coventry Street Corner House was extended to create what was likely the largest restaurant in the world, with seats for 4,500 diners.

By 1923 ice cream manufacture at Cadby Hall had reached the mass production scale.

In 1930 Lyons was the 20th largest company in Britain, with a market value of £12.1 million and 30,000 employees. Ten million meals were sold each week. Lyons held 14 percent of the packet tea market, with over 1.25 million packets sold every day.

The teashop chain continued to grow strongly until the onset of the Great Depression. Teashop losses between 1934 and 1938 totalled £374,000. Despite this, due to its manufacturing and hotel concerns, the company remained the largest catering company in the world in the latter half of the 1930s.

By 1937 there were over 42,000 employees.

In 1939 Lyons produced 3.5 million gallons of ice cream.

By 1939 Lyons had 253 tea rooms. Due to wartime labour shortages, self service was introduced at the tea rooms from 1941, and rolled out across the chain from 1945.

From the late 1940s the company’s catering arm supplied the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis tournament.

Part II of this post can be found here.

A slice of history: Bakers Oven

Bakers Oven was the largest bakery chain in the UK, before it was overtaken and then acquired by Greggs.

Greggs is a fast food chain with more outlets in Britain than McDonald’s. Specialising in value and convenience, its principal competitors are not Pret A Manager and EAT, but burger chains and supermarkets. A commuter or office worker on their lunch break can get a Pret sandwich every day and not have their health suffer, and although Greggs do sell sandwiches, they are best known for “treat” food: sausage rolls, pasties, vanilla slices etc.

Greggs’ dominance in the UK was established when it acquired Bakers Oven, its major rival bakery chain in 1994. Bakers Oven was about 20 percent more expensive than Greggs, had more of a focus on in-store “baking” and typically offered substantial seating, which Greggs usually lacked.

Bakers Oven was a concept developed in 1976 by one of the largest British bread makers, Allied Bakeries, itself a subsidiary of Associated British Foods, owners of Twinings, Silver Spoon sugar and Ryvita. Allied Bakeries also owned other bakery chain fascias, with names such as City Bakeries, Martins and Strathdee, and boasted of operating a store on almost every British high street. ABF owned many prime high street sites; a legacy of acquiring local bakeries. They had first attempted to create a nationwide bakery chain in 1968 with the Lite Bite shops.

The claim that the first Bakers Oven was located in Barnard Castle, Durham is untrue. The location was previously operated by Carricks, a Newcastle upon Tyne bakery chain. and it was not rebranded to the Bakers Oven name until 1989.

Bakers Oven rode the rise in demand for healthier bread in the late 1980s, although it never matched the quality of genuine bakers’ produce. It became the largest bakery chain in the UK, however by the early 1990s it began to consistently lose money, and around 100 stores were divested. Bakers Oven blamed the rise of supermarket bread sales for its struggles (ignoring the fact that Greggs continued to grow).

The UK’s third largest bakery chain, Three Cooks, was also owned by a large British bread manufacturer, RHM (formerly Rank Hovis McDougall). The acquisition of Gladdings of Coventry took RHM to 300 outlets by the early 1990s.

Greggs differentiated from its two major rivals in being publicly listed from the 1980s onward, whilst maintaining a large family-owned stake.

A Bakers Oven Outlet in Willenhall in 1995
A Bakers Oven Outlet in Willenhall in 1995

By 1993 Bakers Oven operated over 500 shops and employed over 5,000 people.

In 1994 Greggs acquired Bakers Oven, with 424 stores and two main bakeries, for £18.5 million in cash. This took Greggs to a total of 929 outlets. Greggs was interested in expanding into the South East, where the majority of Bakers Oven outlets were based. Greggs was strongest in the North, particularly the North East, where it had a 40 percent market share in some areas. Greggs was also interested in learing about in-store baking and seated catering from the chain. As a combined group, Greggs was able to lower central buying costs and increase profitability. Greggs also announced plans to lower the pricing of Bakers Oven, which it regarded as excessive.

By 1995 Greggs had steered Bakers Oven into profitability by decreasing the focus on sliced white bread (in which they were undercut by supermarkets) and emphasised higher margin items such as sandwiches, savouries and pastries.

By 1996, 241 Bakers Oven outlets had been converted to the Greggs brand, mostly the units without in-store bakeries and seating and in less desirable locations. The Greggs model was to drive high volume value sales. However, new Bakers Oven outlets continued to be opened, and the chain was regarded as the company’s “premium brand”. In the late 1990s the chain was revamped, and items such as filter coffee and salad rolls were added to the menu.

By 2004 there were only 220 Bakers Oven outlets remaining. By 2006 the brand had been withdrawn from Scotland and the North of England, with all former outlets converted to Greggs. In December 2008 it was announced that the remaining 163 Bakers Oven outlets would be rebranded as Greggs.

Demise of W H Smith?

Dowdy, tatty, dirty and unloved stores that increasingly resemble a jumble sale, unmotivated staff and not even good value for money. It sounds like the former Woolworths chain but I was actually describing W H Smith.

Commentators have increasingly singled it out as the next potential High Street victim for closure, as shoppers increasingly gravitate towards out of town sites and online. However, I think predictions of its imminent demise are overblown.

The travel concessions (airports and train stations) are really profitable for the chain. And why not? They’re useful for travellers and the lack of competition and impulse buy nature of the sites mean that they can command high prices with healthy margins.

The high street shops have several USPs:

1. Trashy, mass market books. Better coverage than Waterstones and the supermarkets. These impulse buys will not gravitate online.

2. Really comprehensive magazine stocking.

3. Stationery. Unless there is a Rymans nearby, there are few competitors. And people don’t buy stationery online.

4. Cards. Again, Smith’s may be more convenient if there isn’t a Clintons nearby.

5. Toys and games are always useful.

6. Impulse buys like drinks and snacks will always sell.