Freeman Hardy & Willis was the largest footwear retailer in the world.
Edward Wood (1839 – 1917) was born in Derby, the son of a railway engine driver. As was typical for the era, his schooling ended at the age of ten.
Wood relocated to Leicester, where he initially worked as an errand boy. He was then apprenticed to a draper and outfitter. He worked as a hatter and hosier by 1861.
Wood began manufacturing shoes and boots from 1870, when he joined two relatives by marriage at premises on Marble Street. By the following year he employed seven men and one boy.
Wood succeeded due to a keen business sense and a high standard of integrity.
Freeman Hardy & Willis was incorporated in 1876. Wood appointed as company directors Arthur Hardy, an architect, William Freeman, his factory manager, and a Mr Willis, his salesman.
The first retail outlet was opened at Wandsworth, London, in 1877.
The wholesale business had been divested by 1879.
Freeman Hardy & Willis employed 55 men by 1881.
Freeman Hardy & Willis was the largest footwear retailer in the world by 1900. There were about 300 shops, mostly located in the Midlands and the North of England, by January 1903.
Freeman Hardy & Willis acquired Rabbits & Sons Ltd of Newington Butts, shoe retailers with a large presence in the South of England and London, in 1903.
Edward Wood was knighted in 1906 in recognition of his philanthropy and civic work. A dedicated Baptist, he served as Mayor of Leicester on four occasions.
Foreign-made shoes accounted for just one percent of sales in 1910.
Freeman Hardy & Willis was the largest non-grocery retailer in Britain by 1913.
The Kettering Boot & Shoe Co Ltd, a manufacturer, was acquired in 1913.
Freeman Hardy & Willis was massively profitable during the First World War due to army contracts.
Wood died in 1917 with an estate valued at £172,649. His charitable bequests amounted to over £23,000.
Freeman Hardy & Willis operated 428 shops in 1921. There were 500 shops by 1923.
The Leicester business of Leavesley & North Ltd was acquired in 1925.
The Charterhouse Investment Trust, controlled by Sir Arthur Wheeler (1860 – 1943), acquired Freeman Hardy & Willis in the 1920s for over £3.5 million.
Freeman Hardy & Willis was sold to J Sears & Co of Northampton for over £4 million in 1928. Sears was a large shoe manufacturer and retailer, and the merged firm had 796 shops and a combined market value of £9 million.
The Leicester factory was destroyed during the Blitz in 1940.
Charles Clore (1904 – 1979) acquired control of J Sears & Co in 1953 in one of Britain’s first hostile takeovers. Clore immediately removed the existing chairman and managing director of Freeman Hardy & Willis. Later in 1953 he sold much of the freehold FHW estate, and leased the premises back.
From the 1960s until the 1990s Sears held around a quarter of all British shoe sales.
Sears divested its shoe factories in a management buyout in 1988.
By 1990 Freeman Hardy & Willis was aimed at the 15 to 30 market, and located in prime retail sites. However the chain was loss-making.
245 Freeman Hardy & Willis stores were sold to Facia, a private retailer, for £3 million in 1995. 60 stores were retained by Sears, and converted into other shoe retail formats. Facia converted the Freeman Hardy & Willis brand to other retail formats.