First of a six-part series by Peter Cox, an East Finchley author.
It’s a curious coincidence that the origins of the two great businesses that make up today’s John Lewis ‘Partnership’ lie in one sleepy Somerset market town – Shepton Mallet. It was there in 1881 that the main founder of Waitrose, Wallace Waite was born. Forty five years earlier John Lewis had been born and raised there, too. Raised, but not by his parents.
Born in 1836, the year before the young Victoria came to the throne, John Lewis was orphaned, as were his five sisters, in 1843. His father was a baker who had become destitute and died in the workhouse, of a cause given as ‘epilepsy’, then treated harshly as a form of madness. So, raised by his saintly Aunt Christian Speed, the boy John Lewis had that twin stigma to contend with, and to remind him of the consequences of failure. After a stint at the local grammar school, at 14 John was farmed out as his sisters had been, apprenticed to a series of drapers in Somerset market towns – Glastonbury, Wells, Bridgwater. He might have stayed a provincial draper, had he not taken advantage of the newly-built railway line from Bridgwater, and followed a relative to Liverpool in 1855. The engineer in charge of the local stretch of line that eventually reached Shepton was Wallace Waite’s father.
The young John Lewis stayed a year in Liverpool, but after bloodying the nose of a fellow shop assistant he was sacked, borrowed a gold sovereign, and took the train to London. There he worked for a man called Peter Robinson, who ran a draper’s emporium just east of Oxford Circus, where Top Shop now trades. For eight years he stayed, working his way up to be Robinson’s silk buyer. Now successful, but still on a small salary, he itched to break out on his own. In 1864 he took out a lease on a single frontage ex-tobacconists to the west of Oxford Circus, borrowing money from his aunt and sisters for stock. On his first day he took just 18/4 in old money, the equivalent of about £90 today.
Thereafter he prospered. His sheer industry was coupled by a four-pronged trading policy. He would keep his profit margins down to give good value; he would have a wide range of fabrics, so that customers would get to know that if he didn’t stock it, nobody else was likely to; he would constantly give customers good service; and he would be scrupulously honest, with customers and suppliers alike, at a time when shady dealing was rife. He prospered slowly, and he hoarded his money for fear of failure, but – like so many of the great department store owners of the day – he gradually took the leases of the shops around him, and in the early 1890s could at last bridge to the Holles Street corner, and turn a collection of single shops into a single department store. Thus at the turn of the 19th century it was about a quarter of the size it is now.
By then, to his friends’ surprise, he had made a late marriage, to one of the first women Cambridge graduates, Eliza Baker. She bore him two sons, with each of whom he would have a rocky relationship…
Next – John Lewis’s son Spedan enters the business, and transforms it into a Partnership, co-owned by all its employees.
Peter Cox’s book Spedan’s Partnership – the Story of John Lewis and Waitrose – can be bought for £20 at all good bookshops, and at £15 incl P & P from his website www.spedanspartnership.co.uk.