Archive for the ‘Business and Retail’ Category

I live a matter of a few hundred yards from the major trunk road in question, so when I spotted this in a shop in Kew last week, I had to have it.


It’s a print commemorating the opening of the Great West Road in 1925 by George V and Queen Mary (who’d be a monarch, eh?). Made of tissue and folded like a paper napkin, it would have been dished out to the local crowds, or perhaps sold for a penny or two. It’s in really good condition, a remarkable survival.

The text badly spills over into the border decoration. This tells us, I think, that the souvenir printers made large stocks of coloured templates and then customised them for different occasions by overprinting text etc in black.

“The new Great West Road which has just been completed at a cost of £1,000,000 , will be opened by the King, accompanied by the Queen to-day. 

This new arterial road, which is eight miles in length, has for the greater part a width of 120ft. It extends from the Chiswick High-road near Kew Bridge, by-passes Brentford and enables traffic to avoid the congestion bottle-neck in the town.

The road continues through Isleworth and meets the main road again at the Bath Road, just beyond the Hounslow Barracks Station, then crosses the main road and passing through Hatton Village, joins the main Staines Road at Bedfont.” 

The building of the Great West Road was essential. Historically, the route to Bath and the west ran through Brentford. There was bad enough congestion during the days of horse-drawn vehicles, but once cars, buses, lorries and especially trams hit the streets, the narrow high street became all but impassable.

It didn’t take long for large businesses to realise the potential that the new thoroughfare offered. Beautiful industrial art deco buildings sprang up, giving us Brentford’s “Golden Mile”.

LH Member James Marshall wrote a book about this back in 1995. It’s out-of-print now, so available copies are very pricy. They are easily borrowed from local libraries however.







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A guest post by LH Member David Whittaker

Iron Men How one London Factory Powered The Industrial Revolution And Shaped The Modern World, by David Waller.

ironmenWhen considering the Industrial Revolution some of us, although well aware of earlier developments in that we all know about Coalbrookdale but may not know about the rest of the pre-Victorian era. Many tend to think that the most important phase of the Industrial Revolution took place in the Victorian era and associate it with “Railway mania”. They may also assume that most of this activity took place near the coal fields in northern towns. But what came before this? It was a world almost contemporaneous with well-known changing social commentaries of Jane Austin. So, it’s easy to forget that the beginnings of mass production started in the late Georgian era. Furthermore, ask most people, even those who have an interest in Britain’s industrial history, to name a famous engineering innovator. Only a few would name Maudslay. So, who were Henry Maudslay and his men? As Waller says “Amid the truly voluminous literature on the Industrial Revolution with much on the social impact of mechanisation, but surprisingly little about the machines themselves and the men who built them.”  In “Iron Men” Waller endeavours to fill this gap. Much of this activity, perhaps surprisingly, took place in London.

The book starts with an account of an early example of the mass production maritime pulley block-making mill at The Royal Dockyards Portsmouth. In 1800 The Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars required more than a hundred thousand blocks per year. This drove the move to machine manufacture. These block mills were the result on the labour and vision of three men, General Sir Samuel Bentham (Jeremy’s younger brother), Marc Isambard Brunel and thirdly, the young Henry Maudslay. Maudslay moved on to London to work for Bramah’s locks in Denmark Street, then to set up his own machine shop at 64 Wells Street London, developing new and more accurate “boring machines” all the time. These were not only capable of manufacturing rapidly and consistently to fine limits but were also a thing of aesthetic beauty in their own right. In 1810 Maudslay made the move to Lambeth to build his “Most Complete Factory” The greater space allowed far larger projects to be undertaken. Here were manufactured a wide range of mechanical machines and parts including “Time Balls” as synchronising indicators for ships. The one on Greenwich Observatory is one of these.

Through the following thematic chapters, the author moves on to those associated with Maudslay. Here he covers him working with the Brunels and the Thames Tunnel, noting that Brunel’s tunnelling shield was constructed at the Lambeth factory. Then, on to Manchester and Richard Roberts, via Babbage, the great polymath, designer of cowcatchers and his attempts to build his “Difference Engine”. On to railway locomotive design improvements to Nasmyth’s steam hammer and further transportation developments. Then the standardised Whitworth screws nut and bolts. Ending with locks, labour disputes and fire arms. A fast-paced romp, each fact-filled chapter sprinkled with engineering nuggets. Interestingly, these men were mostly of humble practical backgrounds, often educated via apprenticeship and the rise of the technical schools. They had “bashed metal” and possessed an ability to visualise the various interactions of complex mechanical devices.

Waller also interestingly, in several places, likens this period to the computer technological developments of Silicon Valley.

After all this you are probably wondering what happened to Maudslay’s wonderful factory? Founded in 1810, before the battle of Waterloo the site is now that of Lambeth South tube station. Waller writes  “There is nothing left to remind us of Maudslay’s presence, expect a memorial tablet erected  high on the wall inside the ticket office of the tube station, which you would hardly notice if you did not come looking for it:

“On this site between 1810 and 1900 stood the works of Maudslay, Sons & Field famous for marine and general engineering and as the training place of many engineers of renown”.

“This ought to be hallowed ground for all engineers and aficionados of the Industrial Revolution, as it was for knowledgeable contemporaries.” I agree…

In conclusion, this book is very much for the general reader as well as the industrial history enthusiast. It should fill in many gaps in knowledge how everything is put together

Also it should please those like me who delight in all the “connections”. That web of people, places, things and timelines that somehow fall together to make it happen.

Lastly, one minor gripe which seemed rather ironic considering the subject matter of quality and standardisation. Although I thoroughly enjoyed the book’s contents and it has certainly inspired me to investigate the life and technical innovations of Maudslay and his associates, it was slightly spoilt by the rather small type size and inconsistent quality of the print where it appears that the ink has not fully adhereed properly to the page.

Iron Men: How one London Factory Powered The Industrial Revolution And Shaped The Modern World, 244pp, by David Waller is published by Anthem Press in hardback and Kindle. ISBN 978-1-78308-544-6



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As we celebrate the anniversary this day of the opening of Selfridges in 1909 and mourn the end of ITV’s Mr Selfridge, we remember the genius of retail who began it all. A guest post by David Long. 

DSC01750_250‘Only xx shopping days before Christmas’ is a phrase to cheer the heart or chill the bones, depending who hears it. Either way it was coined by the American-born retail magnate Harry Gordon Selfridge, one of many snappy and effective marketing slogans he came up with – ‘the customer is never wrong’ is thought to be another – most of which were quickly adopted by his rivals.

A partner in the US giant Marshall Field (still with us, as part of the Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s empire) Selfridge and his wife arrived in Mayfair in the early 1900s. Unimpressed by the quality of London department stores, he decided to establish his own, ploughing an estimated £400,000 (equivalent to more than £120 million today) into a large plot at what was then the decidedly unfashionable end of Oxford Street. The result was the building familiar to visitors today, its giant Ionic columns the work of English architects R.F.Atkinson and Sir John Burnett with a clock as its centrepiece, nearly three and a half metres in diameter and called The Queen of Time.

The Queen of Time

The Queen of Time

Selfridge’s timing was fortunate, and he was a canny and highly perceptive operator. An early advocate of paid advertising, one who recognised that a generation of newly emancipated women looked upon shopping as a recreation not a chore, he worked tirelessly to promote Selfridges as a destination rather than a mere shop. He even lobbied to get the nearest underground station renamed Selfridges, and when his friend Lord Ashfield, Managing Director of the Underground Electric Railway Company, decided to stick with the name Bond Street serious consideration was given to running a private tunnel from the top of the escalators right into the store.

From the start Selfridge was also a great innovator. In 1910 his emporium became the first in the world to have a ground floor beauty department, and today – when almost every rival has followed suit – its beauty hall is still the world’s largest (It sells more than 7,700 lipsticks, 2,800 mascaras and 1,000 nail polishes every week.) For years the store ran its own private Information Bureau, equipped with more books than the average local library and a trained staff dedicated to finding answers to literally any question a customer might put to them. Movie directors were also invited to film scenes in the store, providing yet more valuable publicity for the company. (They still are: in Love Actually Rowan Atkinson is maddeningly meticulous service when he enquires of Alan Rickman’s agitated customer ‘Would you like it gift wrapped?’)

While he turned down the chance to sell the revolting sounding ‘Sitwell Egg’ (a porable confection of rice, artificial lime and pressed meat devised by the eccentric serial inventor Sir George Sitwell) Selfridge frequently called on new technologies to boost his business.

In 1909 Louis Bleriot’s aeroplane went on display here shortly after the Frenchman had become the first to fly across the Channel – more than 150,000 Londoners queued to see it. In 1925 the Scottish inventor John Logie Baird was paid £25 a week to demonstrate his new machine to customers, Selfridge identifying at once that what its creator called the ‘Televisor’ was not a toy but ‘a link between all peoples of the world’. Four years later, to celebrate the store’s 20th anniversary, the exterior was lit up by an unprecedented display of more than 30,000 electric lightbulbs.

Already rich when he arrived in London the popularity and runaway success of the new venture made Selfridge richer still, and following the death of his wife in the post-war flu pandemic he settled down to enjoy it in fine Mayfair style. For a while he flirted with the idea of building a huge square tower on top of the store, one which would have dominated the whole of the West End had not his architect warned that it was so massive that the entire edifice might collapse under its own weight.

Instead, in the absence of such an obvious monument, a Blue Plaque at 9 Fitzmaurice Place is now all there is to give one an indication of the scale on which he chose to spend his fortune. Now home to the Lansdowne Club, this was once a truly magnificent Adam mansion, with wings either side of the main Palladian block and private gardens so extensive that even into the 20th century it could still be described as ‘secluded’.

The house had originally been built for the fabulously rich Marquess of Bute (1713-92), Britain’s first Scottish Prime Minister. It was later sold to William, Earl of Shelburne who renamed it after himself when he was created Marquess of Lansdowne.

When Selfridge took over the lease in 1921, Adam’s masterpiece was still very much one of the great West End houses although sadly its façade and wings were soon afterwards demolished so that a road could be cut through from Berkeley Square to Curzon Street and Piccadilly. Two important rooms were saved: a Drawing Room now installed in the Museum of Arts in Philadelphia; and the Dining Room which found its way to the Metropolitan Museum in New York

Ahead of this act of architectural vandalism Selfridge’s period as custodian of such a landmark house scandalised London society even more than his decision in 1922 to allow waitresses in the store’s restaurant to wear trousers. (This was to allow them to move more quickly from table to table.)

The cause of the scandal this time was his love life, which included affairs with a divorcée (Syrie Barnardo Wellcome, who later married Somerset Maugham) and the Dolly Sisters, a fashionable pair of cabaret artistes of middle-European origins. The idea of cabaret girls was in itself enough to make dowagers feel faint; what made Selfridge’s behaviour even more outré was that discreet enquiries into which sister he was with – Jenny or Rosie? – seemed to point to his carrying on with both of them simultaneously.
While the girls gambled recklessly, Selfridge spent in much the same manner on a wild parties, fleets of Rolls-Royces to ferry friends to race meetings, and for a while a truly mad plan to build himself a castle in Hampshire surrounded by more than four miles of high stone walls.

The whole thing was deliciously decadent, typically 1920s and oh-so-Mayfair, but unfortunately taking his eye of the ball in this way meant that control of Oxford Street’s mightiest retail phenomenon soon slipped from its founder’s grasp. Before long he was manoeuvred out by his fellow directors and with his fortune much diminished by the Depression of the 1930s Harry Gordon Selfridge, incredibly, fell into debt. In 1947 he died, a poor man, living in a tiny flat with his daughter, at 81 Putney Hill, SW15.

David Long‘s latest book on the capital is a companion to the West End called ‘Paved with Gold’ (Fort Publishing).‎ It includes a detailed examination of its history, art, architecture and inhabitants.

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old pennyNew pee. Such an ugly phrase, introduced this day in 1971 with the decimalisation of the currency. It was, I suppose, to differentiate it from the outgoing old pennies – or pence: huge copper items which carried every monarch’s head from Queen Victoria onwards. On the reverse was the image of Britannia and the year. In written form, the old penny was “D/d” as in the Roman denarius. Most of them were tarnished dark brown or black. The old Victorian, Edwardian or George V ones were heavily worn.

Cui bono? Well, I suppose it was easier to teach and to learn.

But what did we lose? We lost the thrupenny bit and the Tanner (6d). We lost the bob (12d), the sov (sovereign, old pound: archaic), the crown (5s = 60d) and the half-crown (2/6 = 30d). We lost the ten bob note – that’s 50p to younger readers. Thankfully the word “quid” has survived. But let’s face it, it was an altogether more colourful currency than that which we have today.

Why did we have to learn the twelve times table? That’s the reason. You had to be pretty good at basic mental arithmetic to know you had the right change when you bought your newspaper. I contend that our complex currency made us a more numerate people before 1971.

Somehow the guinea survived, a wonderful anachronism. It remains the currency unit of choice at livestock sales and the Turf. It is worth, bizarrely, £1.05, or 21 shillings old money. The guinea was introduced during the reign of Charles II. Struck from pure west African gold (hence Guinea), it had an initial value of 20 shillings. But as the value of gold increased over time, its value went up to as much as 27 shillings. Eventually in the early 19C it was pegged at 21s. Strictly the currency of the wealthy (few ordinary people had more than a quid to spend back then), the guinea was used in horse and livestock sales, gambling, the art market and so on.

I realise that all this makes me sound a grumpy old reactionary: I don’t care.

Long live the mighty guinea!

More on the guinea.


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Millions of commuters to and from London on the Chiswick flyover from Heathrow and all points west will be familiar with the animated neon advertisment for Lucozade.

Not any more.

Whoever owns Lucozade nowadays has pulled it down and replaced it with a nonedescript static sign, not just for Lucozade, but also – at time of writing – Mercedes.


The old sign was at least the second of its type on the site at the crossroads of the Great West Road and Ealing Road. Like Lucozade itself – orginally a Beecham product  – the sign was very much part of the Brentford streetscape. In the age of corporate takeovers, Lucozade found itself in the portfolio of Glaxo Smithkline, who had swallowed up Beecham as part of the Smithkline Beecham merger. It remained, therefore, something of a local product. But not really fitting in with the business of the pharmaceutical super giant, it got sold on about two years ago. From that moment the sign was in danger. Very recently Lucozade got handed on again to another faceless corporate. I honestly don’t know who, and couldn’t care less. But this proved the final blow for the cherished sign.

But back to the old sign. It used to say “Aids Recovery” until the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s when the slogan was changed to “Replaces Lost Energy”. At some stage the original neon sign needed replacing: it was simply worn out. Unlike the current owners of Lucozade, someone recognised the heritage value of the sign and it was carefully stored in the industrial archive of nearby Gunnersbury Park Museum. It’s still there as far as I’m aware.

The advertising site is run by the street advertising behemoth, JC Decaux, who ironically also have a local presence in Brentford. They occupy one of the art deco industrial buildings for which Brentford is rightly proud and famous. What an irony and a pity, then, that neither they nor the current Lucozade owners value local heritage.

Realising there might be trouble in store for the old-style sign, I took this video clip in early 2014. At that time I wrote up the story of the sign in a little more detail, here.

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Pimlico RoadMore Dubai on the Thames luxury flattery. On this occasion it’s the Duke of Westminster via his property company, Grosvenor Estate. Luxury flats. How original. But why not? Everyone else is at it – it’s the most efficient way to turn a buck.

This is not a class warrior thing with me. Rather, I despair at the homogenisation of London by developers, this incessant conversion of historically significant buildings and areas into luxury apartments. There have been a few small, yet pleasing wins. A pub here, another one there. The retention of West Smithfield for the Museum of London. But mostly it’s the chucking up of bland glass and steel, little of it with much architectural merit. Stinking up the place and blighting the skyline.

But back to the story. Grosvenor Estate has given a group of six shopkeepers in Pimlico Road notice to quit their premises by the end of the year. The plan is to bulldoze the lot and replace them with luxury flats and, oh, some larger retail units. The owners of these shops – all successful – are none too pleased, needless to say.

Pimlico Road.

One of the units is a Victorian timber yard which has been in continuous business since 1840. Run today by Travis Perkins, for most of its history it was owned by the family firm WH Newson, who founded the business 175 years ago. Travis Perkins has recently been celebrating this fact with its Pimlico Road employees.

Pimlico Road.

Pimlico Road.

Back in 1840 Pimlico was very much on the up, largely thanks to that titan of suburban development Thomas Cubitt, who had a massive goods yard on the Thames nearby. The area had formerly been virtually uninhabitable owing to its marshy, mosquito-ridden landscape. But Thomas Telford’s new St Katharine’s Dock east of the Tower of London had changed all that when spoil from the development had been used to reclaim land in the Pimlico area, hence rendering it fit for development. One wonders whether Cubitt’s contractors and foremen engaged WH Newson as a supplier? Highly likely.

Pimlico Road is located opposite the dual intersection with Ebury Street and Bourne Street (formerly Westbourne Street). It wasn’t called Pimlico Road in 1840 either: west of Ebury Street it was Grosvenor Road, and to the east, Queen Street. If you look it up on a map, you’ll see it sits right where Chelsea meets Belgravia meets Pimlico, in the middle of an area largely dominated by the Grosvenor and the Cadogan estates, both of which resulted hundreds of years ago from lucky young chaps marrying phenomenally wealthy heiresses.

They have proved over the years largely to be enlighted and responsible landlords, something one hopes this may prevail in this particular case and that Grosvenor may yet change its mind over Pimlico Road as it did once before, in 2001.

More on this story as reported in yesterday’s Evening Standard.

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gresham grasshopper

The Gresham family badge: a grasshopper.

Elizabeth I’s most well-known favourites were bellicose types like Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Ralegh or Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, whose head in the end was too hot for his own impatient, impetuous shoulders. They smote the queen’s enemies and filled her coffers using fire and sword.

Far more considered and cerebral ways of benefiting the Exchequer were employed by an altogether lesser-known servant: Sir Thomas Gresham (1518/9 – 1579). From a family of Norfolk merchants, this London-born entrepreneur gave the City not one but two great institutions: the Royal Exchange and Gresham College.

Gresham achieved better results than most by more peaceful means.

His upbringing was a privileged one. He was the younger son of Sir Richard Gresham, a successful merchant and Lord Mayor of London 1537. Born at his father’s house in Milk Lane in 1518/9, Thomas’s boyhood remains obscure but he spent some years at Gonville Hall, Cambridge, where he didn’t complete his degree but instead was apprenticed in the mercer’s trade under his uncle, John Gresham. Young Thomas spent much of the seven year apprenticeship on the continent, learning French and Flemish, building on his family’s network of trade contacts and indeed taking on much of the work. He soon caught the eye of royal agents – including Thomas Cromwell – who began putting royal work his way.

sir thomas gresham

A self-confident Thomas Gresham in his mid-20s. Gresham Collage.

This marked the start of service under four Tudor monarchs which saw its apeothis under Gloriana, Queen Elizabeth herself. Gresham’s skill, acumen and a studied disinterest in religion and politics gave him a cloak of immunity during the religious tumult of these reigns. He was the perfect servant for an avaricious and thrifty monarch such as Elizabeth.

Gresham spent his best business years from the late 1540s to the mid 1650s working both on the family’s account and as a royal agent, mainly in the Netherlands, occasionally Spain. In the Gresham interest he acted as both merchant and agent in the cloth trade and also the universal staple of guns and ammunition (“harness”). As the royal agent, his aim was to reduce the royal debt in Antwerp to from around £250,000 to zero. By anticipating interest rates in an extremely volatile market and negotiating the best deals (better than the Habsburgs themselves were able to secure) with bankers, brokers, underwriters, etc., by 1565 Gresham had reduced the Royal foreign debt to a mere £20,000. It was during this period, in 1559, that Gresham became Sir Thomas, before departing on a diplomatic mission.

While all this was going on, domestically Thomas was thriving too, having inherited family estates after his father’s death in 1549 and through an advantageous marriage to Anne Read, the widow of William Read, a wealthy fellow mercer and family friend. So at home in England, in addition to his ongoing mercer’s business, Gresham had considerable holdings in Norfolk, Suffolk and within the City of London.

Although Gresham had illegitimate progeny, his son Richard died in 1564, leaving him with no heir. Like most of the great philanthropists, he pondered his legacy and how best to use his fortune. First, he addressed something that he and his father both hankered after for London so that it could properly better its European rivals: a bourse, or exchange. So he bought up many properties in the Cornhill area, demolished them and built the first Royal Exchange, opened by Queen Elizabeth in 1571.

thomas gresham, royal exchange, london

Thomas Gresham’s Royal Exchange. Thanks to Liz Lloyd for image.

Today. The third Royal Exchange on the same site, by William Tite. It's now populated by fancy goods shops, coffee bars and over-officious security guards.

The third Royal Exchange in Cornhill, by William Tite. It’s now populated by fancy goods shops, coffee bars and over-officious security guards.

He financed eight almshouses at the rear of his house in Bishopsgate, a common and popular type of endowment during this period.

Finally, and crucially, he wished for London to have a prestigious seat of learning like Oxford and Cambridge. It was unthinkable that the City should lack such an institution. So he left provision for Gresham College to have a premises and funding for seven professors, each to deliver a lecture once a week in Latin and English. The chairs were, and are: Astronomy; Divinity; Geometry (i.e. Mathematics); Law; Music; Physic; Rhetoric. An eighth chair – Commerce – was added in 1985.

The College has had various homes over the centuries. Since 1991 it has resided at Barnard’s Inn in Holborn, formerly the Mercers’ School. The mediaeval Barnard’s Inn Hall is the gorgeous centrepiece of the complex where Gresham College holds many of its free lectures. There are over 100 of these every year, both at the college and the Museum of London. I can’t recommend them too highly. Full programme for 2014-15 is here. And, superbly, all lectures are recorded, there is a huge back-catalogue of worthy material to enjoy.

Gresham College

The first Gresham College and former home of Sir Thomas. Image: Gresham College.

Gresham College

Entrance to Gresham College in Holborn.

Barnard's Inn Hall, Gresham College

Barnard’s Inn Hall.

It is London Historians’ massive privilege to be holding our inaugural annual lecture at Barnard’s Inn Hall on 4 September. Adrian Tinniswood will be talking about Sir Christopher Wren who was once the Gresham Professor of Astronomy. Unfortunately, if you haven’t a ticket yet, it is fully-booked.

Gresham College website
Wikipedia on Sir Thomas Gresham
Wikipedia on Gresham College
Excerpts from Gresham’s Will

A Brief History of Gresham College (1997) by Richard Charteris and David Vermont
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (subscription site), where the writer is overall quite mean about Gresham’s achievements!

Gresham College.

Gresham College.

Greshamiana 1: Victorian  period statue above Holborn Viaduct.

Greshamiana 1: Victorian period statue above Holborn Viaduct.

Sir Thomas Gresham

Greshamiana 2: Stained glass panel depicting Gresham Arms in an office building in Basinghall Street. Gresham’s family home was once in the same street.

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