2014 has been the 150th anniversary of the John Lewis department store. The current store in Oxford Street stands on the site of the first store founded by John Lewis, a Somerset draper who – after working in another shop – set up his own business in 1864. By 1895 the business had expanded so much that the original shop was replaced by a three-storey department store, with retail showrooms, warehouse space, and a customers’ restaurant. He employed about 150 people, with 100 female staff housed in a hostel nearby, in Weymouth Street.
Whilst his determination and character enabled the business to prosper it was at the expense of his employees. The Victorian cliché of an inflexible hard taskmaster overseeing a downtrodden workforce with little rights and poor wages fits him to a tee. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log in with your library card) entry gives the reader a clear idea of his character. This was the man who was sent to Brixton prison in 1903 for contempt of court during his long running battle over the shop lease with the De Walden estate and who would arbitrarily sack employees on the spot.
So how is it that the John Lewis Partnership model now championed by the coalition government, evolved from this diametrically opposite 19th century model? The answer is John Lewis’s son John Spedan Lewis who championed the current mode of working, first at the Peter Jones department store and then at both stores when he amalgamated the two into one company. In spite of this radical change the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry for John Spedan indicates that he inherited some of his father’s traits stating that he was intolerant with those he considered his intellectual inferiors.
Those wishing to research more deeply into the partnership model and its roots will find trips to Westminster Reference Library and Westminster City Archives useful for the following reference titles:
- Experiment in industrial democracy: a study of the John Lewis Partnership by Allan Flanders
- Fairer shares by John Spedan Lewis
- Partnership for All by John Spedan Lewis (also at Charing Cross Library)
If you’d like to find out more about the history of department stores and shopping in general, try these:
L to R: Shopping for pleasure : women in the making of London’s West End by Erika Diane Rappaport; The world of Mr Selfridge by Alice Maloney (includes historical details about the department store in among the chapters relating to filming the series and biographical details of the cast); Department stores by Claire Masset.
The City of Westminster Archives Centre holds lots of information on the subject, including the Liberty archive, material about William Whiteley’s and photographs & architectural plans of many of the West End department stores.