The OTHER king of the high street

Mr Selfridge may be the subject of a television drama, but as John Lewis celebrates its 150th anniversary, don’t forget the competition
Visit Peter Jones on London’s Sloane Square, which became part of the John Lewis empire in 1906, and as well as the much-loved fabric department (a nod to the giant’s roots as a drapery shop), you will doubtless notice the 1930s spiral staircase at its heart. It is details such as this – the staircase was a feat of engineering when it was constructed in 1931 – that remind us of the store’s longevity.

From a simple drapery shop, which opened in 1864 at 132 Oxford Street, John Lewis, which is now celebrating its 150th anniversary, has become an enduring icon of the British high street.

One of six children, John Lewis was born in 1836 in Shepton Mallet, Somerset, and came from humble beginnings. Orphaned while young, he and his siblings were saved from the workhouse by an aunt who ran a hat shop. Enrolled in a grammar school, he learnt French, which proved to be useful when later he was negotiating to buy French silk and lace for his first store, before, aged 14, becoming a draper’s apprentice in Glastonbury.

After several more apprenticeships, and a fi st fi ght that saw him fired from his last role, in Liverpool, he made his big move to London in 1856. At that point, he probably had no idea that he would become a key player in the retail revolution that swept across Victorian Britain, a player to match even the king of Oxford Street, a certain Mr Selfridge, who opened his eponymous department store in 1909 and is now the subject of a major television drama.

 House-Sept05-01-590-NEW1.Early VDU screens in use in an oŽ ce in Stevenage. This period was to see the rise and dominance of the desktop computer. 2.Original classic chair designs are stocked as part of the current John Lewis range. 3.Signage for the Stratford John Lewis is unwrapped against the backdrop of the 2012 Olympic Stadium. 4.The John Lewis Personal Account allowed loyal customers to pay for their purchases on credit. 5.John Lewis & Company, as it was known in 1885 in Oxford Street.

For Lewis began quickly to thrive in the capital. Now fully employed, he soon began to climb the career ladder, becoming the youngest head buyer in London at a small drapery with Peter Robinson, who was so impressed that he even off ered him a partnership.

Lewis, however, had bigger ambitions and, at the age of 28, he rented the site at 132 Oxford Street, filling it with stock bought with the help of his sisters, who each loaned him £600 of their life savings. For the next 64 years, until his death aged 92 in 1928, Lewis personally bought every piece of silk lace that adorned his windows and had full control of his empire.

House-Sept05-02-5901.A catalogue from 1932, showing the new autumn coat collection. 2. John Lewis 1950s advertising – a celebration of the consumer boom that followed years of austerity. 3.From 1942 to 1956, the Odney Estate was home to a pottery workshop, which provided jobs for disabled workers or ex-servicemen as well as highquality, low-cost earthenware products for John Lewis shops. 4.The Lem bar stool. 5.John Lewis, photographed in 1910, aged 74. 6.Orange was the colour of the 1970s, as evident in the John Lewis restaurant in St James’s Shopping Centre, Edinburgh (1973)

But he did have time for other things, too. Twenty years after opening the doors to his fi rst shop, John Lewis married Eliza Mills, after meeting her on holiday in Scotland in 1880.

They had two sons, the younger of whom, Oswald, joined the army and subsequently became an MP, while the older one, John (who was known by his middle name Spedan and wasn’t called up during the First World War owing to a riding accident), began to run the Peter Jones store – acquired by his father eight years earlier – in 1914. He was just 19.

Not only did he give the store a spring clean, he shortened the working day, and increased annual leave and pay. In fact, Spedan had a rather egalitarian attitude to business at a time when employees’ wages and conditions were poor. In 1925, he also coined the phrase ‘never knowingly undersold’, which would become the brand’s enduring slogan.

After his father’s death, Spedan had sole control of the John Lewis empire and in 1929 created the John Lewis Partnership, allowing every employee to own a part of the company they worked for. When he put the new scheme into place, it was truly revolutionary – and survives to this day. Just like the eagerly anticipated annual John Lewis commercial. Well, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without it.

A Very British Revolution: 150 Years Of John Lewis, by Jonathan Glancey (Laurence King Publishing, £20).


  • John Lewis provided fabric for the Titanic. There is one surviving sample of the material that was used in the state rooms, a pattern of Grapes and Scrolls printed on chintz, which is on display at the John Lewis Heritage Centre in Cookham.
  • Black clothes were unsurprisingly popular during the sooty, smoky Victorian era. Lewis stocked a wide assortment of black fabrics, such as silk, wool and cotton in 50 different shades.
  • Before Lewis rented the space at 132 Oxford Street it had been a tobacconist’s.
  • The takings on Lewis’s  rst day amounted to 16s 4d.
  • Apparently, Lewis knew the price of everything in his shop – the lift cost a penny farthing each time it went up or down and he would stand by the entrance directing shoppers who looked able to the stairs.
  • Many of the UK’s bestknown newspapers became popular in the 19th century and many companies advertised. Lewis, however, was „ atly against it.
  • Spedan created a sta„ journal, The Gazette, in 1918. Sta„ could complain about any issues by writing anonymously, which is still the case today.
  • Spedan’s wife, Beatrice, joined the Peter Jones store as a boot buyer in 1922. Before that, she taught English after graduating from Oxford.
  • Amy Johnson, the recordbreaking long-distance pilot was employed as a sales assistant at Peter Jones before she got her pilot’s licence in 1929.