The unveiling of the John Lewis plaque taking place on 28th July at 72 Bristol Road lower.
John Lewis came from a Shepton Mallet family of bakers and milliners. Through sheer hard work and entrepreneurial zeal he rose to become one of the nation’s favourite retail traders and his name, together with those of later associates Messrs Waite and Rose, still adorn the front of many large stores and supermarkets from London’s prestigious Oxford Street to provincial cities and towns.
In 1843, when John was seven his father died leaving him, five sisters and their 46-year old mother in challenging circumstances. By 1851 Elizabeth, the 26-year old eldest child was a servant to the Rector of Corton Denham and remaining siblings were employed in drapers’ shops in Wells and Glastonbury.
Whilst John Lewis moved to London to begin making his fortune the sisters, under their widowed aunt’s care, were by 1861 living in High Street Weston-super-Mare where they ran a ‘fancy’ stationery and dress making establishment. Living ‘above the shop’ was then normal practice. A decade later they were still in High Street – at number 27 – and their near neighbours at number 68, were wine merchant Sidney Lewis and family who also hailed from Shepton Mallet and were probably related.
Christian died in 1875 by which time John Lewis’s business endevours in London were beginning to reap rewards allowing his first freehold purchase to be made – a house in Weston-super-Mare for his sisters’ early retirement. The detached house at the junction of Arundell Road and Bristol Road lower came with a substantial garden (since developed) and magnificent views over the bay. He named it Spedan Ham. Why? Perhaps in recognition of Aunt Christian Speed who’d done so much keeping an eye on his unmarried sisters? John clearly thought highly of his Aunt, ensuring she was laid to rest alongside her late husband in Shepton Mallet Cemetery rather than being buried in Weston’s Milton Road Cemetery, a stone’s throw from Spedan Ham. The epitaph carved into the granite burial slab acknowledges his regard for Christian: ‘She lived for others rather than herself’.
It seems likely that Elizabeth Lewis’s death in 1887 created the need for a reassessment of life style such that by 1891 Maria, Mary and Eliza had moved down the hill to Hazelcroft (now The Lindens) at 8 Albert Quadrant where their final years were spent in Edwardian comfort.
Meanwhile in 1875 Joseph Lance of Cheltenham had purchased James Phillips’ small Weston-super-Mare drapery business and, with his two sons – Joseph and Alfred – developed a substantial retail emporium under the name ‘Lance & Lance’ (hence Lances’ Corner to this day). From 1907 business boomed, though post-First World War financial realities would have created some trading challenges.
John Lewis had died in 1928 and his two London-based sons – John Spedan Lewis and Oswald Lewis – had no reason to feel attachment to Weston-super-Mare. Maybe they had visited their seaside aunts and played on the beach as children but without evidence this is mere speculation.
Where old Mr Lewis had been an autocratic clothing company proprietor his sons adopted different managerial techniques.
They began selling modern electrical goods, offered free health care to employees and introduced the concept of ‘partnership’ whereby all staff had a share in the company’s fortunes and vicissitudes. They also began to look beyond London’s Oxford Street for profit.
‘During these years the character of Weston-super-Mare was changing in a way unfavourable to the Lance & Lance kind of trade, a trend that has continued since the end of the war’. This ominous assessment by Mr Miller on 14 January 1956 was a message writ large. Lance & Lance, which had been largely destroyed by enemy action on 28 June 1942, was at the end of its road.
One big question remains unanswered: Why did the country’s most successful London-based middle-class retail partnership decide to invest in Weston-super-Mare a quarter of a century after the Grim Reaper had taken the Lewis family’s last local survivor into his bosom? Lance & Lance stood almost next door to where old John Lewis had helped set up his sisters in their drapery business.
Could a touch of familial nostalgia or even a hint of gratitude to Weston-super-Mare have overridden hard business analysis? We’ll never know.
John Crockford-Hawley June 2023