Friday, 28 August 2009

Freeman, Hardy & Willis, Littlehampton and Wimbledon

Two weeks ago I was searching on my computer for a mosaic I could post on this blog, when I realized that I had two pictures, from Wimbledon and Littlehampton, with the same initials. The design was different but both displayed "FH & W." Surely this wasn't coincidence and I thought there could be more than just a local shop behind these initials. An internet search with just these three letters led to nothing. Then one day, on my way to do some shopping in Wimbledon I stopped at the local library to look at old pictures of Arthur Road, but the only ones they had didn't show its lower part. Still stuck! Then last week I passed through Peckham, and after taking a few pictures of the area, including some painted signs, headed towards the library. While looking for some information to legend my photos I came across an old picture of a high street with a Freeman, Hardy & Willis shoe shop! With a full name, it would now be easier to find some information about that chain and see if it was connected with the two mosaics. And indeeed, these mosaics were laid at the entrances of two branches of this once popular chain of footwear retailers, which disappeared in 1996, the very year I came to Britain. Maybe if I had asked the granny next door, my mystery would have been solved earlier...

Freeman, Hardy & Willis was set up in Leicester in the mid 1870s, when Edward Wood sold his boot and shoe manufacturing business, E. Wood & Co., to three of his associates (for more on footwear manufacture in Leicester, click here). Soon after the company changed its name, and Freeman, Hardy & Willis embarked on an ambitious expansion plan which saw its number of retail outlets increase dramatically. Actually, FH & W was one of the first firms, which in the last quarter of the 19th century, opened shops in many towns, thus selling directly to the public and cutting the middleman. By 1890 it owned more than 100 outlets (other companies with such high number of branches included the International Tea Company, the Home and Colonial Tea Company, Eastman's the butchers, and footwear retailers Stead & Simpson and George Oliver). By 1914 the number had increased to nearly 500. The opening of new outlets across the country explains only partially such an expansion. The increase in size of Freeman, Hardy & Willis (and of most other companies at the time, with the exception of W. H. Smith and Boots) was mainly the outcome of amalgations with competitors. At the turn of the century, Freeman, Hardy & Willis took control of Rabbits & Sons and Pocock Brothers. In 1927 though, FH & W and its 551 outlets were acquired by its competitor Sears, which traded under the name True Form. In 1953 after a sensational take-over, Charles Clore took control of Sears, and three years later added Manfield and Dolcis to his portfolio. Clore reorganized his footwear interests into the British Shoe Corporation in 1962 and the same year went on to buy Saxone, and Lilley & Skinners. In 1996 Sears' shoe shops, except Dolcis, were sold to Stylo plc, which decided to consolidate them into its Barratts and PriceLess Shoes brands. Therefore many of those familiar footwear name were axed.

As mentioned above, the two mosaics have different designs. While the one in Littlehampton appears at first sight more elaborate, it is actually quite crude. The letters are not even aligned with the pavement and, in any case, would have looked better if they had adopted the curve of the parchment. The one in Wimbledon on the contrary looks apparently more simple. Yet there is a nice gradation in the letters, from brown to red and grey and the three-tone fan background is quite attractive.

Location: High Street / Picture taken on: 11/04/2009

Location: Arthur Road / Picture taken on: 03/09/2008

Now that I know that Freeman, Hardy & Willis were present in most towns and cities across Britain, I'm hoping that I'll come across some more mosaics, or even a painted sign for them... Who knows?


navytaxi said...

the 3rd image is a Freeman, Hardy & Willis mosaic.

Sam Roberts said...

There is a Ghostsign of this one in Leicestershire too.