John Lewis Senior was born in Shepton Mallet, Somerset, in 1836. Sadly, his parents died while he was a child and he was brought up largely by his aunt, Ann Speed. At 14, he was apprenticed to a local draper and by the age of 20, had moved to London and began working in Peter Robinson’s shop on Oxford Circus. He soon became the youngest silk buyer in the capital.
In 1864, he decided to open a small drapers shop of his own in Oxford Street, taking 16s 4d (82p) on his first day! The business started to grow and expanded into neighbouring properties. During the 1880s, much of the shop was rebuilt to accommodate the business’ growth. John Lewis’ trading policy was simple – a wide assortment, low margins, and fair dealing – and… he never advertised.
It was then in 1884 that John Lewis married Eliza Baker, a teacher who had been one of the first women to attend Cambridge University. They had two sons, John Spedan Lewis, born in 1885, and Oswald, born in 1887. After their education at Westminster School, both boys followed their father into the family business. Little did they know, one of the boys, would revolutionise British retail and implement a business model that had not been seen before.
On his 21st birthday John Spedan Lewis (the eldest son of John Lewis Senior) received a quarter share in his father’s business, valued at £50,000, which entitled him to a quarter of the profits of the Oxford Street shop. Shortly afterwards he also became a director of Peter Jones Ltd which had previously been bought by his father in £1000 worth of cash notes! The two younger Lewises encouraged the shop staff to take an interest in sport and started a staff magazine, the Byron Quarterly. This was the early edition of the Gazette magazine, which is still produced in the Partnership today and handed out to Partners weekly.
After a few years, Spedan became uneasy that he, his brother and his father were receiving more income from the family business than all their employees put together. After a riding accident forced him to have two operations and a long period of convalescence, he thought deeply about his own future and that of the business. He was eager to share his profits with his staff and to redistribute money which was being kept in reserve.
In order to do this, he decided to make the business into a limited liability company, distributing the profits to the employees in the form of shares in proportion to their pay. His father’s reaction to this suggestion – and to his inevitable smaller share of the retained profits – was somewhat negative: ‘Who do you suppose would bear the carking cares of business for such a miserable remuneration as this would mean!?’
In 1914, John Lewis Senior handed over the entire managerial control of the Peter Jones shop to Spedan, who became the shop’s chairman and its nominal managing director. He was then free to start putting his forward-thinking ideas into practice.
Spedan’s first move was to shorten the working day by an hour and to start a departmental system of commission [He also set up the staff committees – the forerunner of the Committees for Communication – in which elected representatives of the rank and file held regular meetings with him in the absence of their managers].
Over the next few years he made further changes at Peter Jones, giving the staff a third week’s holiday, taking on well educated people for management posts, and starting The Gazette. In 1919, he set up a staff council (the forerunner of today’s Partnership, Divisional and Branch Councils).
Spedan’s first formal profit-sharing scheme was approved in 1920 and the first distributions were made that summer in the form of shares in Peter Jones Limited. From 10 April that same year, The Gazette began to refer to the staff as Partners, and the famous slogan ‘Never Knowingly Undersold’ was first used at Peter Jones in 1925.
Spedan’s mother passed away in 1924 and in 1926, Oswald gave his brother his share in the Oxford Street shop, and control of both stores were passed to Spedan. Although, his father was still very much involved with the day-to-day running of the business. Spedan immediately started to apply his ‘Partnership’ ideals to the Oxford Street shop as well, and bought the Odney Club in Cookham, Berkshire (a Partner benefit that still remains today).
On 18 April 1929, one year after his father had passed away, Spedan Lewis signed the First Trust Settlement, transferring his own shares in John Lewis Ltd, Peter Jones Ltd and the Odney Estate to a board of trustees on behalf of the Partners. He also created the John Lewis Partnership Limited.
Twenty-one years later, on 26 April 1950, Spedan signed the Second Trust Settlement, effectively ‘giving’ the Partnership to the people who work in it. By this act, he transferred all his remaining shares and his ultimate control to the trustees. The John Lewis Partnership expanded during the remainder of the 20th century into the business we know today.
The Partnership bought Waitrose Ltd in October 1937. At the time, it was a London-based family business with 10 grocery and provisions shops employing 164 staff. Wallace Wyndham Waite, who had opened his first shop with Arthur Rose and David Taylor in 1904, was still in charge.
The three men had started trading in Acton, west London. Their original shop soon expanded, and reopened in much larger premises in 1908, selling everything from fish to flowers. By 1920 there were more than 20 Waitrose shops throughout London and the Home Counties, but many shops had closed by 1930 after a decade of more difficult trading conditions.
In the 1950s food retailing in England changed dramatically, as counter service gave way to self-service. The first self-service Waitrose opened in Southend in 1953, and the first Partnership supermarket followed in 1955, in Streatham, south London.
Over the next 20 years Waitrose refined its customer offering, building a reputation for good quality food, including pioneering organic foods and customer services such as Quick Check and Waitrose Deliver. The division also developed the internet food trade.
Throughout our history we’ve continued to differentiate and find new ways to become a better way of doing business. Wherever Partners work in the Partnership, they each have a part to play, to ensure the future success of the business they co-own. The 21st century presents itself as a challenging time for the world of retail but, it is one we are willing to face into, just as we have faced into other challenges in the past.
Most of the above text comes from the John Spedan Lewis centenary book. Images on this page are all held in the Partnership archives.
London – Victoria
£53000 – £80500
Stockbridge – Leckford Estate
£20600 – £27000
Closing Date: 30/01/2023
Ambleside – Ambleside Park