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The Life and Death of a Salesman
By Linda Stratmann
The History PressCopyright © 2014 Linda Stratmann
All rights reserved.
On 29 September 1831 a small parcel of humanity, soon to be labelled William Whiteley, was delivered into the world. It is hard to imagine him as a placid infant. Even a newborn has personality, and he must have been an insistent little bundle, in a hurry to grow up and get bustling.
The scene was Agbrigg in the West Riding of Yorkshire, a hamlet south-east of Wakefield, whose population of less than a hundred consisted mainly of farming folk and artisans. Christmas was of early importance to young William, for he was baptised on 25 December in the parish of Featherstone. His father, Joseph, who was born around 1800 in the Wakefield area, was then a 'mealman' – a dealer in corn. William's mother, Elizabeth, was the eldest daughter of Thomas and Mary Rowlandson, farmers from the village of Purston Jaglin, a rural hamlet on the borders of Featherstone, where Elizabeth was born on 8 October 1810. Her three older brothers, John, James and William, were farmers, and there were two younger sisters.
Joseph Whiteley of Agbrigg married Elizabeth Rowlandson at Featherstone Parish Church on 1 June 1830, but their first-born son was not destined to be brought up by his parents. At the age of just nine months, and presumably freshly weaned, he was handed over to his uncle John in Purston Jaglin. John had married a Mrs Hill of Wakefield. They had no family, but enjoyed an income which suggested they adopt a child – these informal arrangements between siblings were not uncommon for the time. John later moved to Featherstone, where William obtained his first schooling. At the age of 6, he was sent to school at nearby Ackworth, walking there and back each day with Purston-born John Waller, who remained a friend for the rest of his life. The 1841 census shows that the occupants of Featherstone Cottage were John Rowlandson, farmer, his wife Mary, and little William, together with a servant girl. Ages in this census cannot be relied upon as there was a tendency to use round and not accurate figures. William's 34-year-old uncle is shown as 30 and William is recorded as being 5 when he was actually 9. The rest of the Whiteleys – there were now four more children – were living in Thornes, near Wakefield. Mary Whiteley was born in 1833, and Sarah in 1836. Thomas Rowlandson Whiteley, born in 1837, was the first of the family to require a birth certificate, which described Joseph as a 'shopkeeper'. Maria was born in Red Lion Yard, in the Kirkgate area of Wakefield in 1839, where Joseph was a 'manager of a corn warehouse'. By 1841 Joseph's career and, presumably, the family fortunes were in decline. According to Waller, he had been 'rather unfortunate in business'. He is described in the census as a 'corn porter'. In an age when all except the poorest households employed servants, there were none.
At 13, William went to Jefferson's School, Pontefract, completing his education in 1846 at the age of 14. The next two years were spent 'at home on the farm'. He was a vigorous, bouncy outdoor lad, keen on horses and traditional country pursuits. How much contact the young Whiteley had with his Wakefield family is unknown. He later wrote happily about this period of his life, saying nothing at all about his parents, and very little about his uncle, but a great deal about his acquaintance with the local squire, John Gully.
Gully must have been an extraordinary role-model for William. Born in Bristol in 1783, he had found himself, at the age of 21, in debtors' prison following a business failure. Taking up bare-knuckle prize-fighting, he literally fought his way out of debt. He retired from the ring, a champion, in 1807 and, armed with a small amount of capital, an understanding of horses, contacts in the betting world, and a natural facility for figures, began to lay odds for betters. Building up his business and his fortune, he began to acquire horses of his own. In 1832, the year when both the Derby and the St Leger were won by his horses, he bought Ackworth Park, near Pontefract. In the same year he was returned as Liberal Member of Parliament for Pontefract. By 1841 he had retired from politics, but remained on the estate for several more years, living the life of a racehorse trainer and country gentleman. His observations on horse-racing must have made enthralling listening for the farm-boy, who learned early the value of absorbing knowledge from an expert.
I worked well, and sometimes played well [wrote William]. I was very fond of horses and riding, also shooting, and I think I can safely say that by the time I was sixteen there were not many better riders or better shots in the horsey and 'gunny' county of Yorkshire than myself. When I was only ten years old, I used to hunt regularly with the famous Badsworth Hounds, allowed to be the best, strongest and fastest pack ever known.
I used to ride a little snow-white pony, under thirteen hands, but with a wonderfully hard mouth, so that it was quite impossible for me to hold her; all that I could do was stick on, and away she used to go with my small self sticking to her like a limpet. Nothing could stop her; five barred gates, stone dykes, high hedges, wide streams, she either went over or through them, and I never once knew her to refuse.
Besides being well-mounted, I was in very good company, amongst whom I may mention John Gully, the great sportsman, and grandfather of the present Speaker of the House of Commons, Lord Hawke and his brother Stanhope, and Sir Charles Greaves, who rode nearly twenty stone and yet generally contrived to be there or thereabouts. I was the baby of the hunt, and I remember the first time I was out I was fifth in at the kill. They were going to give me the brush, but a lady came up and it was given to her, and I had to be content with the promise of it another time, a promise, I may say, faithfully fulfilled.
The members of the hunt were very proud of me, and very kind, because they thought me a real good sportsman, as whenever the meet was anywhere near my home, I was always there, no matter what the weather might be, and when, after a long run, we called at the nearest gentleman's house, and had the usual crust of bread, piece of cheese and horn of home-brewed ale, they always took care that I was not overlooked and had my full share, Mr Gully in particular paying me special attention.
Gully must have seen something of promise in the boy, for once, when William was working in a field, Gully rode up and asked him if he thought he could catch one of the ponies running loose in the next field. If William could catch the pony, said Gully, then he could ride him home and keep him. This was a challenge impossible to resist and William at once went to get a rope, and after a hard struggle, secured the pony and rode him home in triumph. Whether this was the mount he rode to the hunt, he did not say.
If this is an accurate portrait of the youthful William Whiteley it reveals, apart from a love of the outdoor life, an irrepressible self-confidence, a shrewd under-standing of the importance of well-connected acquaintances, a keen sense of what was rightfully due for the effort spent, and a determination to be, and represent himself as being, the best. Whiteley could and would 'stick on' whatever might come, and metaphorically ride out in all weathers, for the rest of his life. Brick walls, fire and flood, every kind of obstruction in his path, once set, would be as nothing. Challenges were simply there to be met and overcome.
Whiteley spent two years on the farm, and during that time, he used to ride around the country with a 'celebrated bone-setter and high-class veterinary surgeon' – the insistence on the elevated status of this gentleman tells us as much about Whiteley as it does about his companion – and had 'many strange cases' to deal with, which unfortunately he did not describe.
William Whiteley must have looked set for the life of a farmer, but the ambitious young man did not relish the prospect of a future tied to his uncle's 12 acres of land. His 1938 biographer, Lambert, states that William thought of becoming a jockey, hoping for patronage from John Gully. If he did, it came to nothing. Despite his perambulations with the bone-setter, he seems not to have been attracted to the career of veterinary surgeon, high-class or otherwise, or perhaps there was no opportunity to continue his education. There was no prospect of advancement through his father. In 1851 the Whiteleys were still in Thornes where Joseph was now supporting two more sons, Benjamin and John, and was employed as a railway porter.
In 1848, William Whiteley at the age of 161/2 was bound apprentice to a Wakefield draper for seven years. At first glance, this seems a cruel fate for an all-weather farmer's boy and keen horseman, but he was adaptable, and shrewd enough to see that humble as it was, the position had promise. Taking what fate offered, he could make it his own. The pinnacle of his ambition was probably to be master of his own shop, and if any man could achieve it, it was William Whiteley, armed only with determination, the ability to work hard, and monumental patience.
The firm was Harnew and Glover, and later, Whiteley could not resist the comment that it was 'the largest drapery establishment in Wakefield (now raised to the dignity of a city) ...'. At the time of the 1851 census, the firm employed nine men and five women. Apprentices were expected to live on the premises and it is here, at 5 Northgate, that we find the 19-year-old William Whiteley, receiving 'a severe drilling into the arts and mysteries of trade'.
Wakefield, a handsome market town on the north bank of the navigable River Calder, was then noted for its fortnightly cattle fairs, and its trade in corn, malt and wool. Once the centre of Yorkshire's woollen trade, it had long been surpassed by Leeds and Bradford. Even if Harnew and Glover's was the largest draper around, it was in a town whose days of glory were over.
The stock of a traditional draper was then divided into two areas, each with its own buyer. There were the heavy goods: rolls of plain and print fabrics, silks and velvets, wool and linen, table cloths, sheeting and towelling. There was little in the way of made-up garments; the exceptions were plain capes of merino wool, and at the luxury end of the market, colourful woven shawls. A woman who wanted new clothes either made her own or had them made for her. The fancy department stocked the smaller items which were kept carefully tucked away in boxes or drawers. There were all kinds of edgings and borders, the most expensive of which were fine lace, as well as sewing thread, handkerchiefs, neckerchiefs, gloves, crisp wide ribbons to trim bonnets, narrow ribbons to tie shoes.
The life of a draper's apprentice was one of unremitting effort. As the lowliest member of the staff, young William would have risen at about 7 a.m., and helped take up the shutters, then cleaned and polished the exterior of the shop. He might also have had to do heavy portering work, carrying and arranging huge rolls of fabric, as well as attending to the wants of customers. The hours were long, and even if the shop shut at 10 p.m. there was tidying and cleaning to do afterwards which could have kept him busy beyond midnight. While the young men assistants would have had a room of their own to sleep in, apprentices were often accommodated on truckle beds underneath the counter.
Hard work was not the least of the trials to be endured, if the master of the place adopted the position described by one contemporary commentator. A draper's shop could be in a condition of
... perpetual martial law. Everyone, from the highest rank to the lowest, has to obey blindly the commands which may be given. Soiled goods, inferior goods, all must be sold in the way which is prescribed. No scruples of conscience are allowed, the merest observation receives summary dismissal. One is painfully impressed by the frightened looks which announce the sudden appearance of the Caesar of the establishment. No regiment in parade receives a stern colonel with greater fear, and whilst the eyes of the scared servants follow nervously the steps of their master, this all-important personage, well impressed with his own dignity, paces majestically up and down (no doubt, as he thinks), to the intense admiration of his feminine visitors. If for business reasons you have to enquire about the character of that man, do not seek any enlightenment from any of the suffering beings who live in these places; their mouths are sealed. ... Though companions in misery, the inmates do not even trust one another. ... But ... let the servant leave that master; it is then you will receive the information you want, for who knows a master better than his servant?
It is not known if Harnew and Glover operated in this fashion, and whether Whiteley himself adopted these traits when he achieved power is a matter which later aroused considerable debate.
After what he described as 'four years of incessant toil', William was allowed his first holiday, and he put it to good use, spending a week in London to see one of the defining attractions of the Victorian era. The Great Exhibition of 1851, the largest international collection of manufactured goods and art ever seen, housed in a revolutionary glass and iron structure, was opened by Queen Victoria on 1 May. It was an immediate and overwhelming success. The building covered an astounding 19 acres, its soaring artistry combined with a simplicity that did not detract from the glories within. The visitor was struck with a bewildering variety of displays, but the eye was first drawn to the great central fountain, then to the towering trees and colossal sculptures. Here were goods from every part of the world, 17,000 exhibitors, not only European, but from India, Africa, Russia, Persia and the United States; vases, ornaments, jewels, chinaware, lace, embroideries, silverware, clocks, perfumes, and scientific instruments. From Britain there was fine furniture and hardware, cotton and woollen looms in motion, and the best of its silks and shawls. Six million people visited the exhibition, which made a substantial profit. When it closed, the building was disassembled and taken to Sydenham where it was re-erected and opened in 1854. Sadly, it was destroyed by fire in 1936.
One of those swarming visitors was William Whiteley, and it is tempting to suppose, as Lambert does, that seeing such a vast array of goods of every variety, the idea formed in the mind of the 20-year-old draper's apprentice that one day there might be such another magnificent place, called 'Whiteleys', not to exhibit goods, but to sell them. It was a prescience that Whiteley never claimed for himself. Even if he had, the idea of a store selling more than just one restricted class of goods was not a new one, even then. As early as the 1830s Kendal Milne & Faulkner, drapers of Manchester, had diversified into other areas such as upholstery, carpets and furniture, while in 1845 the Newcastle firm of Bainbridges sold furnishing fabrics, furs, mourning and ready-sewn muslin dresses in addition to traditional drapery. Whiteley did, however, at last see his future clearly, and it lay in London. If a man with a good understanding of business and a determination to succeed could not make his fortune in London, then he could scarcely make it anywhere else. 'If the Exhibition impressed me, London impressed me still more, and I was so attracted to it that I there and then made up my mind that as soon as my apprenticeship terminated I would return and make my fortune.'
As early as the eighteenth century, London men of business had begun to find pleasant dwellings away from the heart of the City, and with the later coming of the railways and omnibuses this trend gained pace. With increasing numbers of elegant town-houses in the West End, there arose new centres of luxury shops to serve wealthy customers, establishing the prime shopping areas which flourish today – Oxford Street, Bond Street and Regent Street. The upper storeys of these grand new shops were too valuable to be used as staff lodging and became additional selling space, while windows of the new 'plate glass' encouraged the development of the art of arranging goods in an attractive manner. The introduction of gas lighting enabled goods to be displayed under a flattering glow, and also meant that the hours of shopping could be extended up to midnight, the long hours of the assistants not in those days being a matter of great concern. These developments stimulated a new pastime – window shopping – as if the street itself had become a Great Exhibition, laid on for the entertainment of the passers-by.
Until the middle of the nineteenth century, prices of goods were not fixed, nor even displayed – they were to be haggled over, a point of skill that many a shopper prided herself upon. By the time of William Whiteley's visit, the old custom of haggling was beginning to give way to the fixed price principle, especially in the more fashionable shops. There was to be no abatement, and any attempt to haggle would be met with dignified alarm. The old established shops in the West End took a particular pride in the high standards of honesty in their dealings with aristocratic patrons.
Excerpted from Whiteley's Folly by Linda Stratmann. Copyright © 2014 Linda Stratmann. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
William Whiteley's Guide to Success,
Map of Paddington, London 1870s,
1 Bankruptcy Avenue,
2 The Making of Westbourne Grove,
3 Whiteley's Windows,
4 A Sadder and a Wiser Man,
5 From a Pin to an Elephant,
6 Conflict and Compromise,
7 William and Louie and George and Emily,
8 Out of the Ashes,
9 The Burning Fiery Furnace,
10 Old Farmer William,
11 How to Succeed in Business,
12 The Man of Mystery,
13 Burying the Past,
14 The Legacy of William Whiteley,