Marks & Spencer’s – Made In Yorkshire -Volume 24

We take a look at Marks & Spencer and find out how a Yorkshireman and a Jewish immigrant turned a Leeds Market stall into one of the most recognisable names on both the British high street and abroad.

The story of Marks & Spencers begins not on Kirkgate Market, but in the then Russian occupied Polish town of Slonim, where Michael Marks was born in 1859. Like many Jews living in Eastern Europe around the late 19th Century he had to flee his hometown, due to repression from the Russians and he eventually moved to Leeds around 1882.

The young man would not have spoken English and did not have a trade. He soon found work for a company called “Barran & son, who employed Jewish refugees. In 1884 he met Isaac Dewhirst, who ran a wholesale company. He employed Marks to sell his goods around nearby Yorkshire villages and local markets, including Wakefield and Castleford. While doing this job he learnt English, along with some colourful local dialect along the way no doubt. It was also evident that Marks had a talent for selling and eventually managed to raise enough capital to rent a stall of his own at Leeds Kirkgate Market.

He started trading in 1884. This stall, one might say was a forerunner of the modern pound shop, as everything he sold on the stall was the same price- one penny. Back then this was known as a “penny bazaar.”

The goods he sold ranged from wooden spoons to nails and screws. Over time the money he made on his Leeds stall enabled him to open others in other local market halls, such as Wakefield and even some locations over the Pennines.

By 1894 the expanse of his growing enterprise meant that Michael Marks needed a partner to help him share the workload. He approached his old boss, Isaac Dewhirst, but he turned him down (the company could have become known as Marks & Dewhirst), but pointed him in the direction of his cashier, Thomas Spencer. The Skipton-born accountant had watched the growth of Marks’ business and jumped at the chance to become his partner, seeing the £300 he would need to secure the deal as a wise investment. It was here that Marks & Spencers was formed.

The two partners would assume two important roles. Marks with his talent for selling and business acumen continued to run the stalls, while Spencer would take control of the purse strings and be in charge of the supply chain, utilising his large contact book acquired while working for Dewhirst.

By 1897 they had 36 penny bazaars across the UK, including several in London, one in Birmingham, Cardiff and others in places closer to home, such as Bradford, Sheffield and Hull. By 1903 they had become a limited company and built new headquarters in Manchester. They also opened their first store as part of a newly developed arcade in Leeds called the Cross Arcade. Nowadays this is known as the Victoria Quarter and the Leeds store is located on Briggate, opposite its original shop.

Image of Marks and Spencer, Leeds, Photo Credit, N Chadwick, Geograph - Creative Commons
Marks & Spencer’s flagship store on Briggate, Leeds, Photo Credit, N Chadwick, Geograph – Creative Commons

The opening decade of the 20th Century saw the death of both partners. Spencer, who had retired in 1903, passed away in July 1905 and Marks, who carried on working until his death, in 1907. It was up to the next generation to carry on the good work. The next few years after the partner’s deaths saw a bitter legal battle fought between Spencer’s executor of his will and Simon Marks, the son of its founder.

Eventually Simon prevailed and became chairman in 1916 aged twenty-eight. He had to adapt the business to suit the changing times. The First World War, a time of hardship for all saw an increase in demand for items such as buttons, needles and threads to mend old clothes, rather than buy new ones. While conscious not to profit from war, these changing times suited Marks & Spencers, who sold affordable goods. By now there were 145 stores across the UK to manage; of which most of them were still penny bazaars. This model was becoming more unsustainable because prices were increasing through the supply chain, due to the effects of being at war. This meant that Marks had to make the decision to increase prices in their stores as a result, meaning that it left its penny bazaar roots behind. By the 1920s most items were sold up to five shillings.

Post war, fashion had changed forever. Gone were the long corsets and underskirts worn by women pre-1914 and in were the bra, first sold at M&S in 1926 and briefs which replaced them.  Dresses also became shorter and easier to make and maintain.

Several innovations were implemented in-store. In 1930 a brand new flagship store at Marble Arch in London was opened and cafe- bars were rolled out across many of its larger shops. Food was also beginning to appear in some of these stores by 1931.

During the Second World War 100 Marks and Spencers stores were hit by German bombs, with sixteen of these being destroyed completely. Rationing during these years and afterwards meant that more people, who could afford to, chose to eat out, where these rules did not apply and so more cafe’ bars were built inside the stores. Restrictions were also imposed on the amount of material which could be used in clothing. Marks and Spencers had to adapt and sell garments, such as utility dresses which could be used for many different occasions.

The 1950s saw an end to the restrictions imposed by war and a new consumer-orientated society to sell to. This decade saw the beginning of Mark’s and Spencer’s famous measuring services for women.

In 1964 Simon Marks passed away and the Chairmanship was passed to his son-in law, Israel Sieff- a Lancastrian. One of his first innovations was to sell fresh chickens instead of frozen ones. More expansive fashion ranges were developed to reflect the swinging sixties.

The 70s and 80s saw an expansion of the business abroad, especially in Canada, where forty-seven stores were opened. Stores opened in France, Belgium and Hong Kong too during the 1980s and so the company had grown beyond its borders.

The expansion of M&S abroad at this point was met with limited success. In Canada the stores were seen as “old fashioned,” catering only for older people and expats. They were not the only ones. In Britain the company was heading for an identity crisis too. The old penny bazaar from Leeds had to, for a while to look at itself long and hard in the mirror as profits started to fall either side of the Millennium.

Times were changing. M&S had prided itself in supplying most of its goods in Britain. Rival companies and supermarkets started buying products from abroad at a far cheaper price. The problem was, once M&S started following suit, it lost its appeal to many of its core customers who loved the fact they bought quality British products. Crazily, the stores did not accept major credit cards, only their own, which proved another stumbling block to success in the modern retail world. To add insult to injury an ill-fated TV ad campaign featuring a size 16 model stripping off and shouting “I’m normal,” caused outrage amongst the British public and damaged the company’s reputation even further.

The vultures were circling too and the very existence of one of Yorkshire and Britain’s most famous brands were under threat. In 2004, BHS boss, Richard Green attempted a £9.1bn takeover, which was rejected by the company’s shareholders

As the 2000s progressed, Marks and Spencer’s has somewhat recovered from those darker times at the beginning of this century. Several smaller, unprofitable stores, such as one in Ripon were closed, along with their chain of white elephants in Canada. New clothing ranges for men and women, in the shape of “Autograph” and “Per Una” were introduced and their simply food stores have become a success at the higher end of the supermarket spectrum.

International stores have also been opened in places such as Dubai, Athens, Holland and in the future, India. Marks and Spencers is once again on the rise. At the time of writing there are 852 UK stores, 480 overseas stores over 59 countries, employing over 83,000 people. This includes a stall at Leeds Kirkgate market, back where it all began, which opened to customers in 2013. I doubt whether they will be selling anything for a penny though!