Week by week, we will be delving into the back stories of some of the greatest Yorkshire companies – finding out about the people behind the them, their humble beginnings, how they became household names, and where they are now. Today we take a look at Greenwoods, to discover how the disappearance of a Bradford milliner, led to one of the country’s most successful chains of menswear stores.
James Greenwood started his career as an apprentice to Mr Stringer Lake, who was a milliner with a hat shop at 29 Westgate in Bradford city centre. In 1860, Mr Lake vanished mysteriously and was never seen again – Greenwood then took over the shop with the help of his son Moses. In 1865, the premises were demolished as part of a road widening scheme. James Greenwood decided at this time to give up his hatting business, and gave it to his son, who took over the business in new premises. The other Greenwoods son, Aaron, set up a rival business further along the same road.
By 1903, the shop was so successful they expanded the business into the unit next door, around the same time that Aaron retired. In order to gain the business of men who would be working during traditional trading hours, the shop extended opening times to 8pm on Monday to Thursday, 10pm on Friday, and midnight on Saturdays. Unlike other retail establishments of the time, Greenwoods did not have half day closing. The only time it did shut its doors were on the mandatory Sundays, Good Friday, and Christmas Day (trading on these days remained illegal until as recently as 1994).
The shop expanded again in 1921, now commanding a corner position on Westgate. In 1919, Walter Greenwood (who had been born above the store in 1901) joined the family firm; becoming a partner in 1922, along with his brothers Arthur and Harold. It was Walter who made the decision to open shops in other locations, such as a London branch in 1925. Two years later, Walter went in his own direction, leaving his father and brothers to run the original Westgate store. By 1932 he had 26 shops across the North of England, and after his father retired, took back the Westgate store which became his headquarters.
In the following year, the company started trading as Greenwoods (Hosiers & Outfitters) Ltd, and purchased a dance hall in Drewton Street which became their new headquarters and warehouse. By 1934, Greenwoods had expanded to 36 stores. The company went from strength to strength over the next two decades, opening their 100th branch in Huddersfield in 1952, and building new headquarters at White Cross near Guiseley four years later. Expansion and takeover of other businesses took their total number of stores to over 200. Greenwoods continued to be successful until well into the new millennium. In 2008, a Chinese firm was interested in buying a 50% share of the business. While negotiations were going on, the British economy suffered a major downturn, and the company entered administration in 2009. 87 of the 92 UK stores were purchased for around £50m by a subsidiary of Harvest Fancy Hong Kong. The shops continued to trade as Greenwoods, and operated from a brand new headquarters on the Shipley Airedale Road, close to the city centre. The takeover managed to save five hundred jobs across the business and keep this well established Yorkshire brand on the high streets.
The one thing which has helped Greenwoods to survive while others have failed, is their ability to adapt and change. Their most recent venture is the introduction of the 1860 brand of clothing – a hire service for grooms, groomsmen and pageboys. The range now includes a slim-fit range of suits, ties, shirts and shoes; all of which are popular with today’s young men. As well as being a familiar name on the British high street for over 150 years, they are now also the second largest formal wear hirer in the UK.
In 2013 Chinese company, Bosideng completed a £4m takeover of Greenwoods and its 88 stores across the UK, ensuring the survival of a true Yorkshire brand for years to come.
In the next post in this series, we will look at the soft furnishings retailer, Ponden Mill.
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