Friday, June 5, 2020


Small-scale Leeds (3): Start small, build big

In 1884, Michael Marks, who had arrived shortly before as a refugee from the Russian Partition of Poland, opened a ‘penny bazaar’ in the Kirkgate Market in Leeds. In a penny bazaar, every item cost the same: Marks’ slogan was ‘Don’t ask the price. It’s a penny.’ Ten years later he went into partnership with Thomas Spencer, a former clerk for the wholesaler Isaac Dewhirst, who had supplied Marks with goods (and helped him with his English) when he started out in business. Marks and Spencer soon expanded their business and by 1904 had taken on their first shop. One of the great retailing names had arrived on Britain’s high streets.

Today’s Marks & Spencer in Kirkgate Market, looks similar to the original penny bazaar, but the Victorian version may have been rather larger. When I was there it was closed, but be assured, this is a functioning shop, and it seemed to have gifts and confectionery for sale inside. In that respect it’s like neither the original bazaar (which offered anything Marks could sell for a penny – hair pins, dyes, black lead…) nor the typical contemporary M&S store, with its specialisms in clothing and food. But it’s interesting that the business commemorates its humble origins, and the shiny paint, gilt capitals and bold lettering suggest they are proud of the man who arrived as a refugee and made a fortune and built something amounting to a national institution.


bazza said...

It's a wonderful story Philip. I only hope Marks & Spencer can halt the long slide into oblivion. The generations that followed Michael Marks took the business the the very top of British retailing in terms of quality and origin of their products. I recall that, probably in the 60s or 70s, they had banners in their shops declaring that 99% of their stock was British made. Also they led the way in treatment of their staff. They would not employ anyone who had worked for Woolworth. I think that's highly significant!
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Philip Wilkinson said...

Yes. They built very close relationships with manufacturers, because they bought a lot of their stock directly from them, got manufacturers producing things specially for M&S, etc, before others were doing this. And, yes, for all their humble beginnings,. they put themselves on a rung above Woolworth, attracting both middle class customers and those of the working class who aspired to something a little better!

Joe Treasure said...

Every Christmas, our unmarried Auntie Joan would arrive from London with presents for all nine of us -- usually an item of clothing from M&S, always with the receipt included in case it didn't fit. So from an early age I knew about their returns policy. Decades later I learned about Marks as a story of Jewish migration and enterprise. Great to see this kiosk serving as a reminder of the company's modest beginnings.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Joe: I too had such presents similarly presented with their M&S receipts. M&S were everywhere, it seemed once. The nature of the presents was as predictable as their source, but a certain reliability – quality plus value for money – went with the deal. Then suddenly predictable retailing was scorned, everyone was expected to reinvent themselves every five minutes, and M&S got marginalised.