Owen Owen Victorian Draper
If you want to find out more about how Owen Owen was founded and developed then see if you can get hold of a copy of this book by David Wyn Davies.
Below is an extract focusing on Owen’s arrival in Liverpool.
Owen Owen, his life and times
An edited version of a 2009 address to the Bishop’s Castle Heritage Group given by David Owen, the grandson of Owen Owen and an Owen Owen Trust trustee.
Thank you for inviting me to address you this evening about my grandfather, Owen Owen, his life and times.
Owen Owen was born in October 1847 and died on Easter Sunday 1910 at the age of 62. He was the elder son of his father’s second marriage. His father, also called Owen Owen, confuses matters, so I shall call him OO Senior. Owen Owen married late in life. My father was his younger son – he was only seven when his father died – and my twin brother, Edward and I are his only grandsons on the male line. As neither of us has any sons, the Owen line finishes with us.
The Owen family belong to the westernmost tip of Montgomeryshire in the hills south of Machynlleth. Edward and I were brought up there and we still farm Bwlch in the Llyfnant Valley that our forebears farmed three hundred years ago. Those of you who are familiar with the area will know that the river Llyfnant is the county boundary with Ceredigion and it passes beneath the railway line at Dyfi Junction Station. Across the Dyfi just north of Machynlleth is Gwynedd and the Snowdonia National Park. And from Bwlch on a fine day there is a magnificent view of Cader Idris.
Imagine, if you will, Napoleon in that corner, a potato over there, the Industrial Revolution here and Fate over there! Why are they all relevant tonight? Napoleon is relevant because Welsh agriculture prospered, let us say between 1789 and 1815, when imports of food were restricted. The price of wheat in 1800 was higher than at any time in the preceding century. Soon after the war, however, the price of corn halved. As the better known Robert Owen put it, ‘The day peace was signed, we lost our best customer’. Jobs for labourers became scarce, the price of wool slumped and a succession of poor harvests cannot have helped.
The Industrial Revolution is important because it enriched ports like Liverpool. That alone has afforded my family benefits it could not possibly have otherwise envisaged. I shall come back to the potato in a moment, and Fate is ever present.
The extent of the depression after 1815 can be illustrated by a paragraph from the history of the Cunard steamship family based in Nova Scotia. It reads –
“By about 1816 Halifax was beginning to feel the pinch of the great post-war depression – unemployment and hunger and beggars in the streets. There was hunger in Britain, too, and thousands emigrated to the new world, hoping to find a better life. They were packed into the dirty holds of the worst ships afloat, with rats and fleas for company, and those who landed in Halifax found that conditions were no better than at home – in fact they were worse, because the winters were colder.”
By the late 1830’s any prosperity that my family had enjoyed during the Napoleonic wars had certainly diminished. In 1838 Bwlch, their farm in the Llyfnant Valley which had been their home for generations, was mortgaged for £1200. The following year, being unable to pay the interest on the debt, the bank foreclosed, the entail was broken and the farm sold.
The family, that is to say OO Senior and his first wife, Susannah, then moved as tenants further up the Llyfnant Valley to Cwmrhaiadr where she died in 1843. Lacking any security of tenure, in 1850, he moved again, this time to Gartheiniog, a 500 acre farm near Aberangell and, after five years there, to Dyffrynglyncul, a rather larger farm between Aberdovey and Towyn, by which time his second wife had also died. Two years later, after marrying for a third time, he went to live at his wife’s home near Neath in South Wales where he remained for the rest of his life. He died in 1872 at the age of 57, after losing a leg in a farm accident.
But for the mortgage of Bwlch there would have been no Owen Owen story, and it therefore becomes important to consider how and why it came about. One possible reason is that the prosperous war years had encouraged OO Senior and his father, Thomas, to live beyond their means. We know OO Senior was a competent farmer, though admittedly hopeless at managing his financial affairs, and during the depression of the 1830’s he was no doubt strapped for cash, as many farmers would have been.
Another reason is provided by David Wyn Davies, in his 1985 biography entitled ‘Owen Owen – Victorian Draper’. He contends largely, I believe, on unreliable family gossip, that OO Senior, while still a young man, had a drink problem. As it got worse it eventually brought him into debt. There is good reason for doubting this explanation. OO Senior’s father, Thomas, was a good friend of the Rev. William Evans, the Wesleyan Minister in Machynlleth. Esther, the Minister’s daughter, would shortly become his second wife, as I shall explain in a moment. Surely no Minister would allow his daughter to marry an alcoholic – and especially a Minister whose first text as a young man had been “The end of all things is at hand: be ye therefore sober and watch unto prayer.”
With the benefit of more recent research, I have to disagree with the drink explanation and offer a third less obvious but more interesting reason. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, there was a sharp increase in the birth rate, not only in Britain but all over Europe. The reasons given for it include earlier marriages, a misplaced confidence that the economy would remain buoyant and a belief that sufficient food would be available all the year round as a result of the development of the potato. [The potato at last]. There was also a feeling that Poor Law relief would help the needy should all else fail. Unhappily, by the 1830/40’s, there weren’t enough potatoes at home to feed everybody and many had to move.
The enterprising went overseas, especially to the USA; and many distressed Welsh farming families flooded to the South where there was an ever increasing demand for men (even women, and boys under 10, until the law forbade it in 1842) to work in the mines and the iron and steelworks, where they could earn three times as much as a farm labourer. Even then, however, Wales was better off than Ireland which had no coal, hence the massive Irish emigration to the USA.
Faced with this depressing picture, in the early 1840’s, John, OO Senior’s youngest brother emigrated to Pennsylvania in the USA and his sister, Elizabeth, with her husband, Evan Anwyl, of Penrhosmawr, Penegoes, Machynlleth, went to Iowa while their brother, Robert, went to Liverpool. I shall come back to Robert in a moment.
That John and Elizabeth went to America is not surprising. From the 1720’s a substantial Welsh community had grown up in Pennsylvania, and in 1795 a dozen people from Llanbrynmair alone had gone the same way. It would not have been surprising to find the emigres calling for further able-bodied people to join them.
So it’s my contention that OO Senior and his father, Thomas, mortgaged Bwlch to release some capital for members of the family preparing to leave home and start a new life elsewhere. Mistakenly, as history has shown, they believed the prices of basic products would pick up and that given time they would be able to pay off the mortgage. The depression of the 1830’s was sadly too severe, they failed to keep up the payments to the bank and paid the ultimate price losing the family farm.
Returning now to the story of Owen Owen himself, when his father’s first wife, Susannah, died in 1843 she left behind two small sons, Thomas and John. The question then arose as to who would look after them – which is where the Rev. William Evans comes into the picture. Given that OO Senior’s father, Thomas, was a good friend of the Wesleyan Minister, and his mother, Margaret, a zealous Wesleyan, it would have been no surprise if William Evans encouraged his daughter, Esther, then only 21, to go to Cwmrhaiadr to help bring up Susannah’s two young boys.
Be that as it may, three years later, on 31 December 1846, Esther became OO Senior’s second wife and Owen Owen was born some nine months later on 13th October 1847, Esther’s first child. Esther had five more children but only four days after giving birth to her sixth child in February 1855, she fell, contracted pneumonia and died, leaving OO Senior once again in turmoil. It was OO Senior’s good fortune on Esther’s death, however, and ours now, that she had a brother in Bath by the name of Samuel Evans. Samuel had a draper’s shop and needed help to run the business. And who better than his nephews, Thomas and Owen, to do just that? So first, Thomas and later Owen Owen went to help their uncle in Bath where he provided them with a home and an education. With the benefit of that education Thomas founded the Ely Paper Mills at Cardiff which later became part of the Reed empire.
And in 1868, at the age of 20, having borrowed £375 from his step-brother, Thomas, and with the loan of some stock from his Uncle Samuel, Owen Owen went to Liverpool, opened his own draper’s shop at 121 London Road and quickly prospered. From that humble beginning there was sown the seed of the department store business which bore his name. And it remained effectively under family control until it was sold in 1985. Some of you may remember the Owen Owen stores at that time in Shrewsbury, Wolverhampton, Stourbridge and Kidderminster.
I should like to read you now a passage from his hand written note under the heading “A few thoughts on arriving at Liverpool, 24th February 1868”.
“Here I am, shown into the same room that I slept in about two years ago; and now under what different circumstances do I stop here – to begin the business of life in earnest! Who can tell what I am now laying the foundation of? Is this the time and tide that leads on to fortune, or is it a ship sailing on the world-wide ocean without a compass to guide or an anchor to steady? Now I am going to open a business for myself. I feel as though I were now going to do battle with mankind. O that the result were known!
[Then come a few rules which he hoped would guide him to success:]Rise very early, and live very well and very cheaply.
Be honest to my customers and just to my creditors; this will give confidence.
Pay debts as soon as possible, so as to owe no man.
Work myself and be as much as possible in the shop.
Be civil to everyone.
Time being money, therefore waste none, for now is the time to work, read and make a fortune.
Do not frequent theatres, music-halls, or anything to the neglect of business.
Policy, policy, policy, policy. Think again, reflect, be of the same mind for some time together. Don’t change your mind; think first and think twice before you act.
Above all, take care of the stock. [They say] More men fail from overbuying than any other cause. Watch and do as they do in Bath. Keep the stock low and always fresh.
Let custom be your guide. Have more respect for the old and more respect for the holy. Be more reserved, but seem to be very free. Talk with less restraint and allow others to know as well as you.
Many a man carries too much sail and not enough ballast. Let me have a little more of each. An important affair must not be done at once. Put it on one side and let it stand over till tomorrow. Have something to say to everyone – talk of politics, town affairs, or anything to prevent their asking any questions as regards myself. Bear this in mind.”
One fascinating question my father never raised – and it has remained unanswered – is whether Owen Owen, in deciding to go to London Road, Liverpool, was influenced by the success that his late uncle, Robert, had enjoyed there. Robert had started work as an apprentice in a shop, also in London Road but at Number 93, about 1849 at the age of about 18. He bought the shop in 1851 and died of an ulcerated stomach in 1857 leaving an estate described as ‘under the value of £3000’, a not inconsiderable sum in those days. We know from Robert’s will made in April 1856, when he must have been aware that he was suffering from some terminal illness, that he had done well. It is perhaps worth noting that he made specific bequests of £200 each to his younger brother John, in Pennsylvania, his sister, Elizabeth, in Iowa and a smaller amount to his father.
Robert’s death at such an early age may lead you to wonder what it was like to live in Liverpool in the nineteenth century. The short answer is indescribably horrible if you belonged to the ‘labouring classes’, as I discovered from chancing upon a copy of the Proceedings of the Liverpool Literary & Philosophical Society 1886 which contained a lengthy address by the President, a Mr. Carter, upon that very subject.
Up to the seventeenth century Liverpool had been primarily an agricultural centre, with a population of about 500 and a limited amount of trade with Ireland. It was not until the Cheshire saltfields began to be exploited that the port’s economy radically altered. Instead of Breton salt being imported, Cheshire salt was exported, especially to the cod fishing grounds off Newfoundland. After salt came the import of West Indies sugar from Barbados and the export of coal from the south-west Lancashire coalfield. In the late 18th century Liverpool was said to be one of the healthiest places in the country – with its ‘favourable situation at the mouth of the Mersey estuary, purity of air and goodness of the water’. But by 1800, Liverpool’s population had swelled, attracted by hopes of high wages as the city prospered with the increase in trade. Housing conditions could not cope and the city suffered horrifically from squalid overcrowding and inadequate sanitation.
By 1832 Liverpool had a population of 250,000, two thirds of whom belonged to the ‘labouring classes’. Half lived in courts, the remainder in ‘lodgings in narrow streets whose houses had no through ventilation’. Large numbers were treated every year for fever, and by 1843 the city was described as “without exception, the unhealthiest town in the kingdom”. One out of every four children born in the city died before its first birthday and nearly two thirds of all children died by the age of five. You may say that it was no different from many other growing industrial centres in England at that time.
The character of a court was described as follows:
“Two rows of houses placed opposite each other, with six or eight houses in each row. The court communicates with the street by a passage about three feet wide. The farther end being closed by a high wall, the court forms a cul-de-sac with a narrow opening which renders impossible the free circulation of fresh air.” As late as 1884 there were over 14,000 courts, back to back, three storeys high, each with three rooms, ten or eleven feet square. Though classified as insanitary, they provided homes for thousands of people, often at a rate of six people per house, sometimes over nine. In one double cellar it was reported that 30 people slept every night.
“Conceive, if you can” as one writer put it in 1843 – and it was much the same 40 years later – “what it was like to live and labour, and what it must have been to sicken and die, under [such] conditions. Probably not a single court communicated with any sewer by means of a drain. The state of their entries was filthy beyond description, whilst at the further end of them there were generally two privies, with an ashpit between them for the refuse of all the houses, which speedily became filled, and overflowed for weeks before it could be emptied. Fluid filth trickled from these and from the cesspools which adjoined them. It soaked into the generally unflagged or ill-flagged ground, and oozing through defective walls, found its way into the living rooms, and especially into the cellars. In one of them a well, four feet deep, into which the horrible liquid was allowed to drain, was found beneath the bed whereon the family slept; while in another it was found at times to rise to a height of two feet above the surface of the floor.”
While the filth and squalor were major factors in contributing to disease and short life expectation, the lack of through draught in the courts was an even more important contributing factor to the spread of diseases. Epidemics of smallpox, cholera and typhus, otherwise known as the Liverpool disease and jail fever, occurred with horrifying frequency.
Though there can be no doubting Owen Owen’s courage in going to Liverpool, he was blessed with youthful vigour and had received careful training from his Uncle Samuel in Bath. His Uncle Robert’s success as a shopkeeper in London Road, of which he must almost certainly have been aware, had probably also given him the confidence to believe that he too would prosper in the course of time. It’s surprising what you can do with those three C’s – Courage, Competence and Confidence. Owen Owen had besides the advantage of not being tethered by parental bonds. His mother had been dead for thirteen years, and his father, it would seem, was a broken man. So, with the benefit of hindsight, he was fortunate to establish himself in a prospering environment when trade in Liverpool was at its peak. He was in the right place at the right time.
Professor Francis Hyde in his 1971 treatise on the Development of the Port of Liverpool described the years 1860 to 1914 as boom years for Merseyside. Imports trebled in value, volumes increased between three and four times; exports increased nearly fourfold in value and fivefold in volume.
Just three further statistics illustrate Liverpool’s pre-eminence.
In 1857 the port handled 45% of the UK’s export trade and 33% of its import trade.
In 1872 the total wet dock area amounted to 255 acres with 18 miles of quay space – equivalent to the distance from Machynlleth to Aberystwyth.
And thirdly, of the 5,500,000 emigrants who left Britain between 1860 and 1900, 80% sailed from Liverpool, most of them to North America.
This link between Liverpool and the United States can be seen from a colourful account, published in 1885, of a Liverpool clergyman, Henry Rees, spending the summer of 1839 visiting various Calvinistic Methodist churches in New York State and Ohio. Most of the ocean-going traffic in those days comprise emigrants on a one-way ticket going west – but Henry Rees spent just three months there. ‘After being committed to the grace of God by his friends the night before’, so we are told, he boarded the paddle steamer, Liverpool, in the Mersey at three o’clock in the afternoon of April 20, with his wife and child, and arrived in New York three weeks later after a ‘pleasant’ voyage.
Everything in America seems to have been awful. In a letter home he writes: “It is difficult to give our fellow-countrymen an idea of this journey. God has been very gracious unto me ever since I left home. I am ready to fear everything in America, but the 91st [Whoso dwelleth under the defence of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty …… He shall defend thee under his wings, and thou shalt be safe under his feathers…. Thou shalt go upon the lion and adder; the young lion and the dragon shalt thou tread under thy feet] and 121st [I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills] psalms have given me great support in my weakness. Many a time have I put myself under the care of the Most High. Indeed I enter this ark every morning before I come out of my bedroom. The road seemed to run through the very regions of the shadow of death. Nature seemed to be an everlasting desolation – no living sound except the frogs that croaked over the forests and cried like ducklings for their mother.”
Henry Rees travelled hundreds of miles on canals, rivers and lakes in long narrow boats drawn by three horses. The heat was great, and their beds were arranged for the night in the place where they sat and ate their meals during the day. “After arranging the room,” he writes, “the travellers were called to enter their beds, according to their names on the book. And thus 25 to 30 of us would squeeze ourselves into our little hiding-places, and after undressing but slightly, would put ourselves in the best way we could upon the shelf to keep till morning. And we preached on the Sunday, like men getting the harvest in, in their shirt sleeves, with long, naked necks.”
It is time to return to Owen Owen. Hard work and little play kept him busy for well over 20 years and it was not until December 1891 that he married at the ripe age of 44. His wife, Ellen Maria Richards, was a close friend of the two daughters of his housekeeper, Sarah Sawtell. All three girls worked at Gorringe’s department store in London and it seems that Owen Owen invited the young Ellen to be his partner at a posh Drapers Ball. After that it was romance all the way and rearing a family of two boys and two girls. My father was the youngest child. He was born in 1902 and was only seven when his father died in 1910. His mother lived on until 1935, a lonely, wealthy and increasingly difficult old widow. Towards the end of her life she had a flat overlooking Hyde Park Corner. Her favourite pastime was to spy on Edward VIII visiting Mrs. Simpson at Apsley House.
It may seem strange to talk about a man without saying something of his character or personality. The trouble is Owen Owen died in 1910 and there is noone alive who can speak of him with first hand knowledge. So a few second hand crumbs will have to suffice. First, he was, of course, a skilful retailer with an eye for meticulous presentation of the goods, a fair price and a sale, no matter how modest the profit.
Next he kept his ledgers scrupulously. One of the downsides of David Wyn Davies’ 1985 biography ‘Owen Owen – Victorian Draper’, that I referred to earlier, is that so much of the narrative stems from precise entries in his ledgers. They provide accuracy to the story but sadly do not tell us much about the man himself.
If there was one special aspect of Owen Owen’s management style, it was his interest in the staff’s well-being. Within a few years he was employing over a hundred, many of them from North Wales. To make them feel more at home he built hostels and provided cricket and tennis facilities. Besides being the first employer in Liverpool to give staff a half day off each week, he also set up a trust for employees in need. The trust still exists and I am proud to say that I have been a trustee since 1964.
Even in his early years Owen Owen had an interest in acquiring property around his shop in London Road, Liverpool. Later this interest extended to the acquisition of properties in London, so much so that by 1900 he had a first class railway season ticket between London and Liverpool.
He was also generous to members of his family who found themselves in straitened circumstances. A nephew of his once told me that Owen Owen’s supreme achievement in keeping the family together was to invite them all to his home at Penmaenmawr for a week or so every August. ‘Get them to eat at the same table from time to time’, he used to say, ‘and they won’t squabble’. Excellent advice for us all!
Owen Owen’s recreation in later years appears to have been a spot of golf, with his chauffeur as his caddy. And in the 1880’s he took up cycling when it was still regarded as an elite pastime. By then the penny-farthing, with its heavy and dangerous solid wooden wheels, had given way to the ‘safety bicycle’ with two wheels of equal size and pneumatic tyres. Owen Owen started with two expensive tricycles. It was only some time later that he took lessons how to ride a two-wheeler. By the 1890’s, the cycling craze, especially in Wales, had really caught on as the cost of a bicycle came down to a few shillings and cycling clubs were formed up and down the country. The Swansea Cycling Club, for example, introduced a rule requiring members on a club run not to overtake the Captain!
From bicycles Owen Owen moved on to motor cars. His first car, bought in January 1909, was a Delaunay Belville No. 6277. On Day One of its first outing from London to North Wales it managed just 60 miles, getting as far as Towcester after three punctures between London and Oxford.
The end of Owen Owen’s life gave him the satisfaction of buying the Garthgwynion Estate at Machynlleth in September 1906. The Estate included Bwlch, the hill farm the family had had to sell in 1840. The wheel had turned full circle. We are back where we began.
Owen Owen’s story does not end there, however. Fate was to play its part once again – this time in 1921, just eleven years after his death, with the death of his elder son, Harold. Harold, born in 1895, joined the Royal Welch Fusiliers in 1914, shortly after leaving school. He arrived at Gallipoli in August 1915 only to be wounded in the arm the same day and be back in a London hospital within the week, suffering also from dysentery. By the following March, however, he was deemed fit to serve overseas once again and spent the next three years in Iraq keeping a watchful eye on the Turks in the Tigris delta and contracting beri-beri in the process.
His letters home tell of his unit’s tented conditions and the hardship of life in the Iraq climate, the tedium of peace and the occasional moments of panic, though nothing of course of the conflict itself. In May 1919 he returned home to begin a civilian life at Garthgwynion only to be killed with 16 others in the rail disaster at Abermule, between Newtown and Welshpool in Montgomeryshire, on 26th January 1921. Harold had planned to take the London train on the Tuesday but deferred his departure by a day to meet some Council officials about the line of a new road in the Llyfnant Valley.
The story of the disaster is well told by David Burkhill-Howarth in his book entitled ‘The Deadly Tablet’. The tablet was the token for the next stretch of single line track which the engine driver had to have in his possession before he drove along it. The Abermule disaster was brought about by the failure of the staff at Abermule station to follow the Cambrian Railways’ rules. Two junior members of staff, aged 15 and 17, who did not have authority to issue the tablet, did so because the relief station-master was having his lunch. Then the fireman of the ‘down’ train to Newtown failed to check that the tablet was the correct one for that stretch of track, the train was allowed to leave Abermule station and too late the mistake was realised.
The accident occurred on a bend where the drivers of the trains could not see the imminent danger. At a late stage the driver of the ‘up’ London train did see the smoke overhead from the ‘down’ Aberystwyth train, but he could not stop in time, though at the last moment he and his fireman were able to jump ship. The driver of the ‘down’ train, however, failed to see the express coming round the bend and the two trains collided with an impact speed of about 60.mph.
And so my father, at the age of 19, inherited Garthgwynion under his brother’s soldier’s will and managed the Estate for the next 55 years. And now we, nearly 100 years later, continue to do our best to follow his example.
Two points to round off where I began. But for Napoleon, the potato and the Industrial Revolution, the Owen family would not have benefited in the twentieth century from Liverpool’s prosperity in the nineteenth century, which gave Owen Owen the starting block for his enterprise in that city in 1868.
And secondly, it is remarkable how Fate, sometimes cruel, sometimes kind, even a very long time ago, influences our lives, our destinies and our well-being even today. But for the Abermule disaster in 1921 I would probably not have been delivering this address this evening.
May I leave you with the words on Owen Owen’s tablet at the Machynlleth Non-Conformist cemetery where his ashes lie: “He most lives who thinks most, feels the noblest, acts the best.”
June 2020 David Owen
Working in a Department Store
Working in a Department Store highlights the roles available in the modern department store. There are interviews with buyers and sales assistants and it is a great insight into British life and how stores worked.
They always come back
This book about Owen Owen was distributed to all staff
Into the Computer Age
If you worked in an Owen Owen store in the 1980’s you may remember the move from cash registers to NCR point of sale terminals. This film was produced as part of the training programme. You may recognise a face or name from those distant days
Liverpool Record Office
We found these at Liverpool Record Office at Liverpool Central Library, they are of the Restaurant and shop floor of Owen Owen Clayton Square in Liverpool.
We’d love to see your old photographs and hear about your memories of working at the Owen Owen group. Please could you scan these images and email them along with your memories to me at Paula.Woosey@owenowentrust.
Where did you work?
We found a great selection of store images and thought we would share them with you. See if you can spot where you worked.
The list below shows all the stores owned by Owen Owen during its long and rich history. However, inclusion of a store does not guarantee ex employees the right to a grant as all applications must satisfy the eligibility criteria. If you wish to apply for a grant please contact the Trust Office for further information. Click on the image below to open the list.