William Whiteley

Member of The Hundred

William Whiteley
Birth and death
1831 - 1907
Profession details
Pioneer of the British Department Store
Related place
Anne Wright and Paul Martin

Life beyond Elmbridge

When William Whiteley died in 1907 he left an estate valued at £1,145,146 19s 10d (spending worth in 2011 of £65.7m). He had left Wakefield for London in 1855 with £10 in his pocket; he had sought and found his fortune. William Whiteley was born on 29th September 1831 in the small village of Agbrigg between Pontefract and Wakefield in Yorkshire, the youngest of four sons. His father was a successful corn merchant. William left the local school at fourteen and spent two years working on his uncle's farm. In 1848 he started a seven years apprenticeship as a draper's assistant with Harnew and Glover in Wakefield but it was his first visit to London in 1851 to see the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace which changed his life. William was inspired by the vast displays to devise an emporium on the scale of the Crystal Palace where everything could be available under one roof. Four years later he arrived in London to pursue his dream.

William determined to learn as much as he could about the retail and wholesale drapery business. He began by working for the traditional store of Willey & Co. in Ludgate, then moved to the important wholesale business, the Fore Street Warehouse, and finally he became familiar with haberdashery by working for Leat & Sons. Throughout this period he saved hard and managed to accumulate £700 - enough to start his own business. William Whiteley's first shop opened in Westbourne Grove, Bayswater in 1863; it was a fancy goods shop, specialising in ribbons. He employed two female assistants and an errand boy. The venture was a great success as by the end of the first year he employed fifteen assistants, a cashier and two errand boys. Customers were never pressured to buy goods they did not want, prices were reasonable and clearly marked, windows were dressed attractively and he soon added clothing, millinery and other goods until by 1867 the shop had seventeen departments. The opening of the nearby Bayswater Station by the Metropolitan railway helped the expansion of the business. William Whiteley's personal life was developing too as he married Harriet Sarah Hill at St. John's Church, Holloway on 23 February 1867. Harriet was one of the two assistants he employed in his first shop. They had two sons and two daughters but were legally separated in November 1881.

Whiteley's business went from strength to strength; by the 1880s it encompassed eighteen adjoining shops and the proprietor liked to style himself the 'Universal Provider'. Tasked with finding an elephant for a customer he apparently did so on the same day, which enabled him to boast that he could supply 'Everything from a pin to an elephant'. By 1890 over six thousand staff were employed, most living in male and female dormitories, obeying one hundred and seventy-six rules and working six days per week from 7am to 11pm. The store was patronised by Queen Victoria and the Royal Family and received an unsolicited Royal Warrant in 1896. Its reputation is even recognised in the musical 'My Fair Lady' when Prof. Higgins asks where he can buy a gown for Eliza Doolittle the response is 'Whiteley's of course'! Success came at a price as Whiteley became the object of hostility from smaller tradesmen in the area and between 1882 and 1887 his store suffered three fires. In 1887 it took thirty-four of London's forty-five steam fire engines to extinguish the blaze and despite a reward of £3000 being offered by William Whiteley no culprits were ever found. Each time the store seemed to recover more glorious than before and in the 1890s Whiteley expanded into farming buying some two hundred and thirty-four acres of land at Hanworth, south west of London to house food processing factories, a model farm and model dwellings for the workers. By 1899 the store had a turnover of £1 million and converted into a limited company but the family held the majority of the shares which were not publicly subscribed until 1909.

William Whiteley, a short stocky man with enormous energy and a substantial ego continued to make daily inspections of his store into his later years - he would appear dressed in a frock coat and top hat - on one such occasion on 24th January 1907 he was confronted by a young man, Horace George Rayner, claiming to be his son and asking for money. Whiteley believed he was being blackmailed and was about to summon the police when Rayner shot and killed him. Rayner was the son of Whiteley's friend, the financier, George Rayner and Emily Turner, but he had mistakenly believed Whiteley to be his father. Emily Turner's sister Louisa had a liaison with William Whiteley and after separating from his wife he bought Louisa a house in Kilburn. Their son was born in 1885. Horace Rayner was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death, but the punishment was commuted to life imprisonment after a huge public outcry in his support. He served twelve years and was released on license in 1919.

Whiteley's store was bought by the American, Gordon Selfridge in 1927 but never sustained the lustre it had under William Whiteley. It suffered bomb damage on 19th October 1940 and in 1981 was shut down by its then owners the United Drapery Group. Eight years later it re-opened as a shopping centre which it still is today (2011), owned by Standard Life.

Life in Elmbridge

William Whiteley's will stated that the sum of £1,000,000 (spending worth in 2011 of £57.3m) was to be used to purchase freehold land '...as a site for the erection thereon of buildings to be used and occupied as homes for aged and poor persons.' On 22nd March 1911 his Trustees decided to buy the two hundred and twenty-five acre Burhill Estate between Weybridge, Walton and Cobham for £40,000; and so began Whiteley's enduring connection with Elmbridge. The will advocated that the site was to be '...in as bright, cheerful and healthy spot as possible...' and the buildings were to be of 'good and substantial character and of a plain and useful design and shall be well lighted, ventilated and drained and so placed as to be protected as far as possible from the North and East winds.' He had obviously given much careful thought to the needs of the elderly.

Walter Cave was appointed as the Consulting Architect and the winner of the site design competition was R.Frank Atkinson. Of his design only the original octagonal layout of the village centre is recognisable today. Also surviving are the single-storey 'Model Cottages' designed by Walter Cave. Building in the Arts and Craft style began on 21 July 1914 and the first resident, a retired nurse, Miss Eliza Palmer, moved in on 10 October 1917 and by the end of that year there were forty-two residents. In the 1920s that figure had risen to more than two hundred. King George V and Queen Mary visited the village on Saturday, 28th May 1921 and stopped at the Memorial to William Whiteley created by Sir George Frampton. The village has to respond to and evolve with modern requirements and the cottages were thoroughly modernised in the 1960s. The Trust developed a vision for the new millennium which envisaged two new groups of cottages being built on Octagon Road - the first group, funded by the Drapers' Company was completed in 2004. An Arts and Crafts Centre was added in 2009. Today there are approximately four hundred and fifty residents, and one hundred years after the site of the village was purchased the Trustees continue to look to the future to perpetuate William Whitley's legacy.

The benefactor of Whiteley Village was a man of contradictions: ambitious, determined, exacting, successful, a disciplinarian and supremely self-confident yet his personal life displayed double standards which must have caused great hurt and led to his violent death. However, having provided for his family he used his immense self-created wealth for the lasting benefit of the poor and elderly. This along with the development of the first British department store forms his worthy and important legacy.

Whiteley Village Museum is now open in the old Chapel of Rest, adjacent to St Mark's Church.

Please visit the Whiteley Village Museum website for further details.


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