THE BOOTS ARCHIVE
This spring, high street chain Boots announced the release of its new online archive, recording the long history of the company. The archive currently consists of 20,000 entries that include pictures, adverts and magazines. Many of the items link to the city of Nottingham – where the company originated – and so if you have family members or ancestors who either worked for Boots, or who lived in Nottingham, you may find something of interest here. It is also a growing and developing online resource; it currently contains about one-fifth of the entire archive, but many more items due to be added over the next four years.
The company’s archivist has stressed the importance of the archive for those interested in both local history or genealogy, who can ‘explore the history of their high street or perhaps see images of their grandparents and greatgrandparents’.
John Boot founded his company in Nottingham in 1849. His first shop was established at 6 Goose Gate, specialising in ‘vegetable remedies’ that could treat ‘almost every kind of disease’. In fact, the first Boots was not known by that name, but by the more cumbersome ‘British and American Botanic Establishment’. It sold not only remedies but books and tracts promoting botanical remedies, and John was also available for consultations at the premises three times a week. He was a religious man, who believed that herbal remedies enabled the poorest members of society to look after themselves. In 1850, John’s son Jesse was born,
and when he left school at the age of 13, he started helping with the business. By 1870, John had died, and Jesse, formed a partnership with his widowed mother Mary, trading as M&J Boot. The shop sold herbs, roots, plants and flowers collected locally, many being dried and powdered at the shop.
By the late 1870s, times had changed, and herbalism was decreasing in popularity as the British people bought patent remedies instead. Therefore, when Jesse took sole control of Boots in 1877, he created the slogan ‘health for a shilling’, offering traditional medicines at cheaper prices than competitors. In 1883, his business became Boot & Company, reflecting its growth, and a year later, Boots’ first qualified pharmacist was appointed – Edwin Waring. In 1886, Jesse married Florence Rowe, and under her guidance, the business started to introduce new products and introduced staff welfare programmes. In 1911, it created the full-time post of welfare worker. Eleanor Kelly was the first person to take on the role, assisted by three others, and she opened a sick room to deal with poorly workers. Boots was also one of the first companies to introduce the five- day working week, in 1934.
In 1892, a flagship Boots store was opened in Pelham Street, Nottingham. It was
When Jesse took sole control of Boots, he created the slogan ‘health for a shilling’
The site is also useful for those seeking a bit of wider historical context
more like a department store, with several different departments, from dispensary to stationery. Two years later, a staff athletics club was formed, designed to encourage a sense of camaraderie amongst employees. In 1913, free evening classes were offered to workers, and seven years later, young workers – aged between 14 and 16 – were given half a day’s leave a week to study at the Boots Day Continuation School.
Boots was sold to the United Drug Company of America in 1920, but the Boot family remained involved – in 1926, Jesse’s son John became the Boots chairman, five years before the death of his father, and he didn’t retire until 1953. By 1933, Boots had 1000 stores across the UK, and it remains a ubiquitous part of the High Street today. Given this long history, and the fact that many of our family members may have worked for the company, it is good to see that it has created an archive that is accessible to anyone with a computer – but what does it include, and what might you be able to find there?
Firstly, the archive is great for both advertisements of products and for photographs. There is, for example, an image of the company’s former printing department at Island Street, Nottingham, from 1892, so if your ancestors worked here, you can actually see what their work premises would have looked like at the time. Space here was obtained by Boots in 1885, as it outgrew its previous premises, and it soon took over the entire factory building. There is a photo of Boots employees outside one of its factories in 1940 – so if your family member worked in one, you might be able to spot them!
However, the site is also useful for those seeking a bit of wider historical context, too. It includes much of interest in terms of political history, with correspondence relating to various parliamentary bills, such as amendments to the Companies Act of 1895, the Companies Act Amendment Bill of 1900, and the 1906 Poisons and Pharmacy Bill (archive ref WBA/BT/1/30/3); there is also information about a binder of press cuttings, photographs and letters relating to the opening of Government Information Bureaux in Boots stores. These bureaux were set up by the
government in 1918 to give the public information on war-related matters such as national war aims, food and labour. Although the archive describes the letters rather than letting you click on digitised letters themselves, you can see a list of the bureaux, and which Boots locations they were in – such as one at Boots Corner in Liverpool, opened on 30 August 1918 by the comedian Harry Lauder. If you click on one of the locations listed at the bottom of this search result, you get a description of that particular store – where exactly it was located, when it opened, and whether it moved at any point. In this way, you can find out where your Boots employee ancestor may have worked, and whether their store changed place at any point. There are also many photographs of individual stores taken at various times in their history, which will be of particular interest if your ancestor worked at a store that has since been demolished.
There is plenty more to find out about your family member; within the ‘subject browser’ on the archive, you can select ‘employees’, and this then lets you set a narrower search term. The choices given include benefits, facilities, incentives, recruitment, sports and social, and training – so you can find out what your ancestor may have been paid, what their work involved, and how they socialised with other employees. When YFH was looking at the site, focusing a search too much resulted in a search result error, but hopefully this should have been rectified by the time you read this. If in doubt, keep your search as broad as possible; do bear in mind that more items will be added to the archive as time goes on, so it’s worth checking back regularly.
You can set your search to only return results that include images; these can return some surprising photos, such as photos of female employees water testing filled gas canisters and conducting resistance tests in 1918! Even if you haven’t any family members who worked for Boots, the archive is a goldmine of information about life in the 19th and 20th centuries, both in terms of work-life and in terms of scientific and pharmaceutical development.
Boots was originally founded in Nottingham in 1849 – the Walgreens Boots Alliance has an extensive archive of documents and images relating to the firm’s history, with some of them shown on these pages