The Vic­to­ri­ans’ home shop­ping rev­o­lu­tion

... a per­sonal look at Black Coun­try life

Black Country Bugle - - NEWS - Gail Mid­dle­ton

IT’S that time of year again – with Black Fri­day and Cy­ber Mon­day deals tempt­ing us to splash the cash.

Dur­ing the run up to Christ­mas in­ter­net sales go through the roof, com­puter tech­nol­ogy hav­ing rev­o­lu­tionised our shop­ping habits. And, as many would say, at what cost to our high streets?

Back in the day, Christ­mas shop­ping took time and stamina. Any bar­gains were mostly con­fined to last-minute food of­fers. Or the Jan­uary sales, where sharp el­bows came in handy when bag­ging a bar­gain.

Yet, or­der­ing goods from the com­fort of your own home is hardly a mod­ern phe­nom­e­non. Our Vic­to­rian fore­bears ex­pe­ri­enced a sim­i­lar shop­ping rev­o­lu­tion with the ar­rival of our na­tional postal ser­vice.

In those days, the idea that you could post a let­ter and have it de­liv­ered on the same day was earth shat­ter­ing. Let alone the new fa­cil­ity of send­ing parcels through the post. Be­fore long, mail-or­der shop­ping ar­rived, giv­ing us the free­dom to choose goods with­out leav­ing home, prefer­ably with a nice cuppa in hand


Fa­mous Amer­i­can politi­cian, au­thor and in­ven­tor, Ben­jamin Franklin, is cred­ited with in­tro­duc­ing the con­cept of mail or­der, dur­ing the 18th cen­tury. Franklin’s new ven­ture in­volved sell­ing sci­en­tific and aca­demic books through cat­a­logue or­ders – also of­fer­ing the first mail-or­der guar­an­tee sys­tem: “Those per­sons who live re­mote, by send­ing their or­ders and money to B. Franklin may de­pend on the same jus­tice as if present.”

In many ways, Franklin was ahead of his time. But for the real ori­gins of mail or­der, as we know it, we must look to Wales. A stone’s throw from the bor­der with Eng­land, Y Dre­newydd – or New­town, is well known to vis­i­tors from the Black Coun­try. And like our re­gion, it has a proud, in­dus­trial her­itage.

A mar­ket town since the 13th cen­tury, by the 18th cen­tury New­town was an im­por­tant cen­tre for the woollen in­dus­try. By the 19th cen­tury, its po­si­tion by the Sev­ern, and the Mont­gomery Canal sys­tem, made it an in­ter­na­tional hub for the flan­nel in­dus­try – which is where our story starts.

You might not have heard of him, but Pryce Pryce Jones is the ac­knowl­edged founder of our mail-or­der in­dus­try. Born in 1835 in Llan­ll­wychaearn, New­town, aged twelve he was ap­pren­ticed to a lo­cal drap­ery busi­ness. By the time he was twenty one, Pryce­jones had learned the tricks of the trade and es­tab­lished his own drap­ery firm in New­town.

The lo­cal flan­nel in­dus­try formed the main­stay of his busi­ness. But it was the re­form of the Post Of­fice and the ar­rival of the rail­way in New­town that would trans­form Pryce-jones’ small busi­ness into a global com­pany. Like Robert Owen, the town’s other fa­mous son and founder of the co­op­er­a­tive move­ment, Pryce-jones was a pi­o­neer. His idea of reach­ing mar­kets far re­moved from ru­ral Wales would change the na­ture of re­tail­ing across the globe.

He be­gan by send­ing out pat­terns of his mer­chan­dise to the lo­cal gen­try, even­tu­ally send­ing out lists of mer­chan­dise from his own, and other fac­to­ries, fur­ther afield. Po­ten­tial cus­tomers could choose what they wanted, the goods be­ing despatched by post and rail.

It was an ideal way of meet­ing the needs of cus­tomers in iso­lated, ru­ral lo­ca­tions, who were too busy, or sim­ply un­able to travel into New­town to shop. In par­tic­u­lar, the new shop­ping sys­tem ap­pealed to women – who tended to stay closer to home than men in those days. Pryce-jones’s leaflets were the start of a thriv­ing mail-or­der busi­ness that would con­quer the globe.

In the years that fol­lowed, ex­pan­sion of the rail­ways al­lowed Pryce­jones to take or­ders from much fur­ther afield.

Soon, his list of cus­tomers read like a who’s who of A-lis­ters – in­clud­ing Florence Nightin­gale, Queen Vic­to­ria, the Princess of Wales, and Royal house­holds across Europe. Be­fore long, he was also ex­port­ing Welsh flan­nel to Amer­ica and Aus­tralia.


One of Pryce-jones’s best sell­ers was the patented “Euk­lisia Rug” – a kind of all-in-one rug, shawl, blan­ket and pil­low. Orig­i­nally, he’d sold these to the mil­i­tary, thou­sands be­ing used by troops dur­ing the Franco-prus­sian War. But by the late 1870s, Pryce-jones found he was left with 17,000 of these, when the Rus­sian Army can­celled an or­der.

Ever on the look­out for new op­por­tu­ni­ties, Pryce­jones fo­cused on fe­male cus­tomers. Al­ways on the ball with ad­ver­tis­ing, he made a spe­cial an­nounce­ment, “call­ing the spe­cial at­ten­tion of ladies” to his “Euk­lisia Rug or Blan­ket” – at a knock­down price of 3s11d. With its unique sell­ing point be­ing “a bed and blan­ket com­bined” Pryce-jones tar­geted ladies con­nected to char­i­ta­ble or­gan­i­sa­tions, as his in­ven­tion could “be utilised for the poor”. To­day, we know his cre­ation as the sleep­ing bag.

In 1882, Pryce-jones met the Post Mas­ter Gen­eral, putting for­ward his idea of a par­cel post. A let­ter post al­ready ex­isted, but parcels had to be sent by road and rail car­ri­ers, adding more costs to the busi­ness. Much to his de­light, the Post Mas­ter Gen­eral agreed to de­velop a new Par­cel Post.

As the busi­ness ex­panded, Pryce-jones needed larger premises. In 1879, he built the im­pos­ing, red brick Royal Welsh Ware­house in the cen­tre of New­town. By the late 1880s, he was a mul­ti­mil­lion­aire – with over 250,000 cus­tomers and 4,000 work­ers.

He was also in the priv­i­leged po­si­tion of sup­ply­ing Queen Vic­to­ria with her flan­nel un­der­wear. Nor­mally, Pryce-jones was never shy about name-drop­ping. But in this case, he kept de­tails of the Queen’s undies strictly to him­self.

In 1887, the Queen’s Golden Ju­bilee year, Pryce-jones was given a knight­hood.

Across the At­lantic, US mail or­der com­pa­nies fol­lowed his lead, the Sears Roe­buck cat­a­logue be­com­ing an iconic Amer­i­can in­sti­tu­tion. If you couldn’t find some­thing in the Sears Roe­buck cat­a­logue, it prob­a­bly didn’t ex­ist!

In1905, an­other fa­mous British mail or­der name be­gan trad­ing. This was Free­mans, a name soon syn­ony­mous with cat­a­logue sell­ing. Busi­ness boomed, but with the on­set of World War One, the com­pany turned to war work, sell­ing much­needed blan­kets to the armed forces.

In 1920, Pryce-jones died, aged 85. Sadly, the busi­ness he founded and nur­tured was hit badly by the de­pres­sion, and taken over in 1938. But by then, mail-or­der had be­come a truly global phe­nom­e­non and way of life. In the decades ahead it would soar to even greater heights – thanks to the vi­sion of an en­ter­pris­ing Welsh draper.

Un­til quite re­cently, New­town kept its links with mail-or­der, as the call cen­tre for home shop­ping com­pany Shop Di­rect was based in Pryce-jones’s Royal Welsh Ware­house. But in 2011, the busi­ness moved out, mark­ing the end of an era.

Fash­ions for young men from 1950s cat­a­logues

Pryce-jones’s im­pos­ing head­quar­ters in New­town

Pryce-jones’s busi­ness em­pire in­cluded an im­pres­sive de­part­ment store in Cal­gary, Canada

Con­tem­po­rary por­trait of Pryce Pryce-jones

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