The Victorians’ home shopping revolution
... a personal look at Black Country life
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