by Glendinning, Victoria | London, Greater London
Paperback | 352 pages
From Victoria Glendinning, winner of the Duff Cooper Prize, the James Tait Black Prize and (twice) the Whitbread Prize for Biography.
‘It’s Succession in tailcoats and spats … This is a vivid and eye-opening group biography, backgrounded by the rise of supermarket moguls from humble beginnings’ Sunday Times
Who was John Lewis? What story lies behind the retail empire that bears his name? Behind the glass windows and displays of soft furnishing, this book reveals the family that founded the shops in all their eccentricities, and whose relationships became blighted by conflicts of epic proportions as their wealth bloomed.
Born into poverty, John Lewis was orphaned at the age of seven when his father died in a Somerset workhouse. Dreaming of a better life, the young man travelled to London at the start of what would become a retail revolution. From early years as a draper’s apprentice, we see how Lewis’s first pokey little business opened on Oxford Street in 1864, and expanded as an emerging middle class embraced the department stores as a recreational experience.
Prize-winning biographer Victoria Glendinning has had full access to the company and family archives to write this eye-opening story. She captures the toxic relationships that unfolded between Lewis and his two sons, Spedan and Oswald, as they collided over the future of their retail empire – their worst moments including emotional blackmail, face-slapping and a kidnapping – and much litigation between father and both sons.
Yet the family never broke up and Spedan’s vision of a Partnership model to act as an ethical corrective and foster a community of happier, more productive workers was eventually realised and survives to this day.
With riveting personal detail, this brilliant group biography captures a rags-to-riches story and a tempestuous family saga, all unfolding against the dramatic social and political worlds of nineteenth-century London. The book concludes with an assessment of the position John Lewis holds in British sensibilities, and whether John Lewis and institutions like it have a place in our future.