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Suters Limited - A brief History of the company and the people behind it by Tom Suter - introduction by Philip Suter
The Suters department store business was very typical of the 20th Century family businesses that had been set up in the previous century and eventually sold out for redevelopment or became part of a larger department store operation. Familiar names like Bourne and Hollingsworth in London, David Evans in Swansea, Bonds in Norwich, Murrays in High Wycombe, Jenners in Edinburgh, Ricemans in Canterbury and Bentalls in Kingston Upon Thames either disappeared off the high street or have become part of a much larger retail group. Others like Beales (Bournemouth + branches) are still very much in business today
To compete with the buying power of the larger retail groups developing, many of these family stores had joined a buying and marketing group like the ISA -Independent Stores Association with the Czarina brand name. This organisation was later to become Associated Independent Stores - AIS and there are still many family run department stores who are part of it. (More Here)
Suters Ltd was sold in 1978 to Owen Owen and the Slough store is now owned by Debenhams and the Uxbridge Store has been split into smaller retail outlets.
The Suter family came from East Retford in Nottinghamshire and on the 10th December 1729 George Suter married Mary Tomlinson at West Retford. Why George chose Retford to open his felt hat manufactory is not known. He and his two sons continued the business, John a bachelor born in 1731 and George born in 1743 carried on the business on the banks of the River Idle. George's son, George Parker Suter took on the business, but it did not prosper and he, after becoming a yarn manufacturer and then a turner managed to procure the position of postmaster and apparitor in 1837 when he was appointed sergeant at mace.
Upon his death his widow Elizabeth Allison ran a small school in Grove Street, Retford. It was their middle son George Allison Suter who had been apprenticed to his aunt Mary Suter's husband Joseph Naylor for six years who became the first of the "Drapery Suters".
After some good experience in the trade he married Maria Dack on the 12th May 1864 at St Peters Pimlico, London and found a business in Ledbury in Herefordshire at 5 High Street just behind the Buttermarket.
George and Maria had three children, Elizabeth Dack who was apprenticed to a milliner in Hereford and who was to marry Frank Denning, a by then master dairyman, then a son George William followed by another son Frank Allison.
It is with George William Suter that we are mainly concerned in the story of the family drapery business which operated on the High Streets of Slough, Bucks (later to become part of Berkshire) and Uxbridge, Middlesex. He had taken over the Ledbury shop in 1895 and ran that until the events of the First World War induced him to let the premises and also his home - Bank House in the Southend and move to 121, The Ridgeway, Friar Barnet, London N11.
At the same time Frank Denning, married to his sister had besides owning a substantial milk business become Mayor of the Borough of Croydon. By this time George William Suter and his first wife Elizabeth Fisher from Bromsgrove who had been engaged as a milliner in the Ledbury business had, had five children. Two of the boys George Arthur and William Clarence were by now serving in the forces. The daughter Winifred Elizabeth and the third son Frank Cyril going to live with the Dennings in South Norwood.
Boredom got the better of George William Suter and he purchased the leases of two shops in New Southgate, London just outside the main gates to what was known as the Friar Barnet Lunatic Asylum, one was a drapers, the other an undertakers. The undertaking business was soon discarded and with only the youngest son John Dack at home he set about establishing his second enterprise. About this time John Dack Suter went as a boarder to Colet Court, the preparatory school for St Pauls, Hammersmith and the business suffered a burglary for which he was not insured.
This unsettled George William and in 1919 he said to his second son Clarence who was then working in Edgware Road with E & R Garroulds, find a business and we will go into it as partners. Clarence had been badly wounded by two machine gun bullets wrecking his left arm and was not demobilised from the Gloucester Regiment until the 1st April 1919. He was able to help his father at the New Southgate business.
It was here that Clarence was introduced to Maud Beavis who became his wife on the 14th October 1926 and when a new business was found was taken on as a member of staff.
Suters in Slough is established
Clarence's diary notes say that on the 9th January 1920, the New Southgate business was sold and it was effected on the 31st January that year. A lease on a shop in High Street Slough having been decided upon. Clarence was still working for E & R Garroulds and in the evenings going to New Southgate occasionally to collect his father's outstanding bills.
The Slough shop of W. Andrews and Sons at 101-103 High Street Slough and 104 another smaller shop across the road, at that time owned by Dodds and Son, the coal merchants, were taken over by Clarence Suter on Wednesday 22nd September 1920. He camped on the premises overnight. For his first meal in Slough he went eastwards down the High Street to the restaurant of W.A.Lidstone, bakers & corn merchants whose granddaughter was in 1956 to marry his elder son. Clarence paid his bill to Gertie Lidstone (later Halley) who was in the cash desk. The next day the furniture arrived and the shop did not open, but it was decided to hold a sale on Thursday 30th September which was very successful.
George William Suter was now in his third drapery business with his second son with William "Clarence" as his partner. The partnership indenture is dated 16th October 1920 with the capital as four thousand pounds in equal shares and their banker being the London & County Westminster Bank (Paris) Ltd, Slough.
The business was called Suter & Son having a staff of six besides three family members, which included the parents. Maud Beavis joined them as also did Jessie Frances Bill, the niece of George William & Elizabeth shortly afterwards, the two girls sharing a bedroom on the top floor over the shop and which before the re-building was the directors office.
The freehold of the Slough shop was purchased from W B Mason for £5,000 on the 30th January 1930 as were the premises next door of Blanchetts Music Store at 99 High Street Slough on the 24th April 1930 for £3,000. The purchases at Slough were completed when on the 24th October 1938 it was agreed to sign the contract for the purchase of two shops numbers 95 and 97 High Street of Messrs Hopkins & Sons completing on the 1st March 1939 for £29,000. Mens and boys outfitting and mens and womens shoes were added.
The lease on 104 High Street was relinquished in 1941 and thereby alterations were now effected at first floor level in part of the freehold property for womens wear as the family had been living in a house called Kingsway in Hempson Avenue for some years.
Suters in Uxbridge is established
Meanwhile in 1924, with the depression beginning to affect the public's buying power, there was an advert in The Drapers Record offering for sale the business in Uxbridge of Messrs Garrick & Coles which stood on the corner of High Street and Windsor Street. The owner Mr Ernest Frank Aldridge decided to sell the property known as "Waterloo House", a drapers and furnishers, but retained the furniture department.
This was seen as an opportunity for expansion, whilst permitting the inclusion of the whole family and was particularly pushed by their mother, their father being somewhat indifferent to the scene.
Frank Denning had died on the 7th February 1916 at the age of 52 and as managing director of Welford's Surrey Diaries, a very wealthy self made man and Mayor of Croydon between 1913 and 1916. He was a teetotal, non smoking and religious man who never took a holiday. Apart from the amount he left to his widow, he left the bulk of his fortune to the Borough of Croydon having lost his daughter at the age of twenty one months.
His widow who had strongly supported him was to die only fourteen months later at Bosbury near Ledbury where she had retired with her niece Winifred Suter (Clarence's sister). In her will "Auntie Denning" left her sixteen nephews and nieces what in those times was a substantial monetary gift each, enabling them all to start ventures of their choice. It was with this facility that Clarence had been able to go into partnership and it became evident and prudent for the other members of the family to ensure their livelihoods.
George "Arthur" Suter the eldest son was still working in the milk trade having taken up his Uncle Denning's suggestion that he should leave the drapery trade and Join him. Frank Cyril Suter the third son had left Whitgift School went as an apprentice in the motor trade with Rover at Coventry, but because of the times was unable to find work.
Consequently the Uxbridge project went ahead with purchase of Carrick and Coles for £13,000 and the firm being renamed Suter and Sons with a new partnership being formed on the 21st May 1924. Provision was made for John Dack Suter to join after his trade training and he joined the family business at the age of 22 in1930. By this time Suter & Sons had become a private limited company that was incorporated on the 13th June 1929 - Suters Limited. The capital of the company being increased on the 1st May 1939 to £68,000 and again to £100,000 on the 2th November 1953.
In 1929, to dissolve a partnership between Mr William Coad and Mr Trewin, a drapery shop on the High Street at Uxbridge opposite "Waterloo House", known as Coads came on the market. Maud Suter had picked up the gossip that the London Transport Piccadilly Tube Line was to be extended to Uxbridge.
What was paid for the new shop is not known, but the site was fortuitous. The new station terminus would be alongside the Coads premises so that they were purchased with a garden at the rear owned by Harmans Brewery for £500. The two shops were run concurrently until was decided to rebuild the Coads site and the "Waterloo House" Carrick and Coles site was sold.
The new Suters store was opened in 1938 by Councillor Mrs Lovibond, Chairman of the Uxbridge Urban District Council. At the opening she was presented by four year old Wendy-Ann Suter (Ensor) with a bouquet of flowers.
On the 20th March 1945 the large garden at the rear of the Slough shop together with the house No 20 Mackenzie Street was purchased at auction for £3,950 using Jessie Bill's husband Frank Lawrence the owner of The Slough Observer newspaper to bid for them. On the 14th June 1955 the house next door at 22 Mackenzie Street was also purchased and used as staff accommodation when both housing and staff shortages were a major factor in running the business.
In 1936 George William Suter the chairman of the company sold the family house "Kingsway" and built a new house called Bilby House at 55 Langley Road, Slough. His wife Elizabeth died on the 7th October 1937 and was buried in Slough cemetery. He took on Mrs Bertha Locking as his housekeeper who was a widow with one son. Early in 1942 he came into the Slough shop and told Clarence that he was marrying her that afternoon. Clarence asked him for one favour - would he transfer his shares to him to safeguard the business, to which he agreed. Clarence went across the road to W H Smith and bought a share transfer form which was duly signed by his father. That afternoon, John Dack Suter who had not joined the Royal Air Force for war service at that time came in as usual and when he heard what was to happen told Clarence he would buy him a bottle of champagne if he could secure the shares and Clarence replied that he already had them. These shares were then distributed equally between Clarence, his sister Winifred and three brothers.
In 1946 George William Suter was admitted to Windsor Hospital and after some indifferent attention died after an operation, he died on the 13th July 1946 at the age of 79 years. Whilst he had been in hospital Clarence had been getting calls from the surgeon to ask what he should do about repeated request6s he was getting to witness a new will. Clarence advised him not to do so, but a High Court action in the Probate. Divorce & Admirality Division subsequently developed in which the widow was defeated in the claims that her husband was senile when he made his will.
Around June 1942 John Suter joined the RAF for basic training at Yarmouth, then Cosford and being commissioned pilot officer to Edinburgh. From there he was posted to the 56th Embarkation Unit, RAF stationed in New York, USA.This was a unit for loading and unloading equipment and personel on Cunard liners Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth eventually commanding the unit at it's disbandment in the rank of Flight Lieutenant. More information about John Suter here
Frank Suter joined the Royal Corps of Signals and was shortly afterwards posted to North Africa driving tank transporters in the Eighth Army and later in Italy. Arthur Suter's oldest daughter.More information about Frank Suter here
Elizabeth "Su" Suter joined the Wrens and worked for the Bletchley Park operation at Eastcote and Stanmore. Her father George George Arthur Suter served as mayor of Uxbridge in the 1960s See Elizabeth "Su" Suter
Suters in Ruislip, Windsor and Ashford (Middlesex) established
With the return to peace in 1945 it was decided to take on some smaller units to widen the Suters Ltd brand. The first was the purchase of Wright and Parsons in Ruislip, then of Greenfield in Windsor followed in July 1953 of a unit in Ashford, Middlesex.
Unfortunately they were rather consuming in management time, producing very little profit and in the case of the Ruislip operation somewhat troublesome in having managers who bet on slow horses.
When the time came to rebuild the Slough store, the three outlying units were isposed of and after a period of anguish in securing permission to rebuild a new store of 75,000 square feet at Slough a "new cathedral" of family enterprise was opened on the 4th October 1962 by Robert Beatty a Canadian actor. The new store had a purpose built soft furnishing and carpet workshop with garage below and substantial car parking for customers.
This car parking facility which Clarence Suter deemed as the most vital adjunct to a successful store was compulsory purchased by Slough Borough Council for inclusion in their Queensmere shopping centre and for which they actually paid in the centre of the town "agricultural land value". With legal advice from the company's solicitors after taking Counsel's opinion, it was decided that since no case had been won of this type, that an appeal would not be entertained.
This was probably the time that the Suter family realised that dealing with this type of Council reduced the pride of giving a good service to the town and with large increases in the business rates about which the company wrote to the Council, made up the minds of the family that they were working for the befits of others, taking out of the business for themselves far less than that extracted by other similar enterprises. Profits had always been returned to the business rather than the shareholders.
On the 16th June 1978, the business of Suters Ltd and it's wholesale merchant Fisher and Denning was sold outright to Owen Owen of Liverpool. With some not inconsiderable regret, but with some idea of the way retailing was going, a period of successful united family effort came to an end and with it, the parting of ways, some to carry on working other to retire.
At the end of this era Clarence Suter the co-founder was 82 years old and the enterprise had lasted for over fifty seven years. Many of the employed staff, most of whom were now in senior roles, were regarded as friends and the Suter family were embarrassed by the action they were taking so the entire staff received a small payment to say thank you and good bye.
Suters traded as an "Owen Owen store" for a number of months as this advertisement from October 1978 illustrates. See also Owen Owen - History of Suters Ltd 1970s
©Tom Suter and Philip Suter - December 2013
We understand further information about Suters Ltd can be found at the Slough Museum, Slough Berks Find out more Here
©Philip Suter - December 2013
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Source of images, unless otherwise stated - Suter family archives