Whiteley’s Extraordinary History
William Whiteley travelled to London from Yorkshire with only 10 pounds, intending to make his fortune. He had worked in retail before so he decided to start there. The ambitious young man began with a small draper’s business in Westbourne Grove in 1863. Luckily this was just after the Metropolitan Line of the underground opened in Paddington. The new transport made it easier for shoppers to travel to the store.
Whiteley’s Extraordinary Store
Whiteley sold ribbons, lace, trimmings and fancy goods in the store. Soon he was able to enlarge into fashions and accessories, including jewellery and umbrellas. He was also able to employ 15 assistants.
The new business did very well so Whiteley decided to expand by buying properties on either side. Soon he introduced cleaning, hairdressing, and food. By the 1880’s Whiteley employed 6000 staff, and bought farms and food-producing factories to supply his store with produce. He called himself ‘The Universal Provider’ and boasted that he could supply anything that his customers desired. When asked to provide a pint of fleas and an elephant he supplied them within 24 hours!
Whiteley had his share of problems, however. When he applied for a liquor licence for Whiteley’s Refreshment Room so that ladies could enjoy a glass of wine with lunch his application was rejected. The magistrates of Paddington decided that giving him a licence might turn the room into a ‘place of assignation’, i.e. a place where prostitutes met their clients! He also upset the local traders by undercutting them. They burned him in effigy. There were also many mysterious fires that may have been lit by them, including a huge one in which the whole store burned down in 1887.
Whiteley’s treatment of staff was also criticised. They had to live in dormitories and obey 176 rules. They also worked extremely long hours. However, he did provide them with clubs, societies and a library.
William Whiteley apparently had many mistresses, usually shopgirls from the store. One of these mistresses was called Louie Turner. Her nephew, Horace, somehow became convinced that he was Whiteley’s illegitimate son and went to the store to confront him.
Horace murdered Whiteley in 1907 after an argument and then turned his gun on himself. His attempt at suicide failed, however. He served twelve years for the crime.
The building that became the present Whiteleys was built in 1911. The department store was innovative for its time and included a theatre, and a golf-course on the roof. It was mostly rebuilt in 1981 and is now a shopping centre.