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Selfridges the inspiration for self-made family emporium

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: April 06, 2013

  • Sue Luton in the homeware section of the Austins department store MIKE ALSFORD

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Among the several million viewers who settled down in front of the television every Sunday night for their weekly fix of Mr Selfridge were two people who could relate very much to the story of man behind the famous London department store.

David Austin and his sister Mary White are the third generation at the helm of Austins department store in Newton Abbot and the ITV drama brought back memories of the two men who built up the Austin family business from the most modest of origins – their grandfather and father.

It was in 1924 that their grandfather, Robert Charles Austin, opened what was then a small drapery at 6-8 Courtenay Street, very close to the clock tower in the South Devon market town.

David believes it was Selfridges that provided the original inspiration almost a century ago: "My grandfather went to the opening of Selfridges in Oxford Street in 1909 and I think that was the spark really. Austins started in that era too and it has been fascinating for us, watching the programme and getting more and more hooked. There are definitely aspects we can relate to."

The story of Robert Charles Austin is a remarkable one. Born in the East End of London in 1869, he and his sister Lizzie lost their father, Robert, when they were very young.

"Robert was a silk merchant who worked for a business in St Martin's Lane in London," David explained. "He used to go to the London docks and collect the silks directly off the ships that brought the silk in from the east. But he caught smallpox, possibly from one of the ships, and he was taken to an isolation hospital where he died very quickly. Such was the fear of contagion, that he was buried before his family even knew he had died."

His widow worked as a servant at a big house to make ends meet and Robert Charles had to start work at a very early age: "When he was seven years old, he would get up very early in the morning to work in a bakery shop to earn, I think, tuppence a week, and this paid for some schooling," said David.

David and Mary's father, Charles Austin, was born in Suffolk, where their grandfather worked before he spotted a shop up for rent in the Essex town of Romford. "It was a tailor's and it was to become the first Austins shop," said Mary. "The shop which my grandfather opened was a drapers and haberdashers, as many shops were then – you didn't get ready-made outfits in those days. It was only a very small shop but there were workrooms upstairs where 20-25 seamstresses made up the clothing."

David continued: "Customers would come in and choose their cloth or they'd bring in a piece of fabric and our grandfather would then use the warehouses in London to find that cloth. This was called 'cloth matching'."

Their father got involved in the business as a young boy, as Mary relates: "On a Saturday, he'd take the train to London on a child's fare and he'd put envelopes with cheques in them through the doors of the wholesalers. Paying them this way was cheaper than posting them all."

The business was going well but disaster stuck in 1923, when the shop's landlord issued the Austins with a notice to quit because he wanted the premises back.

So a search began for new premises which had to meet two vital criteria: "My grandfather determined that the new shop had to be freehold and it had to be next door to a Marks & Spencer shop," said David.

As luck would have it, David and Mary's father spotted the perfect place while he was visiting friends in South Devon – a run-down drapery and haberdashery in Newton Abbot. "It was freehold and it was next to Marks & Spencer," said David. "It was the silver lining on a very grey cloud!"

Co-incidentally the shop was called Whites – the same as Mary's married name, but there is no link. Mary said: "The story is that my father stood under the portico of the Globe Hotel, directly opposite, and counted the footfall into Whites. And he saw that there was potential."

Austins drapery shop was opened in 1924. The entire area taken up by the original shop is now the cosmetics department in the fashion store. Initially the shop had a staff of five: David and Mary's father and grandfather and three assistants. That grew to ten by the end of the first year, by which time the turnover had been trebled.

"My grandfather was a self-made man and he was very proud of what he achieved," said David. "The driving force was that he didn't want his family to have to endure what he'd endured when he was growing up. He thought 'never again'."

Charles Austin clearly inherited his father's business acumen. Several months before war broke out in 1939, he approached his linen suppliers in Manchester and bought huge supplies of black-out lining. He could see that war was likely and was sure there would be air raids. The shop sold out of its entire stock after opening on a Sunday to deal with the demand – at a time when Sunday opening was virtually unheard of. Austins had to order further stocks of black-out lining and supplied hotels, colleges and the whole of Torquay Hospital, as it was then.

Charles took over the helm of the shop when his father died in 1951 and very soon realised his vision of turning the shop into a "walk-through" department store, where customers could come in through one door, walk the full length of the store and exit through another door.

Mary recalls: "In 1954 the roof of the carpet store next door fell in due to snow and they came and knocked on dad's door and said 'Oh, we'll sell to you now Mr Austin'. And that's when the expansion to a department store started."

David said: "I would say that my father looked at what Selfridges had done and wanted to do the same thing. He wanted to expand it from a shop into a department store, and that's what he did.

"There have been moments in the TV programme where we've thought 'yes, we can relate to that'. Such as the episode when it was raining and they put the umbrellas next to the door. That's what my father used to do. I can hear him now, saying 'umbrellas to the door, umbrellas to the door'."

As we chat, David and Mary are sifting through a collection of wonderful old photos, among them a picture of hundreds of people queuing outside the shop after the war.

"The queue in the post-war sales was there all day, hundreds and hundreds of people," said Mary. "This was at the time of the post-war shortages. And you can see in the photos that they were all women, because it was the women who did the shopping.

"My father used to get into the shop very early on sale day because it was so important. He very much ran the shop-floor, welcoming customers and directing assistants to them. He was held in great respect and the assistants did very much what he asked to ensure the best service was given. They called him Mr Charles, and our grandfather was always Mr Robert."

Further expansion followed in the late 1960s and late 1970s, before David and Mary became involved in the business in the 1980s. Austins have since bought what was previously The Globe Hotel and two buildings in Wolborough Street which face each other. In all, there is 55,000 square feet of retail space which is home to the biggest names in fashion, furniture, homeware and toys.

"We call it the Austins Quarter, with four buildings around the Clock Tower," said David, who has been managing director since 1988. "We've evolved from that very small drapery market to something that is akin to John Lewis or House of Fraser."

The business employs around 180 people, some of whom have worked at Austins for decades, such as store director Trevor Boobyer. "The in-joke is that David will buy a building and Trevor will stock it up," said Mary. And Austins is not just a family affair for its owners – the store runs in other families, too, with carpet estimator Eddie Maddick working alongside his son, Stephen.

David and Mary love talking about their family history and looking through the archive photos. Many are of their father, who died in 1998, six months after his 100th birthday. Charles was awarded the MC for gallantry during the First World War and his obituary was in The Times and The Daily Telegraph.

But the siblings are as focused as their ancestors when it comes to taking the business forward: "This recession is the hardest in our lifetime but I don't think my father or grandfather would think this is the hardest time because they lived through the 1920s and 30s when things were extremely difficult," said David.

"But it is very challenging at the moment and you have to be constantly driving the business on. We've been trading on the web for about three years now and that side of the business has grown. We have to be a multi-channel business."

Mary agrees: "It's today that matters, and going forward by re-inventing, marketing, and looking to the future – just like our father did when he ordered all that black-out lining."

Austins is working in conjunction with the Westcountry Prime Model Agency on a project that will feature the stores range of products with the agency's models. Also taking part is Westcountry jewellers Michael Spiers.

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