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An Oxford institution since Captain Cook set sail
OXFORD department store Boswell’s was selling travel trunks 30 years before Captain James Cook set off on his first voyage. They were even offering their travel wares 17 years before Samuel Johnson published the first English dictionary. Shops, businesses, Governments and royal rulers have come and gone, but independent family-run store Boswell’s proudly remains, an Oxford tradition.
As head of retail operations Frank Smith says: “I brought my children here when they were four and five, they are in their 20s now and I still have the same conversation with customers at Christmas who tell me they came here in the 1950s. It’s a generational thing.
“People want something a little different and they do want to see family-run stores.”
It was 1738 when Francis Boswell pitched up at 50 Cornmarket Street. He designed and sold luggage to the great and the good of Oxford, and not until 1890 did the last of the Boswells die.
But plans were already afoot to ensure the name lived on as Arthur Pearson, of the Oxford Drug Company, had by then taken charge.
It’s a store rooted in the past, but has never stopped looking to the future.
Direct descendants of Arthur Pearson Senior, his great-grandchildren and cousins to each other, Jonathan and Sarah Pearson run the company today and are hugely proud of the store’s extraordinary heritage.
Managing director Jonathan Pearson said: “I joined Boswell’s in 1992 and then Sarah came on board in 1994, following in our fathers’ footsteps. We have taken great care to modernise and move the business forward, without taking away the essence of what our loyal customers love about the store.
“Our staff are key to our success and by listening to their views and ideas we have tried to create a friendly working environment, which we believe is reflected in our excellent customer service.”
Earlier this year the store held a celebration of the 275-year milestone.
The Boswell-Pearson connection began in the 1880s when Arthur Pearson bought Alderman James Stanley Lowe’s shop at 31 Cornmarket Street.
It was 1882, and he would run his own ironmonger’s shop there until 1912 when he moved his premises to George Street.
By 1889 Pearson had also bought the Oxford Drug Company on the corner of Broad Street.
That was demolished in 1915 to make way for William Baker House, and so Pearson moved his business round the corner to 31 Cornmarket Street which he had rebuilt in 1912 and which now forms the western section of Boswell’s.
Until 1928 Boswell’s remained just a small shop at 50 Cornmarket Street, described in directories as “Portmanteau makers”, before moving to Boswell House.
Here it expanded across a sprawling six-storey building comprised of a department store for H. Boswell & Co. Ltd, with offices and a restaurant upstairs and two additional small ground-floor shop units forming numbers four and five Broad Street.
Having moved in they soon became “Hardware merchants” and from 1952 they were listed as retailing “Hardware and kitchen equipment, refrigeration engineers, leather & travel goods, cutlery, silverware and fancy jewellery and household linens”.
Although Boswell’s and the Oxford Drug Company in Cornmarket Street had been united in common ownership in 1890, it was only in 1958 an opening was made to join the two buildings, and they remain united today.
They form Oxford’s largest independent department store, and have been a force in the city ever since.
Mr Smith joined the firm last year, and said he found the challenge of moving from a larger blue chip operation to a family business exciting.
“The problem of being one of many branches is that your views take quite a long time to find their way to the top. The beauty of having a family-run company is all the decisions are all under one roof; we can get approval on things in a matter of moments. If we need to make a decision we can spin on a sixpence and do it.
“I’ve brought my modern marketing retail experience into Boswell’s and the task for me is to add to the heritage of a wonderful family-run business that is much loved by the Oxford community.
“My task is to add things to that without spoiling the heritage.”
The ability to change while retaining the same friendly image in the customer’s mind over the last 275 years means the business has been able to position itself in lots of different places in Oxford without giving the impression of unsettled flux.
It settled in Cornmarket in 1890 and the main building in 1912.
Mr Smith says the focus on the customer is what has kept them alive. “We nailed our colours to the mast in that regard and our level of engagement is much stronger than anyone else in our competition.
“It is a core value. The association with the university, and the association with students is very strong. And as an independent we thrive because not only have we got the local population, we have tourist traffic and students.
“A lot of department stores don’t have that mix of three distinct markets, and all three seem to geographically combine on the corner of George Street and Broad Street.”
Oxford is changing. The Westgate redevelopment is creeping closer, and other department stores are eyeing up space. Can Boswells stay viable for another 275 years as High Street stores drop like flies?
Mr Smith believes it can.
“We are here for the long term. We have a business strategy which will encompass internet trading, we need to embrace the more modern aspects of trading and look at where we go in the future.
“We’ll have John Lewis and the revamped Westgate on our doorstep, and I think that will bring more business to Oxford as a whole.
“There are a lot of family businesses that are thriving.
“People don’t want the same thing in every town.”
That was the year that was...
The year Boswell’s was founded:
- King George III was born
- The bottle opener was invented
- Britain declared war on Spain (The War of Jenkin’s Ear)
- John Wesley was converted, essentially launching the Methodist movement
- French explorer Pierre Gaultier de Varennes et de la Vérendrye reached the western shore of Lake Michigan
A family affair
The Pearson-Boswell Family History:
- Frederick Pearson 1829-1909, eight children including:
- Arthur Pearson, 1860-1926, became owner of several retail shops, five children including:
- Arthur Pearson, 1884-1972, formed the department store much as it is today, four children including:
- Christopher Pearson, (1929-), director (retired) two children including:
- Sarah Pearson, company secretary
- Anthony Pearson, grandson of the second Arthur Pearson, (1924-1996) director, two children, including:
- Jonathan Pearson (1958-) managing director
- Cyril Hearne Pearson (distant cousin) (1886-1946) three children including:
- Richard Pearson (1918-2011), non-executive director
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