Mail Order Christmas

by Alan Duckworth

Alan Duckworth reminisces about mail order catalogues and the delight of Christmas.

Christmas shopping! The words conjure up an image of a busy High Street with folk thronging in and out of shops, their display windows aglow in the December twilight. These days, though, Christmas shopping is more likely to be done at home on a laptop or smartphone. Why queue on the M60 for the Trafford Centre or endlessly circle multi-storey car parks looking for a space when you can do it all in the comfort of your own home?

It wasn’t like that in the good old days. No less an authority on Christmas than Charles Dickens gives a flavour of it in ‘A Christmas Carol’:

‘Meanwhile, the fog and darkness thickened so that people ran about with flaming links, proferring their services to go before horses and conduct them on their way and the brightness of the shops, where holly sprigs and berries crackled in the lamp heat of the windows, made pale faces ruddy as they passed.’

Our parents and grandparents had no choice but to muffle themselves up and brave the bleak winter weather to do their Christmas shopping. No chance for them to browse their purchases by the fireside… or was there?

“The long winter evenings could be spent poring over their pages, compiling wish lists and dreaming of a bright Christmas.”

Back in the middle years of the 20th century, when Christmas was still on the distant horizon, big brown envelopes began flopping through letter boxes. Mail order companies were sending out their Christmas catalogues, and two of the best-loved in Lancashire and Yorkshire were Driver’s of Leeds and Dyson and Horsfall’s, the Preston-based company.

These days, my heart sinks when the Christmas aisles appear in the supermarkets in early October, but when I was a child in the 1950s, the Driver’s and Dyson and Horsfall’s catalogues were welcome visitors. The long winter evenings could be spent poring over their pages, compiling wish lists and dreaming of a bright Christmas.

Montgomery Ward, closely followed by Richards Sears, launched the world’s first mail-order business in 1872 in the United States. Such companies flourished where lonely homesteads were marooned on vast prairies miles from the nearest store and hundreds of miles from the nearest town. In the UK, big stores like Marshall and Snelgrove in London began issuing catalogues back in the 1870s and the John Noble store in Manchester, established in 1870, abandoned over-the-counter sales for mail order by the end of the century.

Mail order flourished in the UK, not because of geography as in the US, but because payments could be spread over a number of weeks. Credit was not easily available to low-income people in the North and Midlands. Customers were encouraged to become agents and earn extra income. They showed the catalogues to family, friends and neighbours, people they knew and trusted. Thus, mail-order companies avoided the risk of bad debt.

Herbert and his partner Cyril Dyson were both Bradford men, born in 1888 and 1891 respectively.

Kay’s catalogue started in Worcester in 1886, Manchester’s Universal Stores in 1900, Freeman’s of London in 1905 and the Bradford-based Empire Stores and Grattan Warehouse Stores started in 1907 and 1912, respectively.

Samuel Driver’s mail order company had its roots in the grocery business established by Edmund Driver in Bradford in 1876. Edmund was the son of Samuel Driver, who farmed at Brow Top, Morton Banks, near Keighley. His brother Slingsby Granger, born in Bingley in 1857, joined the business, and the Christmas club was launched at the turn of the 20th century. Edmund became well known for his dairy produce, particularly Cheshire cheeses, which won prizes. He wrote a book on the cheesemakers of Cheshire, published in 1907.

Edmund died in 1914, but the business empire prospered under Slingsby’s guidance, with eleven shops in Leeds and six in Bradford. Driver’s mail order operation was based in premises in Burton Rd, Leeds, until a fire in 1937 compelled them to transfer to the former Leeds flax mill Temple Works in Marshall St. Temple Works was famous for having a flat, grass-covered roof, where sheep grazed. Slingsby Driver became chairman of Drivers. He married Blon Catherine Walker in 1882. They lived at Briar Dene in Tower Rd, Shipley. Slingsby died in 1939, leaving over £46,000, over £4 million today. By the time I was poring over my Drivers catalogue, the company had become part of the Great Universal Stores empire.

“Companies had to diversify. Littlewood’s supplied barrage balloons, parachutes and rubber dinghies.”

Dyson and Horsfall also had their roots in a grocery business founded by Herbert Horsfall in Lancaster in 1919. Herbert and his partner Cyril Dyson were both Bradford men, born in 1888 and 1891, respectively. They formed their partnership in 1923. They operated from premises on St George’s Quay in Lancaster and launched a Christmas club. The business prospered, and by 1930 Dyson and Horsfall’s had moved to bigger premises in the old Aqueduct Mill in Preston. Herbert provided the finance, and Cyril managed all other aspects of the business. He toured Europe, sourcing goods for the catalogue. It was while he was in Germany that he realised the war was coming and laid in soap and other materials that he knew would soon be in short supply.

By the time war broke out, Cyril and his family were living in Tarelton at Towerville on Douglas Avenue. The war caused problems. Staff left for military service. Goods were scarce. Kay’s catalogue, which had 432 pages in 1939, was down to 116 by 1942. Companies had to diversify. Littlewood’s supplied barrage balloons, parachutes and rubber dinghies. Dyson and Horsfall’s supplied steel helmets for civil defence and, with aluminium in demand for aircraft production, brought out a range of china teapots with patriotic slogans. They were given out to people collecting scrap metal for the war effort.

Recovery was slow after the war, but it did come, and the fifties became a golden age for mail-order companies. My Dad became an agent for both Driver’s and Dyson and Horsfall’s, and at Christmas, we’d gather round the catalogue and make lists. Not everything on the list was ordered. These days, you can order online at the click of a finger. Back then, wish lists were whittled down in the cold light of day. Much did get ordered, though: Christmas treats like dates and crystallised fruit and ginger, Turkish Delight, nuts and chocolate, bottles of port and sherry, bottles of rum and brandy, and toys, most important of all to me, toys.

As Christmas approached, boxes would be delivered. Any toys would be hidden away in the parental wardrobe, but many of the festive goodies would go on display in the cabinet in the front room, adding to the excitement and anticipation of the great day.

“The world of mail-order shopping was about to change forever.”

In 1957, Harold Macmillan said people had never had it so good. That was certainly true for mail-order companies. Between 1957 and 1961, their turnover increased by almost 90%. Dyson and Horsfall’s were still doing good business. Herbert Horsfall had died back in 1954, but Cyril was as busy as ever, advertising for staff and customers in the local and national press. The big companies were dominating the market, however, and hoovering up smaller concerns. By 1961 Cyril was 71 and when Isaac Wolfson, owner of Great Universal Stores, offered to buy him out, Cyril felt he couldn’t refuse and accepted. Dyson and Horsfall were no more.

The giant catalogue companies continued to do well over the next decades but change was coming. The World Wide Web was on its way. Credit cards were freely available. The world of mail-order shopping was about to change forever. Doing your Christmas shopping from home has become quicker and easier than ever. And with Amazon entering the grocery business now, even your Christmas puddings and mince pies had become only a click away.


NorthernLife Nov/Dec 23