The story of the Retail Trust started at The London Coffee House on Tuesday, 3 January 1832. We now believe this to be the site of the Jamaica Wine House in St Michael’s Alley, Cornhill.
As reported in The Times newspaper the following day, the founding meeting of the Linen, Drapers, Silk-Mercers, Haberdashers, Hosiers & Lacemen Institution (as the Retail Trust was originally known) had “a clear purpose of organising a benevolent union of these trades, to encourage the poor and meritorious of their several bodies.”
By all accounts it was a hugely invigorating meeting, with bold proclamations and “immense cheering” throughout! The appropriately named Thomas Helps was named as first Chairman of a society designed to aid employees who worked in what was then the predominantly wholesale drapery sector.
The Times noted: “The founders of the institution were men whose conditions in society, and relations with their mercantile fellow-men, placed them beyond the possibility of having any other view than to establish such a confederacy of good feeling and right principle among the members of several walks of business as would produce a rich and lasting harvest of advantage to others.”
With Thomas Helps proclaiming the purpose of the institution: “To promote the happiness and interests of those engaged in the trade.” This has become the founding principle that drives the Retail Trust’s cause today.
Our first Chairman, Thomas Helps, was prominent in both commercial and public affairs. He was the head of a large Mercantile House in London, he also distinguished himself as Treasurer of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. He was certainly the start in a long line of pioneering figures and royal patronage.
We believe that Thomas Helps’ youngest son, Sir Arthur Helps was an early Cambridge Apostle, social reformer, literary figure, historian, Clerk of the Privy Council, friend of John Ruskin and trusted advisor to Queen Victoria.
He was also author of The Claims of Labour (1845), valued by many Victorians as it challenged the discursive dimensions of the field of the political economy. In essence, he was interested in bettering the conditions of workers and argued it was incumbent on employers to worry about leisure time of their employees, and that the working day ought to end much earlier so workers would have the time to enjoy their lives.
As the 19th century drew to a close, the charity – by now known as The Linen & Woollen Drapers’ Institution – became closely associated with modern department stores. Among the supporters were James Marshall and John Snelgrove of the Marsall & Snelgrove department stores, Peter R Jones, who built his eponymous store on Sloane Square, William and Frank Debenham and David (DH) Evans.
At this stage the institution decided to take care of retirees from the capital’s stores. President James Marshall donated the four-acre Mill Hill site. With John Snelgrove he constructed the central block of buildings, including Marshall Hall and 50 cottage homes.
It is often argued that one of the reasons why the Marshall & Snelgrove business flourished at this time was that John Snelgrove was a real pioneer in looking after his staff and keeping them happy. In fact, he was fundamental in the institute of half-day closing on Saturdays. On 14 July 1866 an illuminated hand written plaque was presented to him by grateful employees and you can still find this in the reception at Marshall Hall today.
As the pace of development of the department store and fashion businesses quickened in the prosperous years in the 1950s and 1960s, the charity – which had been known as The Cottage Homes since the 1920s – expanded its interests nationally with the help and generosity of new pioneers.
W.H. Eborn established the Leylands Estate in Derby in 1965. Sir Hugh Fraser (of House of Fraser) donated the 14-acre private estate in Glasgow. The Moores family (founders of Littlewoods) created new Cottage Homes in Liverpool and Salford. Today, the Retail Trust cares for over 400 retired retail workers nationally across all five supported-living estates.
Her Royal Highness the late Queen Elizabeth II was our Royal Patron from 1948 to 2022. Over 74 years, Her Majesty was a gracious supporter of the charity, making a number of visits to our estates and joining us for numerous fundraising events.
Her Majesty’s visits always attracted immense interest and support both from the residents and local communities. We are extremely proud, honoured and thankful to have had such a long history of royal patronage.
In 2001 The Cottage Homes was renamed the Retail Trust we’re familiar with today. One that represents the breadth and depth of support we provide colleagues throughout their careers in retail. From learning and development, to wellbeing, right through to our supported-living estates.
And while a lot may have changed since our foundation at The London Coffee House in 1832, essentially we remain the same. To create hope, health and happiness for everyone in retail.