Celebrating 280 Years of Boswells of Oxford

Celebrating 280 Years of Boswells of Oxford


In celebration of our 280th year, we’ve been exploring our archives, digging through old photos, and marvelling at all of the changes the store has witnessed over the course of its long and illustrious life. So, let us take you back in time through our archives, and show you a little of our history…

 

Read on to discover our story, or choose from one of the below links to find out about a particular era of Boswells history!

 

1738-1845

1846-1861

   1862-1890  

1890-1927

1928-1991

1992-2018

 

Celebrating Boswells

Key Dates 

 

 

Boswells' Beginnings (1738-1845)

 

Old Trunk Image
A trunk manufactured by F. Boswell, date unknown.

In 1738 Francis Boswell opened a trunk and portmanteau (luggage) shop at 50 Cornmarket Street, Oxford (where Clarks Shoes now is). He might have imagined that his small family business, making cases and leather goods for the people of Oxford, would offer him a comfortable enough living, and a stable inheritance for his son. It seems doubtful that he would have had any notion that Boswells would grow to what it is today.

We’re extremely proud to have kept the Boswells tradition of selling luggage going continuously for 280 years, and we hope that Francis Boswell would approve of the skilled craftmanship of the Samsonite and American Tourister cases we sell today!

 

In the 18th century it was quite common for children to learn their family trade, and so Francis’s eldest son, Henry, was taught how to make luggage—and very fine luggage we understand too! And so Boswells, and the skills of the trade, passed from one generation to the next. And the next…

Soon, Francis Boswells’ small start-up had become a well reputed family business, spanning generations. 

 

The Eighteenth Century (1846-1861)

Charlotte Boswell Advert 
An advert for Charlotte Boswell's shop at 48 Cornmarket Street, 1846.

 

By 1846 the 4th generation of the Boswell family inherited the family business, with three of the children each taking on a different speciality. The eldest son, Francis, inherited his father’s trunk making shop at 50 Cornmarket Street, and his sister Charlotte took on 48 Cornmarket Street. Charlotte became a cooper and turner, specialising in wood turning. Henry Boswell, the youngest of the family, moved part of the business from 48 Cornmarket St to 2 George Street, and worked as a cabinet maker and upholsterer.

Francis Boswell married a woman named Jane, and together they raised 6 little Boswells above the shop. They were to be the 5th and final generation of the Boswell family to take on the business.

 

Henry Boswell (1862-1890)


Boswells 1870 Image

Boswells in about 1865-70. We believe the men standing outside the shop may have been Henry Boswell and his employees. 
 


 When the business finally passed to the young Henry Boswell in 1862, the company name changed from F. Boswell to H. Boswell (and officially remains H. Boswell & Co. to this day). Henry Boswell was an ambitious man. He wasn't afraid to make changes to his great, great grandfather's company, and was a keen to modernise and grow the business. 

Around 1871, Boswells expanded into 49 Cornmarket Street, adding hosiery to its bag of tricks. In 1874 Henry rebuilt 47-51 Cornmarket Street entirely, and the buildings that are there today are the product of his vision and enterprise. Nice work Henry Boswell (we particularly like the little turret on the end)!

47-51 Cornmarket St in 2018 Image

47-50 Cornmarket Street today. The building was commissioned by Henry Boswell in about 1874.

 

 

Henry Boswell was also an Oxford graduate, specialising in a type of biology called bryology—the study of mosses. He wrote and published a number of articles on the subject, while somehow also running a successful business. Oxford Botanic Gardens still look after his collection of mosses, which is a rather lovely continuation of his work. 

 

 

Henry and his wife, Catherine, didn't have any children, and so the company passed to Arthur Pearson in 1890. While 152 years and 5 generations of Boswell family involvement had come to an end, this was the beginning of several generations of Pearsons who would take care of the company, and keep its long-standing family outlook alive and well, right into the 21st century. 

 

 

Enter the Pearsons (1890-1927)

 

Pearsons, date unknown image

Pearson & Co at 31 Cornmarket Street. Date unknown.

Arthur Pearson was a local business owner and pharmacist. He ran The Oxford Drug Company at 1 Broad Street, and had recently purchased Lowe & Co. Ironmongers at 31 Cornmarket Street. It seems that H. Boswell & Co. had such a good reputation locally that Boswells proudly kept its name. And here we still are!

Around 1913 The Oxford Drug Company (which is still Boswells’ Pharmacy) moved to 31 Cornmarket Street. Today this part of the shop is our Accessories and Games Departments, but 31 Cornmarket Street was a separate shop unit until the 1950s. The Cornmarket entrance to Boswells is the most historic part of the building, and its history is what helps create its “Tardis-like” illusion of being the frontage to something much smaller than it is (we do like to keep our customers pleasantly surprised!)

 

 

City Wall, Martyrs Tower Image

One of the few remaining parts of Oxford's city walls, Martyr's Tower. View from Boswells.

 

This older portion of Boswells is where the old city walls and moat once ran. We’re told that Cornmarket Street used to be called Northgate Street, because it was the Northern entrance to Oxford through the medieval city walls. Behind the store, hidden, we have lovely view of one of the few remaining parts of the city walls, "Martyrs Tower."

Apparently, when our basement was first dug out (we think around 1912/13) some remaining parts of the city walls were excavated. Unfortunately, these parts of the wall had been holding up St Michael’s church’s graveyard for hundreds of years, and when portions of the wall were removed, skeletons came tumbling into what is now Boswells Cookshop Department! We’re assured that these were swiftly removed and re-buried at St Michael’s…

 

 

 

The Move to Broad Street (1928-1991)

 

Boswells House Drawing Image

The original design for Boswells House, 1920s.

In the 1920s plans began to move Boswells to a new building on Broad Street. By the time ground was broken on the new site, it was Arthur Pearson’s son, Arthur Hearne Pearson, who was running things. In order to make way for the new Boswell House at 1-4 Broad Street, the existing buildings on the spot were demolished, including the dilapidated former home of the celebrated poet W.B. Yeats, and the end of the street was widened.

Boswells moved into its new home between 1928-29. When we revamped the 2nd floor in 2015, we discovered that some of the walls had been made from straw, which we can only put down to depression era resourcefulness! The builders had great trouble removing these, and it turns out that Straw is actually a very strong and stubborn building material!

 

Boswells 1960s Image

Boswells, late 1960s-early 1970s.

Boswells, having always been a company to embrace change—perhaps the secret to long life—continued to adapt, and in the 1950s The Oxford Drug Company and Boswells House were united by a passage, to form the building as it now is.

The store operated as a sort of arcade until the 1960s, when Tony and Christopher Pearson (the sons of Arthur Hearne Pearson) took on the company. This generation of Pearson's brought the departments together in a new way, forming the store we now know and love.

 

Many of our staff still fondly recall Tony Pearson handing out the wages in person, and stopping to chat with staff and customers alike. Its fair to say that as Boswells has grown and expanded, so has the Boswells family, and the staff of Boswells really are a big family, many of which have worked here for a decade or two.

 

 

Into the 21st Century (1992-2018)

 

Tea Room

Boswells 1738 Tea Room on the day of its launch, November 2015.

In the early 1990s, just over 100 years after Boswells had passed into the Pearson family, Jonathan and Sarah Pearson (cousins) took the helm, modernising things somewhat, but also retaining that old Boswells charm that has seen us through the centuries.

 

And, of course, we’ve not been idle since. We added a website in 2014, www.boswells.co.uk, our popular 1738 Room in 2015 and added our Broad Street Café this March. 

The company has been in the Pearson family now for 4 generations; that's 128 years, and still going strong!

 

Celebrating Boswells

Boswells Staff Photo 2016 Image

Some of the wonderful staff of Boswells on International Women's Day, 2016.

 

It’s probably fair to say, that in some ways we aren’t quite your typical old department store. We think that the thing that has become traditional about Boswells is not necessarily the building or what we sell, but Boswells itself. It's been passed from generation to generation of owners for 280 years, but it has also been passed down through generations of customers and employees. We proudly serve the community around us, knowing that it's the people of Oxford that have made our 280 years so special.

 

In that spirit, we welcome you to celebrate our 280th year with us! We’d love to hear your memories of the store! We’re offering you a chance to win a £50 gift voucher and for your memory to be included in our time capsule in our competition! Simply send us your memories or photos of the store this May to enter (more info here).

We’ll also be sharing some more treasures from our archives throughout the year, along with our staff’s recollections of their time here. Keep your eyes peeled for news of exciting 280th year celebrations throughout 2018!

 

Key Dates in Boswells' History

  • 1738 - Francis Boswell opens his trunk making shop on Cornmarket Street.
  • 1840s - The 4th generation of the Boswell family starts to branch out and take on new skills. Francis Boswell runs his great grandfather's original trunk making shop, while his sister Charlotte is running the shop 2 doors down as a cooper and turner. The youngest of the siblings, Henry, is a cabinet maker on George Street.
  • 1860s - Henry Boswell inherits Boswells. He is the 5th and final Boswell to own the company.
  • 1870s - Henry Boswell expands his shop into 49 Cornmarket Street, and after a few years rebuilds 47-51 Cornmarket Street. The building is still there today. 
  • 1890s - Henry Boswell has no heirs, and so Boswells passes to Arthur Pearson, who also owns the Oxford Drug Company, as well as an iron monger's shop, Lowe & Co.
  • 1910s - The Oxford Drug Company moves from 1 Broad Street to 31 Cornmarket Street (previously Lowe & Co.). When excavating the basement, parts of the old city walls are unearthed, along with medieval artefacts in what was once the city moat. Skeletons from St Michael's graveyard fall through into the basement during the excavation, and are reburied. 
  • 1920s - Arthur Hearne Pearson inherits the company. Boswells moves to its new home in Boswells House at 1-4 Broad Street, where it is today.
  • 1950s - A connecting passage is constructed, finally joining The Oxford Drug Company to the rest of Boswell House. 
  • 1960s - Tony and Christopher Pearson run the store, transforming it from being an arcade of departments into a more fully unified department store. 
  • 1990s - Jonathan and Sarah Pearson join Boswells. The building and technology are modernised, preparing Boswells for the new millennium. 
  • 2010s - Boswells opens its first fully trading website, its 1738 Tea Room and the Broad Street cafe. 
Posted by Elena Woolley
29th April 2018

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