Until about 1790 Bath Street was the site of an orchard with a few cottages and outbuildings. William Abbotts discovered Leamington’s second spring on the land adjoining the former Bath Hotel, where he built the first hot and cold baths, demolished in 1867 by Frederick William Francis in order to extend his store. Mr Francis was born in a village in Hertfordshire in 1815. He trained as a draper, and anticipating the prospects in a flourishing spa town with a constant turnover of seasonal visitors, set up shop in Leamington Priors in 1840. In 1841, he married Emma Eardley, who eventually bore him three daughters and two sons, whilst supporting her husband in business.
The store gradually expanded over the years, taking over properties on either side and setting the standard for quality goods until it closed in 1983. From a simple draper’s, “F W Francis” became a substantial department store selling household linen, fabrics, men’s, women’s and children’s clothes, furniture, carpets, and furnishing fabrics. “Department Stores” offering such a wide variety of goods were very much a novelty in the 19th Century, and hardly known outside London and the capital cities of Europe. Mr Francis was in the vanguard of their development in the Midlands. The coming of the railway, transforming access to major towns, greatly aided im and other far-sighted businessmen.
The original premises at 34 Bath Street, with a small garden at the rear, also served as the family home, complete with housemaids and a housekeeper. Mrs Francis’ sister Sarah Eardley also lived with them. In 1851 Mr Francis employed two milliners, five draper’s assistants, and five apprentices. Within twenty years, the store had expanded to over the shop of J Price, Chemist at no 40 Bath Street and employing 52 staff. Gradually over the years, the store acquired shops on either side of the original, the former Abbotts Baths, and even major competitors, Wackrills, at Waterloo House. At various times, Francis’ also had premises in Regent Place and Gloucester Street.
Unfortunately, F W Francis died at the age of only 40. His wife Emma simply carried on, announcing in the local press her intention of maintaining the family business. She continued to trade first as E Francis, and later E Francis & Sons, as both sons became partners. (R L and F W Francis jnr.) One daughter, Sarah Ellen had died in childhood; Emma the eldest daughter remained unmarried, and Maria married John Whidborne, a farmer from Devon. Frederick and Robert also married, so that Emma went on to have many grandchildren and great-grandchildren, some of whom went into the family business. Mrs Francis remained at the helm until shortly before her death in 1904 at the age of 85. Her obituary in the local press praised her benevolence and her charitable works, including Bible classes which taught many young women to read, and a reading room set up with a friend in 1864 in the Town Hall for the Clapham Terrace servicemen. Many of the soldiers were illiterate, but this venture enabled them to have letters written for them whilst being taught the 3Rs.
Mrs Francis’ death notice was rather surprising: simply a brief insertion in the regular advertisement in the Leamington Courier, which read:
“NOTICE: This establishment will be closed after 12 o’clock on Monday for the remainder of the day, on the occasion of the funeral of Mrs Emma Francis, senior partner of the Firm.”
Frederick and the grandsons continued to run the business which became a limited company in 1905. When Frederick died in 1937, he was succeeded as managing director by his son Arnold. The store continued to expand, maintaining its reputation for quality and value, with showrooms backed by extensive workshops for furniture, upholstery, carpets and curtains, and work rooms for dressmaking, and millinery. In 1912, E Francis & Sons took over the adjoining Waterloo Galleries to display fine antiques.
Many of the staff lived on the top floor of the premises, a custom from the early days which continued until about 1950. Accommodation was not luxurious, but Francis’ prided themselves on their treatment of their staff and the friendly relationship with their employees. There were restrictions, but they were of their time: few creature comforts and a strict time table (lights out at 11 pm) presided over by a housekeeper, – but employees still maintained that they felt part of the family.
In the early days, the store’s opening hours were 8am until 8pm and until 9pm on Saturdays. 12-hour days, six days a week were then the norm. Dressmakers and milliners often worked longer, depending on the season and the number of orders. By the 1920s, closing time was 8pm on weekdays and 7pm on Saturdays. But after WW2, weekday closing was at 6pm, and 12 noon on Saturdays. Until the late 1930s, a uniformed doorman greeted customers, ensuring that they found the correct department for their purchase, summoning an assistant, and escorting them back to the door once the purchase had been made.
By the end of the 1950s, Bath Street and Clemens Street were in decline. New shops, chain stores, were springing up north of the river, and E. Francis & Sons, with its standards and service of a bygone age, could not compete. One by one, departments closed, leaving only the furniture department. The recession of the 1980s proved the final straw, and the buildings and business were put up for sale. It took the best part of 1983 to find a buyer willing to maintain the store as a retail outlet, but within two years, the store was back on the market, and again, a buyer was hard to come by. Eventually, in 1987 Comet (an electrical goods outlet, now also long gone,) bought the site, and set about demolition. All traces of “E Francis & Sons” vanished, but the earlier history of the site came to light, when William Abbott’s old spring was uncovered in the foundations of the building. The site is now a wine warehouse, with a car park at the rear.
Sources: Leamington Spa Courier; National Archives Census returns; Leamington History Group archive; L F Cave: Royal Leamington Spa.