Thorburns, Clemens St

Now based in Whiteheads Court, Thorburns is Leamington’s oldest independent male outfitters, supplying traditional and modern menswear for all ages.  The business was founded by an ambitious young draper and tailor from Scotland, James Thorburn, in 1880. He opened his first shop at 46 Clemens Street, – where at that time £4 would buy you a tailor-made suit of the finest worsted.  James worked hard and his business rapidly became successful.  He and Jane his wife married at Warwick in 1878, and went on to have a family of ten, of whom eight survived into adulthood.  Some of the five daughters and three sons followed their father’s footsteps. Maggie the oldest daughter became a draper, Elsie was a milliner, and Gladys a milliner’s apprentice at the age of 15 in 1911. William and Charles joined their father, and their descendants carried on the business, through several changes of venue, until relatively recently.

James Thorburn soon made himself at home in the Spa: as well as running a thriving business he was a keen sportsman and active in local politics.  A Liberal, he was elected to the Council several times to represent West Ward, and served on the Committees of the Free Library and Museum, the Allotments (He was a keen allotment holder), the Cemetery, the Parks and Gardens, and was on the management board of St Paul’s School.  Mr Thorburn was instrumental in the setting up of the Leamington Bowling Club, even though this proved something of a trial: it took a whole three years to persuade the Council to agree to lay the green in Avenue Road.  By 1912, the club boasted 50 season ticket holders, with green fees of 10/6d.  James Thorburn was keen to reduce the fee to 5/- to encourage more players, – so he was far from the stereotypical Scotsman! He lived in hope that one day, Leamington would host a Bowling Tournament, on a par with the Tennis Week and the Croquet Week.  He would undoubtedly be pleased to see that the town has more than achieved this aim with the annual Ladies’ International Bowling Competition held in Victoria Park.

William, the eldest son became the manager of the store and consequently spent long hours at work. It was usual for him to be at work at the shop until 10 pm on Saturdays, and to his horror, one Saturday evening in 1913, looked out of the window to see his wife Harriet accompanied by a fellow tradesman, going into The Great Western public house.  When they left, he followed them by bicycle, back to his home in Llewelyn Road…..This led to divorce proceedings on April 1914, when William settled a sum of money on Harriet and agreed to pay her an allowance of 10/- per week thereafter. Harriet clearly had mental health issues, – when discovered in compromising circumstances by her husband, she didn’t appear upset or embarrassed, but allegedly sat down and played the harmonium for a while.

Charles, the youngest son, also worked for his father, and also became involved in local politics, sport, and charitable organisations. Charles served in the Great War, and whilst recuperating in hospital from his wounds, formed the idea of creating an association to maintain the camaraderie that he had encountered in the trenches, whilst helping others at the same time.  Having taken over management of the business on the death of his father in 1920, although Charles kept his links with local sport as chairman of the Town Football Club, and served on St John’s Horticultural Society Committee, he was not able to achieve his aim until 1943, when “The Good Companions” was formed, taking its name from the novel of J B Priestley, who became the association’s patron.  The Good Companions worked tirelessly to raise funds for the Royal Midland Counties Home, the Sunshine Home for Blind Babies, St Anne’s Home and the RAF Association, amongst others. Coal and groceries were provided at Christmas for widows and the aged. Seaside holidays were funded for children and families in need. By 1953, the Companions had raised over £10,000, – some of this in wartime.

After wartime service in the Royal Navy, Charles’ sons Derek (Dick) and Ian ran the business and oversaw the move to Warwick Street, – when golf permitted!  (Ian played off 4 for a while, and like his brother, captained Leamington and County G C.)  Dick died suddenly in 1978, leaving Ian at the helm.  Thorburns celebrated their centenary in 1980, with Ian as Chairman and Managing Director. It remained a family business until 2000, when the Stewart family took over.  They kept the name ‘Thorburns’ and are now based round the corner from the Warwick Street shop, just inside the Royal Priors.

Thorburns January 2020


Margaret Rushton

Spring 2018