The name of Coxeter still appears in large letters over a few shop fronts in Ock Street, but it was once a major family-owned business with its various departments distributed over a distance of perhaps a hundred yards on both sides of the street.
Charles Coxeter was born in 1806 in Greenham, near Newbury, a son of John Coxeter who was manager of the Greenham Mills, a large wool-processing concern. Charles came to Abingdon aged 14 and worked in a drapery shop, but by 1836 he was in business on his own account as a “dealer in hardware”. By 1838, he was running a Birmingham and Sheffield Warehouse – a shop selling ironmongery – in Ock Street.
Charles married Priscilla Baker in 1837. The ceremony was at St Helen’s, but he was a Baptist by conviction, a deacon, Sunday School teacher, and occasional preacher at the chapel. There were three sons, Charles junior born in 1838, William in 1845 and Job in 1846. Charles junior and Job would enter the family business; William died young. A daughter, Ruth, born in 1839, studied at the Bloomsbury School of Design and is later described as an artist painter and teacher of drawing. Ruth never married, living with her parents until their death.
While always specialising in hardware, Charles was ready to take up whatever business, whether large or small in scale, that would pay. In 1848, he was advertising “Good country collected woollen rags for manure to be sold”. By 1860 Coxeter’s was a “General ironmongery warehouse, wholesale and retail”. In 1864 he took his elder son, Charles junior, into partnership. They were now “Coxeter & Son; wholesale and retail ironmongers. General and furnishing ironmongery, stationery, jewellery and English and foreign fancy goods”.
Among Charles’s business skills was a talent for advertising. About 1850, he started an annual “Coxeters’ Household Almanack”, an early commercial catalogue. Anyone could advertise, there were rates for full, half and quarter pages, but of course it was Coxeter’s own products which were most prominently featured. By 1865 the circulation was 2500, and publication continued into the twentieth century. Unfortunately, copies are now very hard to find.
The business developed. In 1871 Charles’s third son Job joined what was now “Coxeter and Sons”, and there are signs of expansion into domestic equipment and furnishings. A billhead of 1881 shows a very impressive list of activities and products: they were wholesale and furnishing ironmongers; bar iron, nail, petroleum and oil merchants; locksmiths, bellhangers & tin-plate workers. They sold kitchen ranges, stoves, brass and iron bedsteads and bedding; superior electro-plate and best Sheffield cutlery and tools; brushes, cocoa matting and mats, petroleum and benzoline lamps, perambulators, looking-glasses and travelling trunks. They were agents for wholesale stationers and sewing machines, and importers of American and German hardware, toys and fancy goods. They bought and exchanged old gold, silver, rags, waste paper, metals, horse-hair, bones, skins and iron.
There was a turning point in 1890 when both Charles senior and junior retired. The former remained in Abingdon till his death in 1900; the latter moved to Hastings, surviving until 1918. The company was now in the hands of Job and his three sons; Job sold his house in Albert Park and went to live at 54 Ock Street, close to the shop.
The Coxeters were now prominent Abingdon citizens. Charles senior had been active in the Baptist church, but had taken little part in public affairs; Charles junior was auditor to the borough; he resigned this post in 1883 to stand for the Council, but was not elected. Job Coxeter as early as 1876 addressed the Council as representative of the Abingdon tradesmen; he in his turn was auditor from 1886, went on to be a member of the borough council from 1890 to 1896, and a JP from 1895.
The Coxeters, as a Baptist family, favoured abstinence from alcohol. They helped to found the new temperance hotel in the Square, The Sun, and supplied the furnishings. It failed in 1892 after only two years and Job Coxeter had to help with its liquidation.
By this time bicycles were becoming popular. Coxeter and Sons sold, repaired, and hired them out and then began to manufacture them under their own brand name, “The Abingdon”. There were a number of individual models. In 1895, the “Working Man’s Friend” sold at £4 10s, perhaps a month’s wages for the target customer, while a “Special Express” could run to two or three times that sum depending on individual specifications.
After 1901, “The Abingdon” referred to a small motor car manufactured for Coxeters by a Birmingham company; it had a single cylinder engine of 3.5 horsepower, a two speed gearbox and chain drive. There was also an Abingdon motor cycle consisting of a standard bicycle modified with a standard conversion kit imported from Belgium. The 211 cc engine was claimed to give a top speed over 30 mph. The car was not a great success, but led to the development of a motor sales and repair business with a garage which is now the tyre and exhaust centre in Ock Street, and a branch garage in New Road, Oxford. However, the motor business was sold off before the first world war.
During the first half of the twentieth century, Coxeters continued in its core trade of hardware and furnishing. It reorganised itself in 1951, becoming a limited company and later opening Coxeter House as a department store. In 1984 it ceased to trade as a retailer, concentrating on property management and finance in which it is still active. There is still a furnishing shop under the name of Richard Coxeter, but it is no longer under family control.
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