The Beesley and Barrett families
19th and 20th centuries
From 1883 until 2001 the clothing business of Beesley’s was a respected family firm serving Abingdon and the surrounding villages. Even in 1883, it was already an old-established concern, trading as a mercer’s from the same premises.
Its recent history starts with William Beesley (about 1831-1883) and his wife Susan (d.1895). They are first recorded in Abingdon in 1850. Then or soon after, William began working for the Harris family, mercers, at 24 High Street.
In 1883 William was left the business in the will of Hannah Harris (widow), the last of that family. William lived for only a few weeks after inheriting the business, dying at the age of fifty-two, but his widow and their eldest son Ernest Herbert (d.1949) carried on the business.
In 1908 Oswald Barrett (about 1894-1983), a builder’s son from West Hanney, joined Ernest Beesley as an errand boy and junior sales assistant. After service in the First World War he rejoined Mr Beesley and soon became a partner in the firm of E H Beesley, Tailors and Outfitters, sealing the partnership by marrying Mr Beesley’s eldest daughter, Gladys (1899-1978), in 1926.
In the early 1920s the partnership bought the boot and shoe shop of J N Paul Ltd. It was situated on the corner of Winsmore Lane where Lloyds TSB Bank now stands. It moved firstly to 16 High Street and then to 26 High Street next to the main business, into which it was incorporated in 1971. A number of allied acquisitions between the wars proved less successful and were disposed of by 1948.
On the death of Ernest Beesley at Christmas 1949 his three daughters Gladys Barrett, Phyllis (1904-1963) and Madge [Hammond] (1901-1966) became partners with Oswald.
On 1 January 1950, David Barrett, (b. 1929) the son of Oswald and Gladys, joined the firm. He became a partner in 1954 and his wife Mollie (b.1930) in 1967.
Both Phyllis and Madge died in the 1960s. In 1968 Oswald suffered a heart attack and he and his wife retired from active participation in the firm, leaving David and Mollie to continue. The main business at 22-24 High Street dealt with menswear, ladies wear, school wear, drapery, and fabrics, while J. N. Paul Ltd at No 26 concentrated on footwear.
Gladys died in 1978 and Oswald in 1983, and in 1984 the main business was sold to Hodges Ltd, a large clothing company based in Swansea. It continued to trade from 24 High Street as Hodges and later as Dunn’s, but went into liquidation in 1996. David and Mollie Barrett continued at 26 High Street operating the school wear side of the old business, which Hodges had not acquired. This closed late in 1998. The Beesley company was finally liquidated in 2001 after over a hundred years in the hands of one family.
© AAAHS and contributors 2014
A mercer’s tale – tracing the succession of an Abingdon High Street business
There has been a mercer’s company in the High Street for over three hundred years (possibly longer) and the Abingdon clothing company of E H Beesley was the final link in the story.
It was in 1673 that Nathanial Humphreys, an ironmonger, conveyed a property next to his in the area of the Market Place which is now the High Street, to William Stevenson, stated to be a mercer, although elsewhere he was variously named as a mercer, a maltster, or a grocer.  Stevenson was certainly a solid citizen; he had been a member of the Corporation and a local tax assessor during the Cromwellian period, but, as a prominent Presbyterian, had been dismissed at the restoration of the monarchy.
From the evidence of the 1663 Hearth Tax assessments, Stevenson was already living at the house at that time, no doubt as a tenant. It was a substantial property of six hearths, and seems to have stood where what today is 3 High Street.
In 1701, Stevenson was joined in the business by Edward Roberts. Roberts, like his father, also Edward Roberts (d. before 1656), was also a mercer. Unlike Stevenson, Roberts was a pillar of the Baptist church nearby in Ock Street. He died in 1715; the business was then carried on by his son Samuel until 1723, by another son, Nathanial, until 1768, and by Nathanial’s son, also Nathanial, until 1790 when, upon the death of his mother, he moved to London.
It was the discovery of a letter written to the writer’s grandfather – Ernest Herbert Beesley – dated 18th November 1894, from a Mr N. N. Roberts residing in Croydon, that led the writer to explore the family history. Interestingly, his address was “Abingdon”, Addiscombe Grove, Croydon, and his reference to coming to Abingdon again to research his family history suggests that he may well have been related to the Roberts family of Abingdon mercers.
In 1790 the business was acquired by the Harris family, originally from Southmoor, a few miles west of Abingdon. It was John Harris who continued as a mercer until his death in 1808, to be succeeded by his son, also John. In 1816, the younger John Harris joined forces with John Tomkins, a smock maker with premises next door at what would become No. 5 High Street.
It seems that John Tomkins was in financial difficulties, possibly connected with those being experienced by the banking business of Knapp and Tomkins which stood next door. But the partnership with John Harris prospered. In 1842 Harris and Tomkins moved to 24 High Street, in the part of the High Street known as ‘The Narrows’, shortly afterwards also leasing the property next door, No. 22. The partnership exhibited two smocks at the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, winning a prize. One of these smocks is now on display in Abingdon Museum.
The partnership was dissolved as the Tomkins family lost interest, and John Harris died in 1854. By 1856 we find John Harris junior and his wife Hannah running the business. John died in 1876 leaving his wife to carry on until her death in 1883. There were no children, and in her will she left the business to her ‘true and faithful servant’ William Beesley, known to have been living in Marcham Road in 1850, and who had worked for the Harris family for some thirty years.
William, unfortunately, died within weeks of inheriting the business, at the age of fifty-two. His wife Susan continued with the help of her three sons. The youngest of these, Ernest Herbert Beesley, (1870-1949) the writer’s grandfather, would eventually take over the business. Of the others, one, Horace Beesley, went on to found his own menswear business in Windsor, Berkshire. The other, Edgar or Alwyn, seems to have disappeared mysteriously while walking in the Cotswolds and was never heard of again.
With Susan and her son Ernest now in charge, the name of the business was changed to ‘Beesley & Son’ trading as Tailors & Outfitters. At one time there were branches in Wantage and Reading, but these lasted only a few years.
Beesley’s featured in a news article in the Abingdon Herald of 10 June 1893.
Theft by Boys
Horace Turner and Walter Taylor, boys, aged ten, came before Abingdon Petty Sessions on Tuesday charged with stealing from a shop in High Street on the 3rd inst. a pair of bathing drawers to the value of 1s. the property of Messrs. Beesley & Son. Mr. Beesley told the court that when he gave information to the Police he was not aware of how small the boys were, and he was now prepared to drop the case. The Mayor remarked that his court would not overlook such an offence again, but that the case would be dismissed upon the parents promising to flog the boys in the presence of a constable.
Note: ‘1s.’ in the passage above stands for one shilling. One shilling in 1893 is very roughly equivalent to about £5 today (2014).
Following the death of Susan in 1895, the name was once more changed. It was now ‘E .H. Beesley’ and so it remained until 1975.
In 1895 Ernest Beesley married Lizzie Ward, (1871-1948) who had served a two-year apprenticeship in the drapery trade. They had three daughters, and lived above the shop in the High Street. The three daughters all recalled the family ghost story; they all slept in rooms adjoining no.22 and some nights during bad weather there could be heard the rattling of chains and a loud sighing noise – which alarmed the girls and their parents. The mystery was solved in 1926 when No. 22 was demolished and rebuilt, for there in between the buildings of 24 and 22 was a gap in which the skeleton of a monkey hanging on a chain was discovered, which on a windy night would have swung backwards and forwards, rattling against the walls. It was always considered that the monkey must have escaped from one of the local fairs.
From the early 1900s ‘tallymen’ or travellers were sent out on regular journeys around the local villages soliciting orders, which were delivered within two days, originally by pony and trap and later by motor vehicle, although bicycles were used during the second world war.
Another early photograph shows a De Dion van of 1908, proudly bearing the name ‘E H Beesley, Complete Outfitters’. From the 1950s, the spread of private car ownership made family shopping expeditions possible for more and more people. Demand for home delivery declined, and this service ended in 1963.
In 1908 a young man, Oswald Barrett, a builder’s son from West Hanney, joined Mr Beesley as an errand boy and apprentice salesman. In 1912 he left for a new job in Guildford. When war came in 1914 he enrolled in the Hampshire Regiment, seeing service in India, Mesopotamia and Russia before returning home in 1919. He found employment in Bristol as a shop assistant in a menswear shop, but this did not last long as he found the living conditions appalling.
1920 saw Oswald Barrett rejoining Beesley’s. As he was not joining the family firm of J.P. Barrett & Sons, builders, of West Hanney, his father (J.P. Barrett 1866-1944) provided funds which enabled Oswald to become a partner with William Beesley, and allowed the new partnership to clear the mortgage on 22 High Street held by one of their suppliers, John Shannon & Sons Ltd of Walsall, Staffs. Later, in 1926, Barrett cemented his position by marrying Gladys (1898-1978) Ernest’s eldest daughter. She had been working in the offices of Webber’s Department Store in the High Street in Oxford.
The couple lived in the flat over the shop at 24 High Street while the older generation moved to The Firs in Oxford Road. Later, in 1949, Oswald and Gladys built a house in Faringdon Road.
During the inter-war years the partnership bought four businesses. J N Paul Ltd was a shoe retailer and watchmaker situated on the corner of Winsmore Lane where Lloyds TSB Bank now stands. It later moved, firstly to 16 High Street and then to 26 High Street next to the main business, where it traded separately, having already ceased the watch making enterprise.
The other businesses acquired in this period were: Chivers (Abingdon) Ltd of 7/9 High Street, ladies wear; Duponts, also ladies wear, in the Market Place between Queen Street and Stert Street; and finally, in the 1930s, the Abingdon Carpet Company. These three businesses were all sold by 1948, when the main company extended its own ranges from Tailors and Men’s Outfitters eventually to include ladies wear, household linens, fabrics and schoolwear, all concentrated at 22 and 24 High Street. J N Paul continued trading at No. 26 until 1971, when it was incorporated into the main business. The whole then traded as E H Beesley (Abingdon) Ltd.
It may be of interest to readers that the Hammond family, once of Denchworth and later in West Hanney, became associated by marriage with both the Barrett and Beesley families. During the 1920s Oswald’s sister Ivy married Edward (Teddy) Hammond, one of three brothers, whilst Gladys’s sister Marjorie (Madge) married Alwyn, another brother. The third brother (Billy) who farmed with Edward had a son Nigel who became well known as a local historian and author, and taught at Abingdon School.
On the death of Ernest Beesley at Christmas 1949, his three daughters, Gladys Barrett, Marjorie (Madge) Hammond and Phyllis Beesley , became partners with Oswald Barrett. David (b.1929), the son of Oswald and Gladys Barrett, joined the firm on 1 January 1950 having completed a training programme at Heelas (now John Lewis) of Reading. He was responsible for the introduction of the household linen and fabric departments and the display and publicity programmes. He became a partner in 1954. In 1956 he married Mollie Kerry (1930-2010) of Reading, who had been chief cashier at Heelas. She also became a partner and was later appointed company secretary. Is it coincidence that Ernest Beesley, Oswald Barrett and David Barrett all married young ladies who had retailing experience? Or just very good fortune!
Unfortunately Oswald suffered a heart attack in 1968 and he and Gladys decided to retire from active participation. It was also in the 1960’s that both Marjorie and Phyllis died and the firm was now totally in the hands of the Barrett family.
With time, trading patterns changed. Superstores appeared, and many wholesalers and family-controlled factories disappeared. It became increasingly difficult to purchase merchandise at competitive prices, and when a suitable offer was received the decision was reluctantly taken to dispose of the business, excepting only the school wear section that the purchaser did not wish to pursue. On almost the same day, as though to confirm the timeliness of the decision, the firm’s long-standing supplier, John Shannon & Sons, filed for bankruptcy.
In the autumn of 1984, Hodges Men’s Wear, a company based in South Wales, took over at 22 High Street. Later, it traded under the Dunn’s name, but went into liquidation in 1996. The shop is now a bookmaker’s; No. 24 became a pet shop and latterly a newsagent, but at the time of writing (2014) is empty.
David and Mollie Barrett continued the firm as a specialist school wear business from 26 High Street until late 1998, the company finally being ‘written off’ in 2001. It may be thought significant that 26 High Street is now a Funeral Directors; a fitting end perhaps to a business with a record of over 300 years of service to the people of Abingdon and the surrounding villages.
© AAAHS and contributors 2014
Apart from the references below, all other information is from the author’s family papers.
 A E Preston, St Nicholas Abingdon and other papers (Oxford, 1929) pp 124n, 123n; Berks Record Office, A/JQz11 fo. 71`
 Inflation, increases in wages and increases in the standard of living in the interim make it difficult to give exact equivalents. For more information and an outside link on the conversion and the difficulties associated with it see ‘Pounds, shillings and pence (£ s d)’ in the Glossary.