The Public Benefit Boot Company

This week we welcome guest blogger Dave Bean, who has spent years researching and writing about the Public Benefit Boot Company, which had Northern and Southern divisions. He has recently donated his collection to Leeds Central Library and it can be found in the Local and Family History Library. Here he tells us about the formation of the company and what happened next.

PUBLIC BENEFIT BOOT COMPANY, NOT ONE… (To Benefit the Public)… BUT TWO

When friends unite they become unstoppable and that sums up pretty much what happened. Typically Victorian, staunch in their Methodist beliefs and of remaining true and loyal to each other, they followed an agreed master plan. Architects of this grand scheme were William Henry Franklin and his pa Richard.

Their story begins in the early 1870’s, when they chose Leeds, to first learn the mechanics of the boot trade. To begin with, as bootmakers and factors, along with experienced friends, they made a hard and fast living from ‘buying in’ and ‘selling off’. Working the markets of Leeds and Bradford, to reap valuable knowledge and experiences, until it was time to move upwards and forwards on a route to a national retail network as quickly as possible.

Essentially the formation of the Public Benefit Boot Company was very much a family affair, with five Lennard brothers from Leicester, who had come into money from the ‘shedding’ of their old Woollen Mill assets and ventured into boot making. Joining them were the Franklins who likewise, had also come into money from the sale of land and a large village shop. The Kirby Brothers were bootmakers and shop owners; the Dickinson brothers were from Bramley and became boot manufacturers; Benjamin Hunn, a relative of the Franklins, was a wealthy chemist looking to enter into new business; Mr. Goddard, a successful, industrial chemist would sit on both boards, and finally the Harker clan bootmakers and close relatives of the Franklins. All keen to muscle into the lucrative Boot industry, oozing enthusiasm, experience, knowledge, prepared to put their hard earned money into the venture.

In the year 1875, William Henry Franklin briefed everyone, announcing the time was nigh and arranged a meet up in Hull (where his family had now settled) to review his choice of the all-important very first shop in Prospect Street. This was close to a major thoroughfare and the railway station, where their merchandise would arrive by train. It was sited near the ‘Brighton Arcade’ and this doctrine would serve all of them well as they built up their retailing empire. Choosing sites close to monuments, arcades and markets were particularly favoured, as well as large footfall attractions such as infirmaries, as with the Hull branch.

Public Benefit Boot & Shoe Company, Prospect Street, Hull. Copyright Dave Bean.

Inspection of the humble shop over and approved, the gathering rendezvoused at Ye Olde White Harte. Stale smelling tobacco smoke presented a thick, dirty film swirling in the dimly lit rooms, seemingly penetrating both clothing and skin. A wide staircase led on to the ’plotting room’, hired for privacy, on the upper floor, whereupon there was yet more smoke from pipe, cigarettes and cigars, as each took his place at the heavy and longitudinal oak table. William and his pa Richard headed the meeting armed with a giant, leather map of Great Britain and a small box of boot tacks.

The drinks flowed, the plan was scrutinized, and boot tacks were pushed into the map, each to represent future shops initially pending, around the ‘spine’ of the country. Suggestions for improvement came thick and fast and by the end of it an amicable working agreement had been thrashed out. That same night, William Franklin formed the first of the partnerships, with Henry Lennard – a necessary partnership if goals were to be achieved. Henry Lennard would go on to become one of the lynchpins of the Southern end of the national route to retail fulfilment. This in turn would allow the Public Benefit Boot Company to elbow their way into the ‘Big Boys club’ of boot making giants and become “the talk of the Trade”

That first shop was meagre, with few creature comforts, as merchandise arrived from Leeds and was then delivered by railway carter. The crates and barrels of undressed boots, no frills boots, were strong and cheap. These sold like hot cakes with no credit allowed, sold on a cash only basis in Hull, the third port of England. It wasn’t long before extensions and more shops were quickly added – the journey was underway. William, Henry and Richard worked incessantly to ensure success. More often than not the owner or manager would have living quarters on the upper floor of a branch, hours were long and particularly Saturday, when workers were paid, meant a 7.30pm finish in the evening.

Once Hull was established, Richard Franklin was left in control, leaving both William and Henry Lennard to strike out and begin sourcing and opening new branches. Henry left for Bristol in 1878, after ending his partnership with William. William also busied himself by touring Yorkshire, opening many new branches.

It was, without doubt, pre-ordained that two bustling and important ports of Hull and Bristol would be pivotal for Public Benefit Boot companies, both Northern and Southern, to advance their potential, national network of multiple retail branches. One important change in the plans though was made when Leeds, a more centrally based city, was appointed the Northern headquarters. As each director took up his allotted territory  we see lots of other branches appearing across the country. Many began as a franchise arrangement, stemming from and using an established boot shop, as a way of testing the waters. It is also true to say, those same boots at the same, fixed price of 10/6 appeared in every branch opened across the country.

Next decade huge emporiums began popping up – Nottingham being the first in 1880, erected by the established Harker family of bootmakers. Billed as the epitome of comfort with separate entrances for gents, ladies and children, lavish fittings, carpets and  comfortable seats. Shopping for footwear had now become an event – a pleasant affair and a far cry from that first, lowly branch in Hull less than five years before. 

William Franklin was particularly active and successful in Yorkshire, where he formed other partnerships, a man ahead of his time. He and good friend Henry Lennard spearheaded a deal, an alliance called the ‘Anglo American Public Benefit Company’ as early as 1879. They took advantage of cheap ‘ready-made’ leather uppers and footwear from an overburdened American market suffering a “down turn’. This was the time to progress and enhance turnover, swell profits, selling from market stalls and warehouses and as seen in London and Bristol with Henry Lennard direct from the gates of his factories.

Progress was rapid, but not everyone was happy, and the company attracted unwanted attention from the giant Freeman Hardy & Willis. Horns were locked, the two Public Benefit boot companies, Northern and Southern, stood firm. It was particularly in places like Leeds where evidence shows what Freemans were ‘up to’. Eventually, Freeman Hardy & Willis realised there was no profit to be had from such direct confrontation and it ended.

Benefit Footwear shop, corner of Lands Lane, 1956. Copyright Leodis.net

Whoever dreamed up their company trademark either bordered on insanity or genius, as it amounted to an actual eight feet by four feet leather boot, with a door and compartments for both driver and parcels of boots. The whole boot was placed onto a dray to be pulled by a pony. Hull was first to have one erected with a stable and shed big enough to store it, in what we believe was an area known as Trippett. Bristol was next in 1883 and others followed – Penzance, Derby, Cambridge, Birmingham, Nottingham – were all known to have this large contraption which was loathed by the authorities for being cumbersome, often accusing the company of putting an advertising device on the roads. This was illegal but the company argued it was a delivery cart!!This trademark was used up to at least 1901. As for the original sketched trademark numbered 31545 this is available to see at Leeds Library and archives of trademarks and patents.

1883 Public Benefit Boot and Shoe Company boot. Image courtesy of Dave Bean.

The ‘Boot’ was exploited and used on lamps, carrier bags, awnings, signboards and even painted onto the side of buildings.

Today we would view the idea of a large boot wandering through cities and towns as eccentric at the very least but, fantastic as it now seems, the Leeds based company invented another advertising boot, this time an oversized boot, placed over the head of an employee who would tour the streets of Leeds in the 1950’s advertising Benefit Boots. Outlandish or eccentric? However it is to be described, they were unusual and bold ideas. By 1897 the Northern entity incorporated for the third and last time, as all seven shareholders held a combined presence in 37 major cities and towns adding up to a total of 51 shops. The Southern entity now led by Thomas Joseph Lennard was also progressing well.

An attempt to merge the two entities in 1904 lasted until 1908 when Lennard, who proclaimed himself to be chairman and M.D. of both Northern and Southern divisions, found to his dismay it was doomed to failure. William Franklin retired, his health failing, and his brother George resigned. However, both sold their shareholdings to allow Lennard to play ‘catch up’. Why?  The Northern company from Leeds presented well over 100 branches. Lennards’ Southern company fell considerably short of that figure. The ‘sell out’ by William of his Yorkshire branches to Thomas Joseph Lennard levelled the playing field. Whilst the absolute aim was always to merge the two entities operating under the same name, Lennard was seen as the ‘enemy within’. For four years during Lennards’ control trouble brewed with resignations and oustings of Northern directors.

Northern Mangers picnic at Roundhay Park, Leeds, 1927. Image courtesy of Dave Bean.

It would take another decade at least though to finally wrench themselves apart because of complications. The Northern board set about buying back the branches sold by Franklin. Lennard had to change the name on his shop fronts to Lennards Ltd or ‘Lennards Corner’. Not easy when taking into consideration the difficulties posed by WW1.

Overall they were bosom friends with the same goals for almost four decades. Despite the rift both sides had profited handsomely from the concept of two Public Benefit Boot Companies, Southern (Bristol) and Northern(Leeds) racing to form the first National Multiple branch network. Both also reaped  benefits during the global conflicts, particularly in WW2 when enemy bombers blasted cities and towns. Freeman Hardy & Willis and other major companies lost scores of branches as their policy was to concentrate on building up branches in the large cities with large populations. Lennards and ‘Benefit footwear” as they came to be known, suffered slight in comparison.   

The Public Benefit Boot Company collection can be viewed in the Local and Family History Library at classmark LQ 685.310092 BEA. It comprises separate volumes on the Northern and Southern branches, A-Z of staff, newspaper reports, photographs and postcards.

A book on the company was published in 2004 – Well Heeled: the Remarkable Story of the Benefit Boot Company by Brian Seddon and Dave Bean and can be found at Y Q 338.76 SED.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.