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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Tyler

Oldest businesses

'The oldest ......' is often the starting line of a quiz question. it can also be the start of a heated dispute.

The photo on the left I took in 2018 in Brighton, near to The Brighton Pavilion, on which the building firm Durtnells of Kent were working. Look closely and you can see the date of the firm's establishment proudly proclaiming 1591, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Very sad to report the firm is now no more. It over reached itself with the Pavilion Project and the neighbouring work on The Brighton Corn Exchange. So a firm that had existed for over 400 years, and had passed down through thirteen generations of the same family, bit the dust in 2019.

There are few businesses in operation today that can predate Durtnells, yet there are some. The sixteenth century saw both the ancient universities, Cambridge and Oxford, establish their Presses which still function today. Cambridge Press was founded in 1534, and Oxford's in 1586. Cambridge's first publication occurred in 1584, making the Press the oldest in the world. Oxford beat Cambridge in terms of the first book published although this was before the Press was officially set up. The first Oxford printing was in 1478, very soon after William Caxton had brought the Printing Press to London.

Earlier than these three businesses was The Royal Mail's claim to a date of 1516. This is slightly pushing it because the title of Master of The Posts given to Brian Tuke by King Henry VIII only related to royal (government) mail. General public mail had to wait until 1635.

A year before The Royal Mail's claim a Mr Balson opened a butcher's shop in the Dorset town of Bridport. RJ Balson and Sons still trade in the town today and again like Durtnells the business has remained in the hands of one family for, in their case, over 500 years. King Henry VII was on the throne the year they first opened their doors.

Scotland can claim to beat all these dates with Aberdeen's Shore Porters Society set up in the year 1498 It is also the first example of a co-operative business. They trade today as an international removals firm.

Can the 15th century be beaten for the date of the start of a business? It seems unlikely but in fact it can. The Bingley Arms in Bardsey, near Leeds claims to have been in business since around 905. Although it was originally called The Priests Inn because of the large number of clerics breaking their journey there between Kirkstall Abbey and St Marys Abbey in York. It was bought by lord Bingley in 1780, hence the name it trades under today.

But, fanfare in the distance, the record goes to The Royal Mint established by King Alfred around 886.

A frequent question in pub quizzes is 'which is the oldest brewery?' The answer is Shepherd Neame in Faversham, Kent. It is still in the middle of the town where it has been since 1698. However, there is clear evidence, according to the form's historian, that it can trace its origins back to The Middle Ages. It would appear that the medieval monks of Faversham were brewing and selling their produce centuries before the date of 1698. We have a written record from 1525 that William Castlock, the brother of the last Abbot, was exporting and importing beer at that date. The brewery was situated in the Abbey's brewhouse. One interesting historical anecdote is that it was forced to shut down for a short time in 1648 by order of the local Puritan and Parliamentary supporting Faversham Council.

By the time we reach the late 17th century and 18th century shopping and retail in general is taking off with the Late Stuart and Georgian middle class anxious to spend. There is no better example than London, of course, the centre of the retail trade.

In 1676, Lock and Co was founded and began to sell hats in St James. It still does. The same year saw Hoare's Bank open; ready cash available to buy, buy, and buy. Just before the century ended the wine merchants, Berry Bros and Rudd, also opened their premises in St James.

The 18th century saw two famous London shopping landmarks open their doors for the first time. In The Strand, Twinings Tea House opened. Twinings has a further claim to fame as owning the oldest logo still in use. In the year they opened, 1707, 100 grams of tea would have cost the discerning shopper over £150 in today's money.

The same year of 1707 Fortnum and Mason began their operation in Piccadilly. The historical anecdote I like best concerning the shop is that they invented the Scotch Egg for travellers to take with them on coach journeys - the precursor of The British Rail sandwich. However, others claim to be the inventors, especially the fishermen of Whitby. I am minded to take the view that Fortnums adapted, by removing the spicy elements, an Indian snack brought back by those who had served in the sub-continent.

At the other end of the century in 1797 the oldest bookshop, Hatchards, opened. Now sadly owned by Waterstones. A year later, 1798, Rules Restaurant opened in Maiden Lane, off Covent Garden, Most famous for the meetings between The Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, and Lily Langtry. You can now privately dine upstairs in the very room that the two lovebirds 'dillied and dallied'. Quite something to put you off your soup I found!

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1 Comment

Mar 27, 2021

Hi William:

Just a note from Toronto to let you know how much l enjoy your brilliant lectures and the passion with which you deliver them..

I'm very fond of the British tv series “Digging for Britain” which gives me a lot of contexts most of it can be prehistoric.

Therefore, a really get the feel Britain.

Also, l enjoy the history of Winston Churchill, the greatest Statesman ever. and l note there is a bronze of him on the site of our city hall..

I was 9 years old at the end of the war but he was and still is my hero.

Your current lectures on the war are always captivating.

Thanks so much.

Elliott Posen

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