Nostalgia with Margaret Watson: A true story of rags to riches

William Morrison was a proud Dewsbury lad

By Margaret Watson
Sunday, 29th August 2021, 6:30 pm
EARLY DAYS: One of the first  Morrison grocery stores in Bradford, founded by William Morrison, who was born in Dewsbury.
EARLY DAYS: One of the first Morrison grocery stores in Bradford, founded by William Morrison, who was born in Dewsbury.

Morrisons supermarket has been much in the news recently with multi-billion takeover bids made by American companies.

It all seems a far cry from the small company which was set up in Bradford by William Morrison who, few people realise, was born in Dewsbury and proud of it.

William’s story is a true rags to riches one which his late son, Sir Ken Morrison, was happy to relate to me some years ago.

Sign up to our daily Dewsbury Reporter Today newsletter

William was born in Chickenley in 1875, one of six children, who were sadly split up and dispersed to different families who adopted them.

Little is known regarding his natural parents or those who adopted him at the age of seven, but he always remembered them saying: “We have four – so another won’t make any difference.”

William, who never changed his name to theirs, had a brother called Percy who went to Canada, and another called Alexander, but little is known of them.

His first job was as an apprentice grocer in Bradford, which meant he had to leave Dewsbury to live on the job, receiving 2/6d a week plus his keep. Although he had to leave Dewsbury to live in Bradford, he never forgot his home town where he always felt his roots were and visited it regularly.

After serving his apprenticeship, he worked for a wholesale egg and butter merchant, and in 1899 was able to set up his own business as a wholesaler and retailer.

In 1919, tragedy struck William when his wife, Amelia, died shortly after childbirth, but two years later he was to marry Hilda Ryder, from Hull, who, like him, had also been adopted.

By this time, Wm Morrison (Provisions) Ltd had become an established company, and was a familiar name throughout the area.

During the Depression, the business fell on hard times and they had to start all over again, this time with stalls in Dewsbury as well as Bradford Markets.

William’s second wife, Hilda, was a super saleswoman, who knew how to pitch and attract a crowd, an important and indispensable part of the business.

She also had six growing children to look after and did all her own cooking and baking, all in a coal oven and on an open fire.

Sir Ken, the youngest of William’s six children, and the only boy, helped his father in the business from an early age, and regularly stood on their market stall in Dewsbury with his parents.

He remembered many of the stallholders, who stood alongside them, including Talk of the Town and Wilby’s drapers, also shops nearby such as Bickers and J&Bs.

Sir Ken recalled how he used to go with his dad to watch cricket matches at Chickenley and also up to Crown Flatt to watch Dewsbury’s rugby league team play. He remembered particularly Dempster Lister’s Cafe which he frequented and recalled how he got his father to try every one of their 15 different sauces.

William Morrison was 57 when his son Ken was born and he never wanted him to go into the business, but fate decreed otherwise.

Ken went to Bradford Grammar School, leaving at 18 and going straight into the army to do his National Service.

“Dad always wanted me to have a profession, a job where they charged clients in guineas. He used to say – one shilling for taking the job on and £1 for knowing how to do it.”

While doing his National Service, Ken received a phone call from his mother saying his father was ill and unlikely to return to the business.

She said if he wanted to take it over he could but if he didn’t, she might as well sell it. He had to make up his mind fairly quickly and decided to give it a go.

Sir Ken had always helped in the family business from the age of five because his dad’s warehouse had been at the back of their home in Bradford.

The business which William Morrison set up had always been a family business, founded in 1899, initially as an egg and butter merchant in Bradford.

When his only son Ken took over in 1952, he was soon joined by Ken Blundell, husband of Ken’s sister, Joan, and Keith Naylor, husband of his sister Barbara.

Sir Ken, a modest man, always refused to take credit for the company’s stunning success over the years.

He said: “I have never worked on my own. I have always worked with others. I have been fortunate to have worked with some wonderful people.”

Shortly after his father’s death in 1956, they opened their first supermarket “Victoria” in Bradford, and in 1967 it became a public limited company and changed its name to Wm Morrison Supermarkets Ltd.

The company’s impressive headquarters in Bradford were named ‘Hilmore House’ in memory of his mother Hilda who had worked so hard in those early days.

Sir Ken was awarded the CBE in 1990 for services to the retail industry, and was later knighted in the millennium New Year’s Honours list.

At the end of my interview with Sir Ken he said he regretted his parents had not lived to see the company develop as it had done.

Sir Ken, who died in 2017, was a man who never forgot his working-class roots and who returned regularly to Dewsbury, the home of his father.

He told me that when he read the sporting results every week he always looked first to see how Dewsbury had fared.

The old photograph above shows one of the first Morrison grocery stores in Bradford, founded by William Morrison, who was born in Dewsbury. It was taken long before the family branched out into the world of supermarkets.

You can email your recollections of Dewsbury in years gone by to: [email protected]