NOSTALGIA: Founder of Morrisons empire born in town

RETAIL GIANT: An old photograph of one of the first Morrison grocery stores in Bradford.
RETAIL GIANT: An old photograph of one of the first Morrison grocery stores in Bradford.

MORRISON’S supermarket may have started in Bradford but its founder, William Morrison, was born in Dewsbury and proud of it.

The recent sad death of his son Sir Ken Morrison reminded me of this family’s strong link with Dewsbury.

Margaret Watson.

Margaret Watson.

Sir Ken, who I interviewed some years ago, told me of his father’s love of Dewsbury and how he always felt his roots lay here.

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 never changed his name to theirs, and he had a brother called Percy who went to Canada, and another called Alexander.

William’s first job was as an apprentice grocer in Bradford but he had to leave Dewsbury to live on the job, receiving 2/6d a week plus his keep.

Living in Bradford, however, didn’t keep him from visiting his home town regularly, and later he was to start his own retail and wholesale grocery business with market stalls in Dewsbury and Bradford.

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.

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

Sir Ken’s memories of Dewsbury were warm and he spoke of the affection he had for the town and how delighted he was when Dewsbury Market won “Market of the Year” some years ago.

He never forgot Dempster Lister’s Cafe which he frequented and recalled how they sold 15 different sauces and how he got his father to try each one of them.

He said: “My memory of Dewsbury was it was never an affluent town. I remember many of the people were mill workers on low wages.”

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,” recalled Sir Ken. “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 Hilda saying his father was ill and unlikely to return to the business.

She told him 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.

In 1967 it became a public limited company listed on the London Stock Exchange 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 recalled his mother being 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 recalled: “She used to say she could make a meal from a dishcloth. We’d finish our meal and she’d immediately start cooking another for next day. She’d then put it in the oven and let it cook overnight.

Sir Ken was awarded the CBE in 1990 for services to the retail industry, and was later knighted in the millennium new year honours list.

He told me that he regretted his parents had not lived to see the company develop as it had done.

With Sir Ken’s death, I believe Dewsbury has lost a good friend, a man who never forgot his working class roots, and who returned regularly to Dewsbury, the home of his father.

And when he read the sporting results every week he always looked first to see exactly how Dewsbury had fared.

My interview with Sir Ken was one of the most memorable during my 53 years journalistic career, and I feel a deep sense of gratitude that I got to meet this great man.