Store wars – the first time around

WITH all the controversy surrounding the impending arrival of Asda to Cleckheaton, we thought we'd delve into the archives to remind readers of the last time supermarkets were dominating the headlines.

Chris Midgley has loaned us a series of reports and accounts books from the old Hillards company. He had worked at their Spen Lane head office and when they were taken over by Tesco, he retrieved the copies from the skip.

They provide fascinating reading, documenting the company’s history and also charting the protest that the hostile takeover from Tesco provoked.

The takeover came in May 1987 after a bitter battle which had begun that March when Tesco put in a 175m offer for the 101-year-old Spen company.

The board, its workers and the public mounted a desperate campaign – Hillards, Not For Sale – to keep the chain of stores independent, but it was to no avail.

Chairman Peter Hartley waged a skilful and robust bid to persuade shareholders not to sell to Tesco – and on May 1 the final offer of around 220m was rejected.

Their celebrations were short-lived, however, as just a fortnight later the campaigners had to accept defeat when the major institutions with shares in Hillards accepted the offer.

Their

decision meant Tesco owned 55 per cent of the shares, with effective control of the company.

Mr Hartley, grandson of the company’s founder, and three non-executive directors resigned on May 18 and Tesco took over the reins.

In September that year 150 workers were made redundant from the Spen Lane offices, to be followed in October by another 120. The building was sold to Maccess.

It was a sad end for the company which had only just celebrated its centenary.

It was founded by John Wesley Hillard who opened a small grocery and provision shop in Northgate, Cleckheaton – now Wright’s Property Managers.

“Lion Stores, Northgate: Pure granulated sugar for preserving – 2s 8d per stone” was the first public information that Hillard had started in business.

The five-line advertisement costing 10d appeared in the Cleckheaton Guardian and Spen Valley Herald on Friday July 3, 1885, and was the start of over a century of service.

Hillard himself was born in Somerset and after leaving school, went to London to work in the tea trade. After his seven-year apprenticeship he went to France to manage a grocery store in Paris, later moving to Ireland managing a group of three stores in Tralee.

When he was 28 he borrowed 50 and bought an established shop in Cleckheaton to where he moved with his wife Sarah Ellen and their young family.

Within five years he had opened four more stores in the surrounding villages all operating as Lion Stores – named after the Lion Chambers which housed the original shop.

Twenty years after moving to Cleckheaton he had 14 stores and in 1922 he and his two sons Jack and Charles, acquired a chain of 13 stores trading as Jubbs. Further expansion took place with another group of shops known as Park Stores. By 1935 - the year John Hillard died - there were 60 shops.

Always keen to move with the times, the company was one of the first to expand into the new “supermarket” trade - and its Wakefield store was ranked as one of the largest in Yorkshire when it opened in 1968.

It was around then that it decided to change its name to Hillards.

By the 1980s there were stores across Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Lancashire, London and the South East. The centenary report, published in 1985, said: “It now has some of the most modern stores in the country; many with an in-store bakery, some with a petrol station and one a cafe – a far cry from the store of 100 years ago, but one thing is still common and that is the determination to provide quality, value and service at least equal to that of any of its competitors.”

Little did they know that within two years, they would have been swallowed up by one of those very competitors.

And even more poignant today is that as Cleckheaton town centre faces dramatic change, the arrival of the new Asda superstore will also mark the end of that very first shop – from where the Hillards empire began.

margaret.heward@ ywng.co.uk