Lucky John Lewis. As company histories go, nobody could wish for a more skilful chronicler than Victoria Glendinning, who has a slew of biographies to her name. She calls her work an ‘intimate history’, and indeed it is full of domestic rows, curious relationships and the occasional suspicion of autism. What it lacks in exhilaration when it comes to the lives of some of the Lewis family members, it makes up for in its careful documentation of a remarkable retail experiment. We all know what John Lewis stands for, and most of us cheered when the brand won the Carrie Antoinette match on points.
Glendinning hits one maddening problem: John Lewis’s son Spedan, who chaired the company from 1928 until 1955, burned most of his father’s papers. But she is a sufficiently deft biographer to fill in many gaps through wide research, crisp prose and an ability to stand back and see the wood for the trees. She kicks off with a humdinger of a discovery: John Lewis’s father, a baker in Shepton Mallet, died in a workhouse two years after tuberculosis had killed his wife, leaving six orphaned children.
Born in 1836, John Lewis had little schooling and went to work in a draper’s shop at the age of fifteen. By the age of eighteen, he was working as a shop assistant in Bridgwater, dressed ‘in a high collar and a tail coat’, showing the customer ‘not