David Lewis (1823-1885)

by Saul Marks

David Lewis

David Lewis was born David Levy in London, the son of Wolfe Levy, a Jewish merchant. David had at least one brother, who emigrated to Australia in the 1840s. In 1839, he moved to Liverpool to work for Benjamin Hyam & Co, a firm of tailors and outfitters. Within 18 months, he was appointed manager of the Liverpool branch and, in 1842, he was placed in charge of opening new branches in Scotland and Ireland and supervising existing branches.

Lewis started his own business at 44 Ranelagh Street, Liverpool, in 1846, selling men’s and boys’ clothing. Most of the clothes were made in his own workshop, as was common at the time, and he also designed new clothes, particularly knickerbocker suits. His customers were mainly working class, and had not been able to afford tailoring until that point. 

On 6 September 1856, he married Bertha Cohen, daughter of Rev Raphael Isaac Cohen, of Dover.

Lewis established strong ethics at the outset, which would be the foundation of his businesses: he refused to haggle; he would fix a low price and stick to it; he did not give credit; he was always willing to exchange unsatisfactory goods; he never borrowed money; and he always fed his profits back into the business. In 1859, he opened new premises on Bold Street – a more fashionable area –he started selling London and Paris women’s fashions in 1864. While his new ventures were taking off spectacularly, Lewis was extending the original Ranelagh Street premises, eventually buying and merging five adjacent properties and adding a clock tower (now a Liverpool landmark). He continued to add departments, including women’s shoes (1874) and tobacco (1879).

In 1877, Lewis opened a new shop in Basnett Street, and called it Bon Marché, specialising in women’s fashions and novelty items. Lewis kept Bon Marché completely separate from his main store, and its clientele was very different. Its attractions even included a model of the Strasbourg Cathedral clock!

In 1880, Lewis opened a large, purpose-built store on Market Street in Manchester, with six departments. Other departments were later added, including a grocery department, which delivered twice a day to the suburbs. In the early 1880s, Lewis also began to sell tea, in response to the rapid increase in its consumption in working class families, and his 2-shilling tea became famous nationwide. Another well-known product was velveteen, and that department was the largest in the Manchester store, spawning a large mail-order section. The store soon required physical extension and, by 1885, there were seven floors.

Despite its enormous success, the Lewis story was not without its disappointments. In 1884, a small shop opened at 15 Waingate in Sheffield, selling tea, and soon expanded to sell products such as velveteen and cigars. However, the depression in the cutlery trade meant that Sheffield was no longer the prosperous city it was, and the shop closed in 1888. 

One major success was the enormous Birmingham branch of Lewis’s, which opened in 1885 on Corporation Street, which focussed on female customers.

Lewis was always aware of the importance of advertising and used it well. In 1869, he began publication of ha’penny memorandum books, with cover advertising and inserts. In 1880 and 1881, he spent 10% of the gross sales of the Manchester store on advertising and, in 1882, he launched a series of “Penny Readings”. He even turned bad publicity on its head in 1881: some rival Manchester shopkeepers were suing him for obstructing the market square, so he printed 100,000 copies of his story of the trial and offered one to every householder in Manchester! Shortly before he died, he even chartered the famous haunted and ailing steamship the Great Eastern for a year, and arranged for it to be anchored in the Mersey estuary as part of the Liverpool International Exhibition of 1886. It was used as a social centre and was a huge success.

David Lewis died on 4 December 1885 at his home in Liverpool, after a long illness, leaving an estate of just over £125,000. He had created the largest department store in Liverpool, on the corner of Ranelagh Street and Renshaw Street (which still exists today), catering for the working classes of the north of England, and had branches in a number of other cities. He and Bertha had no children, but Louis Cohen, Bertha’s nephew (who was born in Australia, and married Lewis’s niece, Mary Levy), succeeded him as head of the business.

Lewis also set up the David Lewis Trust, for charitable purposes in Liverpool and Manchester. His executors developed the David Lewis Northern Hospital and, in 1906, the David Lewis Hotel and Club Association was founded, as a neighbourhood centre in the Liverpool docklands. Lewis also left a lasting tribute to Princes Road synagogue when, in 1875, he donated the uniquely ornate bimah (reading desk), replacing the original wooden one, which was seen as out of keeping with rest of the interior, when the synagogue was built in 1874. He had served as Junior Treasurer in 1865-67 and Senior Treasurer in 1867-68. 

http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/49320 (subscription required)
http://www.jgsgb.org.uk/download/LibraryList.doc (available via Google)

Other Sources
- Briggs, A & Lewes, B (1956), “Friends of the People: the Centenary History of Lewis’s”, Batsford, London. No ISBN.
- Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain library holdings 655 COH Fog1 & 655 COH Fog2.

Grave References
David Lewis (né Levy; 1823-1885): A 18.04
Bertha Lewis (née Cohen, his wife; 1832-1896): A 18.05
Rev Raphael Isaac Cohen (Bertha’s father; 1803-1865): A 07.14
Theresa Otterbourg (née Cohen, Bertha’s sister; 1828-1909): A 18.03