Founded 1946, by Geoffrey Beard

Stourbridge Historical Society


Trevor Sidaway, the new President of Stourbridge Historical Society, welcomed 78 members and 12 visitors and wished everyone a Happy and Prosperous New Year. He introduced the speaker Peter Bates who proceeded to tell The Story of Woolworths.

 Frank Winfield Woolworths was born in 1852 in Rodman New York. He was fascinated by buildings from a young age took a book keeping course on leaving school. He had a poor start in his early business career leaving both Augsbury and Moore and Adam Bushnell as a failure. He was given to taking to his bed and sobbing for weeks when things were difficult.  When he married Jennie Creighton, he asked Moore to reinstate him. Moore sent him to manage a small store which failed.

Astonishingly he persuaded Moore to lend him $300 to open a store in Utica but that failed too. He then had the notion that location was important and opened a store in Lancaster which was a great success and took $120 on the first day. His brother Sumner suggested selling a range of goods which would be sold at 10 cents in addition to those sold at 5 cents. Peter explained that this was a winning formula.

Frank frequently used family and friends to run his ever-growing number of stores. He toured the country for good quality stock and determined never to borrow money again. He had managers but he was always the boss. He introduced the idea of the ‘loss lead’ and insisted that all counters were highly polished and staffed by pretty girls.  

In 1894 he made his first trip to Europe and by 1895 Woolworth’s made its first $1million by 1900 it was $5 million in 1901. He developed a love of the good life and his health suffered as a result. He had a lifelong fear of Dentists.  In 1901 he moved his family to a mansion in New York City.  In 1911 an amalgamation of stores formed the F W Woolworth Corporation. In 1911 he bought a shop in Church Street in Liverpool. 24,000 people queued when the shop opened and the first day’s takings were worth £48,000 in today’s money. F W Woolworth introduced what became known as Pick and Mix; self-served sweets. This retail method is still used by Tesco, Asda and Morrisons. By 1948 there were 770 Woolworth stores in Great Britain.

Peter showed a photo the Woolworth Tower which Frank had built. Completed in 1913 and the tallest building in the world for 18 years it was paid for in cash. Frank saw it has his legacy. Frank’s second daughter Edna married Franklyn Hutton and they had a daughter named Barbara. Tragically Edna killed herself on discovering Franklyn’s infidelity. Barbara was effectively brought up by hired hep became very wild. The directors of Woolworths bought her stock which made her immensely wealthy. A succession of 7 failed marriages and costly divorces meant that she ‘got through’ $50million and when she died left only $3,00. By 1997 Woolworth in USA had been taken over by a rival and closed their remaining stores. In Britain in 2008 Woolworth banks called in their debts and the company ceased to trade.

Peter said that F W Woolworth had built a multimillion-pound empire from borrowed money and an idea. He made over 100 of his part time owners/ managers millionaires. He died in 1919 and left $78 million dollars to his family but nothing to charity.

Trevor commented that many were sad to see Woolworth’s disappear from our High Streets and thanked Peter for his interesting talk and invited questions.

The next meeting will be 20th February when Ned Williams will speak on Stourbridge’s Famous Mrs Patch and other Mysteries. All are welcome.