I remember my grandfather as the archetypal grandfather, gentle ,congenial,white hair, wooden leg, walking with a stick and ‘tuffies’ (Nuttall’s Mintoes) as he called them in his pockets and some one who gave you everything you wanted and did whatever you wanted!
In 1916 my grandfather came back to his home town Nottingham from the First World War having served in one of the Robin Hood Battalions as part of the Forester Brigade of the Sherwood Foresters and had been one of the few survivors of the cruel Battle of the Somme. He had lied about his age and at the tender age of 16yrs, this country lad had signed up to fight for Queen and country and counted himself as very lucky to have survived. Although he had survived he had suffered a severe injury in his leg and it was necessary to have it amputated in the trenches.
But, when such large numbers of wounded men began returned from the Western Front, the existing system of limb provision couldn’t cope. In 1915, the crisis was partially addressed by the opening of Queen Mary’s Hospital at Roehampton, a hospital dedicated to fitting artificial limbs two years later,
A photograph of soldiers wounded during the Battle of the Somme, taken by an unknown photographer in 1916.
“Next to the loss of life, the sacrifice of a limb is the greatest sacrifice that a man can make for his country.”
The Times, 1920
Every night without fail he would pause and bow his head. I remember as a small child saying to my grandmother, “What’s granddad doing now?” and her telling me to be quiet whilst he said his prayers thanking God he is alive and praying for those who had fallen in the Great War. It was several years before I understood what she meant. I also puzzled why he would never let me watch him go upstairs and that was because his pride would not let me see him climb stairs on his bottom. I was fascinated by his artificial leg and watched him whilst he struggled with the huge leather straps around his waist and wondered what he as talking about when he talked about ‘ghost pains’ in his missing leg. He had developed severe bone infections and needed several follow up amputations to end up with a hind quarter amputation , which were carried out at St Mary’s Roehampton and then eventually he was fitted with a full length artificial limb. My mother had described the long journeys over many years, when from the age of nine she had accompanied him from Nottingham to have treatment.
In those days men were seen as the bread-winners and notions of masculinity meant they were expected to be physically and psychologically strong. Men who became soldiers were considered brave and manly; entering into war enabled a man to show his masculinity. Those disabled by war were therefore seen as different from disabled civilians. Many people felt that injured ex-servicemen were active sufferers and disabled civilians were passive sufferers. This opinion led to uneven healthcare funding and services between the civilian disabled and the injured ex-serviceman. Servicemen who lost a limb were entitled to artificial limbs through the state whereas this entitlement was not available for civilians.
He was not able to return to his apprenticeship as a cabinet maker as all machinery relied on using foot pedals but fortunately, he was taken in by Jesse Boot along with many others to be retrained and in his case as a bookbinder. A photo of gardening books that he bound > 90yrs ago.
When I pass by ‘Boot’s’ the chemist it is reminder of this remarkable man Jesse Boot who provided my grandfather and others with a chance to reclaim their lives with dignity by recognising their disabilities but providing a respectable alternative.
Jesse Boot was born in Hockley, an overcrowded, poor area of 19th Century Nottingham.
While Jesse was still a young child his father opened a small shop selling herbal remedies – medicines made from plants. The shop was on Goose Gate, a short distance away from the family home.
The plants for the medicines were collected by John and Mary Boot, who would then make the remedies from the plants.
At just 10 years old Jesse’s father died. His mother continued to run the family shop with help from family and friends. As Jesse grew up he began to help by collecting plants from the countryside.
Jesse left school aged 13 and began to do more work in the shops. He would serve behind the counter, prepare the remedies, count the money in the till and stack the shelves. Jesse learnt about running the shop and began to manage it with his mother. When Jesse was 21 he became a partner in ‘MARY & JESSE BOOT – HERBALISTS’ as the shop became known.
Jesse realised that the established chemists in Nottingham had a price-fixing policy. He therefore decided to sell his goods cheaper than the other chemists.
Jessie Boot was a devout Methodist who was deeply concerned about the poverty he saw in Nottingham. He believed that his lower prices would enable the poor to buy goods that previously they could not afford. Later Jesse renamed his shop The People’s Store. He advertised in the Nottingham Daily Express that the 128 items in his shop at Goose Gate were being sold at reduced prices. He also employed a bell-ringer to tour the streets of Nottingham informing the public of Boot’s policy.
Jesse’s talent for business was soon evident. He expanded the range of products he sold to include proprietary medicines and household necessities. He adopted a strategy of buying stock in bulk and selling his goods much cheaper than his competitors, advertising under the slogan “Health for a Shilling”. This campaign was a great success and within a month the takings of the shop had doubled.
At that time doctors made up their own prescriptions after diagnosing what was wrong with their patients. The cost of prescriptions were high and this often stopped the poor from receiving the medical help they needed. Boot decided to break this monopoly by employing E. S. Waring, a young chemist, to provide prescriptions. On average the cost of these prescriptions were less than half those charged by the doctors. This was a great success and helped Boot expand his business.
The shop changed its name again to ‘M & J Boot’ in 1877, and again in 1883 to ‘ Boot and Company Limited’. In the same year the shop was moved along the street into a much bigger store. The new store had room for a shop, offices, and a home above. The new store also had a unique addition – a lift to take customers to the first floor.
With the shop making lots of money Jesse Boot began to expand and open new shops around Nottingham. The following year, in 1884, Jesse Boot opened his first shop outside Nottingham – in Sheffield.
During a holiday and rest on the Island of Jersey, Jesse met Florence Rowe. They married and in 1889 they had their first child – John Boot.
Florence helped with the business, and introduced many new ideas to the stores. Instead of selling only remedies and medicines, Boots began to sell books, fancy goods and picture frames. The range of products sold also expanded beyond traditional chemists lines – from stationery, to silverware and picture framing, as well as the introduction of new services like Booklovers Libraries and Cafes in the larger stores.
Many of these new lines and services were fostered by Jesse’s wife, Florence, whom he had married in 1886 (they went on to have three children together – John, Dorothy and Margery). The growing retail side of the business was partnered by a growth in manufacturing of Boots own brand products and research into new pharmaceuticals and chemicals.
A new store was built in Pelham Street, Nottingham. This store was the pride of the business and allowed shoppers to shop in the winter evenings thanks to the use of a new idea – electric lights hanging down from the ceiling.
With lots of new shops being opened, Jesse needed a larger factory to make all of the medicines. In 1892 the manufacturing side of Boots moved to factories on Island Street. This site rapidly grew and soon was known as the Island Street works.
At the turn of the century Boots began to take over other chemists. Shops appeared all over the country, and Boots had become a nationwide company.
For Pure Drugs
For Qualified Assistants
For First-class Shops
For Reasonable Prices
For your Good Health
For our Moderate Profits
We minister to the comfort of the community in a hundred ways.”
Jesse Boot, 1897
“From modest beginnings we are gradually raising to a high pitch that average excellence of equipment and convenience for customers which are the noteworthy features of our establishments, in addition to the good quality of everything we sell.
Jesse Boot, 1898
Jesse and Florence took care of their staff as well. They organised regular trips and visits. Sometimes to the countryside for picnics, other times to the seaside. Florence also realised that some of the workers were arriving in the morning without having had breakfast, and so made sure that every worker had a hot cocoa before beginning work.
The wellbeing of their employees was very important to Jesse and Florence and they provided welfare, education, sports and social facilities for their growing retail and manufacturing workforce. Full time welfare professionals were employed and a surgery was established at the Island Street site to care for the health of employees. A Day Continuation School (later renamed Boots College) was opened to provide extended academic and vocational education for younger employees. Jesse and Florence enjoyed organising and hosting social events and outings for staff in the early days of the business – whether it was trips to the seaside or tea parties and musical concerts at their house on the banks of the River Trent. As the number of employees grew, they fostered and helped fund the establishment of numerous sporting and social clubs and societies, with the belief that healthy and happy employees would make Boots a happy and productive place to work.
I remember my grandparents and mother talking enthusiastically about the trips out. My mother described the trip to Skegness (a Lincolnshire sea-side resort) and how she had been embarrassed because my grandfather had removed his artificial leg (which was now a full hind quarter amputation following recurrent infections) and was diving into the sea from a diving board and people were all going to watch him.
Jesse Boot claimed,
“We are primarily comrades – and close comrades, moreover – in business; and this is no mean tie, for business, claiming as it does so much of our time and talents, is a highly important feature in our lives… If our labour is nothing to us but a means of procuring bread and butter, then our lives must be a poor thankless round of dull task work… while we are primarily business associates, our mutual interests are by no means restricted to business in any limited sense. Fellowship in recreation, fellowship in ideals, common hopes, common sympathies, and common humanity bind us together; and whatever fosters this happy union is valuable.”
The City of Nottingham also received generous gifts from Jesse Boot. He helped to rebuild the Albert Hall, destroyed by a fire, and also paid for a new organ to be installed. After the Crimean War Jesse built houses for the soldiers to live in.
In 1909 Jesse Boot was knighted for his hard work and became Sir Jesse Boot.
As he grew older he became ill, and suffered with arthritis, but continued to expand his business. By 1913 he had opened 560 shops around the country.
A photo of a shop in Hartlepool.
The running of the company became too difficult and in 1920 Boots was sold to an American for £2¼ million. In the same year Jesse Boot gave £50,000 to Nottingham General Hospital, and bought 20 acres of land along the Victoria Embankment – by the side of the River Trent – to build a memorial gate and playing fields.
In 1920 Sir Jesse was given the Freedom of the City by Nottingham.
Following this the same year Boots was taken over by the American, Louis K. Liggett of the United Drug Company and Jesse Boot sold his controlling interest for almost £2.5 million. Now aged seventy, he embarked on an ‘orgy’ of spending and in June 1920 offered £250,000 for a park on the Trent embankment.
In July he gave £50,000 to the Nottingham General Hospital, in September it was £1,650 towards a club for discharged soldiers and sailors, and in October it was £10,000 to endow professorship of sociology at the Congregational College on Forest Road West. Nottingham had long campaigned to get its own university and after the war a fresh campaign began.
The following year he bought Woodthorpe Grange, and gave it to the City. Woodthorpe Grange today is home to Nottingham City’s Sport, Culture and Parks Service, the maintenance depot for the local area’s ground maintenance team and the City’s nursery section.
He also gave ‘Highfields’ – an area of land he had bought previously – and £50,000 to begin the construction of Nottingham University. Jesse had been an admirer of the Cadburys at Bourneville and William Lever at Port Sunlight who had housed their workers in decent homes alongside purpose built factories and almost immediately after the end of the First World War, he bought the huge Highfields Estate with the intention of using the splendid wooded site to build another Bourneville. But after the American take-over of the company, it soon became apparent that United Drug were not going to take up Boot’s scheme for a new model town on the Highfields Estate, so he offered 35 acres of the Estate as a site for the University.
The remainder of the 220 acres he decided should be laid out as a pleasure park for the benefit of all in Nottingham. The project was also to include the construction of a £200,000 road through the Estate to provide a much-needed new route between Nottingham and Beeston. The road, University Boulevard, was raised above the level of the Trent floods by using spoil made available when the existing lake was much enlarged to create the present fifteen-acre boating lake.
In this public park, which was to have boating lake, pavilion and sports fields, Jesse Boot decided to add the largest inland swimming pool in Britain Highfields Lido.
Jesse Boot engaged a London architect, P. Morley Horder, to design the Trent Building on the University site and he was given the commission for the swimming pool. Until then, Morley Horder’s work for Boot had mainly been confined to designing the reproduction facades that Jesse Boot so favoured on the frontages of his shops. In his design for the Lido, the architect was concerned to ensure that the buildings around the pool should not lack visual interest. Drawing on the Roman style of architecture, he used red brick walling and pantile roofing and incorporated archways in front of the changing cubicles to break up the line of the buildings. The pool, a massive 330 feet by 75 feet, held over 750,000 gallons of water. The architect drew on a close source of water to fill it at minimal cost. A pipe was laid between the boating lake and the Lido and when water was required, it was drawn off from the lake and pumped into the pool. When the pool was emptied the water was pumped out into the nearby Tottle Brook.
During the Summer season, the water was changed in this way each week on a Sunday when the Lido was closed to the public. The architect’s proud boast was that the only water drawn from the town mains was that used for drinking and in the showers, washbasins and toilets.
The Lido first opened in August 1924 and local papers for the 15th of August announced that it was’ now open to swimmers who care to take their own costumes and towels’. My grandfather had learnt to swim at that pool aswell as dive off the boards with his one leg and had taken my mother and uncle regularly. I have to say as a child and teenager I spent many happy days swimming and having picnics there with my grandparents and family
Sir Jesse became ‘Lord Trent of Nottingham’ in 1928, but had become so ill he spent much of his time in Jersey and France. In 1931 he died.
In 1933 the Boots factories moved from Island Street to a new factory at Beeston. In the same year the 1,000th Boots store was opened in Galashiels, Scotland.
John Boot, Jesse’s son, bought the company back in 1933 and began to expand it further.
He had the same sentiments as his father and claimed,
“when we build factories in which it is a joy to work, when we establish pension funds which relieve our workers of fears for their old age, when we reduce the number of working days in the week, or give long holidays with pay to our retail assistant, we are setting a standard which Governments in due time will be able to make universal”W
John Boot, 1938
Following the Second World War, the company continued to expand its manufacturing and research capabilities and the creation of the National Health Service in 1948 led to a vast increase in dispensing. Self-service was introduced to stores in the 1950s and international export and manufacturing businesses were strengthened. More recent decades have seen the introduction of successful brands such as 17 cosmetics and Botanics, and new business ventures such as Boots Opticians.
The above photo shows Installation of John Campbell Boot, 2nd Baron Trent, as the 1st Chancellor of the new University of Nottingham, 3 May 1949, in the Albert Hall, Nottingham.
John died in 1956, leaving a company known around the world. Boots has continued to grow and grow, and still shares a close friendship with Nottingham and its people.