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Hebden Bridge Local History Society

William Morrisons: A Yorkshire Success Story

Speaker: Janet Senior

Friday, 25 February 2022

Their shops may be a familiar part of our townscapes, with their logo carrying the family name in instantly recognisable colours, but finding documentary information on the story of the growth of Morrisons supermarket from a humble enterprise to a major player proved surprisingly difficult for Janet Senior, an experienced user of archives.

She told Hebden Bridge Local History Society, there is almost nothing relevant in the archives, and the company itself seemed to have very little interest in preserving its history.

It is known that the company name that is now associated with Yorkshire, and specifically with Bradford, originated in Scotland. William Morrison was left an orphan at the age of 9, and eventually moved to Bradford where he became an apprentice grocer. He married Amelia Schoon a woman from a well off family, and in 1899 opened the first Morrison's shop, being recorded in the 1901 census as a butter and egg merchant, and ten years later as a provisions merchant.

However it was his second wife, Hilda Ryder, who became the driving force of the business. They expanded the number of shops and the range of produce they sold, though maintaining their market stalls. Their son, Kenneth Duncan Morrison, born in 1931, was a student at Bradford Grammar School, and seemed destined for a career as an accountant, though working for the family firm in his holidays. However as his father's health declined, his mother asked him to take over the firm. It was Ken Morrison, with the dynamic support of his mother, who took the shop to new heights.

One of his early innovations was to adapt his shop into a prototype supermarket of the kind seen in America. Adding an extra door, so that there was a clear route through; providing baskets so that customers could make choices; and positioning three tills at the exit point were improvements that proved very popular. When an old cinema was re-purposed and opened in grand style as a Morrisons Supermarket by the Coronation Street star Pat Phoenix, there was real excitement about these new ways of shopping. Throughout the sixties Morrisons continued to expand and build, maintaining a business model that the firm claims makes it special. It continues to own most of its food producers, and the packaging and transportation businesses on which it relies.

Janet's own memories of the company betray a real fondness for Ken Morrison, who nurtured a strong personal relationship with his staff. The relentless expansion brought trouble with the takeover of supermarket Safeways, a step too far which threatened the survival of the company.

However Sir Ken Morrison's human touch and retail instincts led him to the innovative idea of mimicking a market street in his stores, with food prepared and sold by fishmongers, butchers and bakers, which proved very successful. His success was celebrated in his life: he was appointed a CBE in 1990 and knighted in 2000, awarded honorary degrees, business awards and the freedom of the City of Bradford. The supermarket continues to thrive, though Janet felt it no longer had that personal touch, and certainly isn't going to provide those childhood memories of market stalls and the old Co-op divi number that some of the audience cherished.

The next talk to Hebden Bridge Local History Society is at 7.30 on Wednesday March 9th, at Hebden Royd Methodist Church. John Brooke will be exploring A Notable Epidemic – the outbreak of scarlet fever in late nineteenth century Halifax. All welcome; non-members £4.

Details of the talks programme, publications and of archive opening times are available on the History website and you can also follow the Facebook page.

With thanks to Sheila Graham for this report