Joseph Hepworth (1834-1911)
Retail Pioneer
Mill Boy to Lord Mayor

Joseph Hepworth (1834-1911)Many people still remember Hepworth’s nation-wide chain of men’s outfitters, specialising in made-to-measure and off-the-peg suits, once the universal male uniform for office and professional work, and for weddings and funerals, all made in their own workshops. The firm was founded in 1864 by Joseph Hepworth and, like Montague Burton’s, became one of the great Leeds success stories in the wholesale manufacture of ready-made clothing.

Joseph Hepworth was a self-made man. Born in Lindley, near Huddersfield, in 1834, he started work when he was only ten years old as a mill boy, working ‘half-time’: six and a half hours a day, six days a week, for a wage of 1s 6d a week (15 pence). The working conditions were appalling, ‘not fit for a dog’, he said. He had almost no education – the idea of ‘half-time’ work for children of his age was to allow time for schooling, but this was not compulsory and the children like him were often too tired to study even if the opportunity existed. After a range of stultifying mill jobs he decided in 1864 to move to Leeds, by then the thriving hub of the regional economy with a strong tailoring tradition, to start his own clothing business, initially with his brother-in-law.

After only a year he struck out on his own, setting up a workshop to produce ready-made clothing. He struggled to survive but he persevered, expanded, and by 1881 his initial 12 employees had become 500. His eldest son Norris joined him and the firm became Joseph Hepworth & Son. They were the first of the clothing manufacturers to pioneer the development of a chain of retail shops to market the garments made in their workshops. Others followed their lead.  The shops, well-fitted and elegant, were designed to give the ordinary working man a taste of luxury as he bought his new suit and they proved a great success. By 1891 the firm had 107 shops across the country, and employed over 2,000 workers, mostly female, in its vast new factory, ‘Providence Works’, in Claypit Lane. Its success was based on high sales at low prices, but not at the expense of the workforce. Joseph Hepworth did not forget his own hard beginnings: he aimed to give his workers a living wage (women’s wages across the trade at this time were painfully low), and the firm’s workshops were viewed as a model of efficient mechanisation and good working conditions.

In 1888, at the height of his success, Joseph Hepworth used his new wealth to move from his terrace house in town to the leafy suburb of Headingley, to Headingley House, a grand mansion with eight reception rooms, twelve bedrooms, generous servants’ quarters, set in wooded grounds between Kirkstall Lane and Beckett Park (the house was demolished c1908 and the Langdales, Estcourts etc built over the land). He had come a long way now from his wretched start in life. He retired from active involvement in the business, but remained busy in public life as a Town Councillor (Liberal), with a particular interest in education, prompted by his own lack of opportunity – chairman of the Library Committee, president of the Mechanics’ Institute and a governor of the Yorkshire College. A lifelong teetotaller, he was a generous supporter of the Band of Hope and of his Methodist chapel. He stayed in Headingley House until the turn of the century, when he left Leeds first for Torquay (for health reasons) and then Harrogate. Respected as ‘a man of the people’ he was elected Lord Mayor of Leeds in 1906, when he aroused some protest by refusing to allow alcohol at mayoral functions, declaring that the money saved should be spent on feeding poor children: few could argue with that. He died in 1911, and his life provided the obituary-writers with a model ‘rags to riches’ story.

The firm he founded still survives, as the retail group ‘Next’.

Eveleigh Bradford
November 2009