Tracking down a tailor – researching historic Leeds businesses

A history placement student’s perspective 

Photograph of the uniform worn by the Lord Lieutenant of Yorkshire

Leeds tailors John Wales Smith & Sons made
Lord Lieutenant of Yorkshire’s  uniform

During my time at Abbey House Museum I was asked to research the history of various Leeds businesses. For this I used many fantastic resources, such as the massive collection of street directories. 

These allowed me to track the businesses and find when they first opened and closed, changed hands or address. I was able to answer quite a few of these questions but some companies were more difficult to find in the directories.

One problem that I faced was that some directories are missing leaving gaps in the dates I had found. I found that you could be closely following a successful business when it would disappear and I wouldn’t be able to track the exact date that it closed down.

Another resource that I used was I used this website to find information on individuals such as business owners. This sometimes gave me more in depth detail such as who founded the business or why a business shut down, such as death of the owner. 

This receipt revealed that John Wales Smith and
Sons were undertakers as well as tailors
Case Study: John Wales Smith & Sons

One business that I found interesting was John Wales Smith and Sons Ltd, the tailors who made the uniform for Sir Edward Baines when he became Lord Lieutenant of Yorkshire in the 1890s (see above). I discovered that they were more than simple tailors, they were also undertakers (see right). 

I found an advertisement in Leeds and District trade directory 1857-1858 part 2 which said that they specialised in Lady’s riding hats, boy’s dresses, commercial and official robes and military uniforms. The business also rented out mourning coaches and hearses. 

The first information I found was that it was first listed in 1837 and was then called Joseph Smith & Sons, located at 1 Briggate. By 1857 it had become John Wales Smith & Sons with two branches: 32-33 Commercial Street, Leeds and 8 Piccadilly, Bradford. In 1867 there was another branch at Hall’s End in Halifax. The reason I found this business so interesting is that it was always adapting, changing its locations and widening its market in order to survive and become successful.

I found going to Leeds Local Studies Library to research these businesses hugely enjoyable and highly educational. It has taken me away from the restrictions of simply doing limited research for essays and has given me the freedom to build upon each fact I learn and draw up a greater knowledge of the Victorian and Edwardian businesses in Leeds. I have found that as a student this boosted my confidence and given me some much needed experience in the workings of an academic library.

By Placement Student Tom Bamford

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