Alnwick, History Society

Bailiffgate Museum, Alnwick.
Bailiffgate Museum, Alnwick.

At the October meeting of Alnwick and District History Society, Eleanor George gave an interesting and informative account of The Bainbridges: Newcastle Department Store to Eshott Hall.

Bainbridge and Company was said to be the first department store of its kind in the world where practically any household commodity could be purchased.

Emerson Muschamp Bainbridge, the founder, was born at Eastgate in Weardale, County Durham, in 1819, the youngest of nine children.

At the age of 13 he was apprenticed to a Newcastle draper, then gained further experience in London in the two years following his apprenticeship. Emerson returned to Newcastle to become a partner in a woollen and linen drapery in the new and fashionable Market Street, developed by Richard Grainger.

He was one of the first traders to adopt fixed price labelling, rather than the unpopular customary haggling. His family were staunch Methodists and always tried to deal fairly with customers and, unusually for employers in the early Victorian period, they showed concern for staff welfare and generated a loyalty that characterised the Bainbridge ethos.

Emerson was an energetic worker, who in 1855, aged 38, became the sole proprietor and expanded the business to 23 departments.

He married Anne Hudson in 1839 and they had 15 children. Four sons followed him into the business.

Eleanor spoke of the rise in fortunes and the post Second World War decline, when there were rations and shortages and the purchase of luxury goods was put on hold.

In 1952 the store was sold to John Lewis, but it retained the goodwill name. Bainbridge re-located to the new Eldon Square development in 1976 and in 2002 it was, controversially, renamed John Lewis.

The talk and images also described the personal fortunes of the family.

Emerson chose to live in Eshott Hall and, with his son George, created the Eshott milk dairy farm.

Felton also became a beneficiary of the Bainbridge philanthropy, including a memorial window in the parish church that they restored, a Wesleyan Chapel, workers’ cottages, reading rooms and nurses’ homes.

It is not possible to detail all the achievements, but the presentation highlighted the major contribution that was, and still is, made by the public-spirited Bainbridge dynasty.

The next meeting is on Tuesday, November 28, at 7.30pm, at Bailiffgate Museum. Barry Mead will talk about the Bedlington Iron and Engine Works.