Mac Fisheries head office at Bracknell, Berkshire.
A 1971 ariel photo of the Bracknell head office, prior to the construction of a predestrian underpass. Building at the bottom is the Met Office.
Mac Fisheries, its Founders and its Outer Hebrides connections.
William Hesketh Lever
(1857-1925) was a partner in his father’s wholesale grocery business at Bolton, he was one of the Lever brothers founders of the giant conglomerate `Unilever`.
He first visited Stornoway, on the scottish isle of lewis as a tourist on a cruise ship in 1884. He was about 33 years of age.
During that cruise it occurred to him to specialise in selling soap under his own trademark. Within a year he was manufacturing and selling his own soap, made in a small rented factory in Warrington, England.
He started selling ‘Sunlight’ soap to the workers in the ‘dark Satanic mills’ of the North of England in 1884. Five years later he was manufacturing soap at his own factory in ‘Port Sunlight’ near Liverpool.
Fewer than half Lever’s employees and their families were housed in the so-called model village he built for them at Port Sunlight. The village relied on paternalism and other forms of control – and high rents.
By 1911 Lever Brothers was producing one third of the UK’s soap. Lever’s success was built by the exercise of power over his work-force, heavy brand advertising and a supply of cheap raw materials.
Lever bought out competing firms and by 1890 had set up soap factories in Australia, Canada, the US, Germany and Switzerland.
In 1911 Lever obtained a right to use, within ten years, up to 750,000 hectares of palm-bearing land in Africa. He called his Congo base ‘Leverville’
Lever Brothers soon needed vast amounts of edible oil and wanted to control their sources of supply. Levers quickly took over the Niger Company and the African and Eastern Trade Corporation (UAC) The two Companies estimated exports in the four UK colonies of West Africa amounted to 60 per cent of palm oil, 60 per cent of groundnuts, 50 per cent of cocoa and 45 per cent of palm kernel.
UAC was able to diversify into textiles, beer, engineering and more profitable trading activities. UAC prospered as the rising West African elite realized that their interests were similar.
The First World War increased women’s purchasing power in the UK and brought prosperity to the US, pushing up sales of Lux soap flakes.
In the same period, Lever increased glycerine production for munitions and began to make margarine, using cheap oils kept out of Germany by the British naval blockade.
He married Elizabeth Ellen Hulme, and when he was raised to the Peerage, he adopted the name Leverhulme formed by joining their two names.
By the time Lord Leverhulme bought the Scottish isle of Lewis in May 1918 he was 66 years old and the head of a vast business empire extending all over the world and employing a capital of 17.5 million pounds sterling.
Unlike previous Lewis Landlords, Leverhulme seems to have acquired the Island of Lewis in his retirement.
He paid a mere £167,000 for the whole island, which was well below the asking price of £200,000.
He contended that the great wealth of the Island lay in the surrounding sea and not the land.
He was convinced that he could resurrect the fishing industry and set about investing heavily in all aspects of the supporting industries and Stornoway in general.
Sir James Matheson paid £100,495 in the building of Lewis Castle and its policies and various shooting lodges etc. The ownership of the island changed in the usual way without any information or consultation with the indigenous people that live on the island.
He embarked upon a bold plan to transform the economy of the islands by modernising the fishing industry.
There would be an ice-making factory at Stornoway, refrigerated cargo ships to take fish to a depot at Fleetwood, herring-curing facilities, a canning factory, and a plant installed to make fish-cakes, fish-paste, glue, animal feed and fertiliser.
Very rare photographs of Lord Leverhulme bowling at the Stornoway Bowling Club which he and Sir Henry “Harry” Lauder (Kilted gentleman on the stage) had just opened.
Harry was the early 1900s equivalant to Sir Elton John or Sir Mick Jagger. Unsure to the year of these photos and have had no luck with contacting the club direct but I suspect around 1920.
Photos sent to me by Phil Renouf from British Columbia. Phils grandfather was Lord Leverhulmes architect in the hebrides and was most likely to have taken these photos.
THANK YOU PHIL
To create a market for the islanders fish, he started to buy up fishmongers shops throughout Britain, eventualy creating the “Mac Fisheries” chain.
But in 1919 demobilised servicemen, who had been promised ‘smallholdings fit for heroes’ after the war, started a land invasion by occupying plots of farmland and erecting shelters for themselves and their families. Lever condemned the squatters and ordered them
off his land.This created considerable local animosity as indeed did Lever’s high-handed attitude towards the crofting way of life, which he regarded as an archaic impediment to progress.
The Scottish Office took the side of the squatters, and these disputes, alongside financial problems faced by Lever Brothers, meant that works slowed down and the grand plan was never fully realised.
In 1919 William Leverhulme purchased the South Harris estate, which took in the Obbe, from the Earl of Dunmore for the sum of £36,000.
He planned to turn Obbe into a major fishing centre and with this in mind and to create a market for the islanders fish, he purchased his… what was to be his first shop in a chain of fish shops throughout the UK, thus incorporating “Mac Fisheries” which was to become a chain of fish shops throughout the whole of Britain. He bought shops in every town and city as they became available.
A total purchase of 400+ was made. His plan was to have fish landed at Obbe and then distributed to his shops.
The company,which was based in London, grew so rapidly that within a short time the capital was increased to £3,000,000.
In December 1920, with the backing of the local people, the village of Obbe was officially renamed `Leverburgh`. Within weeks of this work began on the pier and surrounding area , over 300 men, local, from Lewis and Uist were involved in preparing the site. A stone pier, with two wooden piers which would provide enough room for fifty herring drifters to berth, was constructed, an accommodation block, curing sheds, smoke houses and a refrigeration building were all erected. Work huts ,store sheds and a twenty car garage added to this development and houses were built for his team of managers.
He had planned a second phase of development that would have seen the inner sea loch converted into a harbour that would take up to two hundred boats,
A channel was to be blasted between the inner loch and the open sea and fitted with lock-gates to maintain a constant depth of twenty-five feet of water in the inner sea loch.
He offered the local crofters free help and advice to improve their homes and the roads were upgraded to withstand the volume of increased traffic.
With the economic decline of 1920 -21 Lord Leverhulmes project suffered with some of the work having to cease and men were laid off.
This is a scan of an original card I have, which Lord Leverhulme sent out for the Christmas of 1920. On the cover there is a picture of him in May of the same year, about to embark on an Air Transport & Travel Ltd De Havilland DH16. This pose would have been taken at the new Croydon Airport which was used from March that year. The plane journey time, from London to Paris is recorded as 2 hours 15 minutes and is clearly meant as a tribute to progress. This flight route was first offered commercially from 25th August 1919.
Inside there is a poem which seems to hint at those who stand in the way of ‘progress’. The poem speaks of those who ‘like the gloom, and the discord of strain and stress.’ It is not a big stretch to imagine that he is referring to inhabitants of Lewis, who carried out land raids in Tong, Coll and Gress in response to the Government’s reneged promise of land for veterans.
In 1922 Mac Fisheries was incorporated in Lever Brothers Company.
In September 1923 Lever announced that he intended to leave the island. At the same time he offered to gift all the crofters the freehold of their land, and to hand over the rest of the island to district trusts. This was exactly what some of the islanders had been campaigning for.But by now mistrust ran very deep, and the Highland Land League representing the crofters and all the district councils (with the exception of Stornoway) turned down the offer, and so the islands were sold, once again, to absentee landlords.
In a speech before he left Lewis, Leverhulme said that, “No one regrets more than me that the canning factory, the fish products, the ice company, etc cannot be opened for work because the conditions of supply and demand in these industries make it impossible to do so. The business could only make losses if they operated at present, and we must wait patiently for world markets to be cleared of surplus stock before prices will adjust themselves to the cost of production.”
It was the failure of the fishing in Lewis and the worldwide difficulties of Lever Brothers that caused Lord Leverhulme to abandon his development schemes in Lewis.
Unknown to the Lewis crofters and land raiders, Leverhulme had other and much greater worries than the troubles of his Lewis Estate. His worldwide business empire was going through a very difficult period with the distinct possibility of failure and bankruptcy. Lever Brothers bought the Niger Company in Africa for £8,000,000 without noticing that the Niger Company had a £2,000,000 overdraft for which Lever Brothers became liable in 1920, at a time when Lever products were not selling well because of the depressed economic conditions of the 1920s
At the end of the day the crofting community of Lewis were right to be sceptical of the Leverhulme development schemes at the expense of their crofting way of life, at least not until Leverhulme proved his schemes to be successful.
1924 Leverburgh was ready to receive its first landing of herring. Twelve Great Yarmouth registered drifters landed a quantity of herring that was so great that extra girls were taken in from the mainland to handle the catch, this brought great excitement to the village.
After opening the Lewis War Memorial near Stornoway, Lord Leverhulme left the Island on 5th September 1924 never to return. On 23rd September 1924 he embarked on a six-month tour of the Congo, arriving back in Britain on 15th March 1925. Asked how he felt, he replied,
“I never felt better in my life.” Shortly after that he caught a cold, which quickly developed into pneumonia. At 4.30 a.m. On Thursday 7th May 1925, William Hesketh, the Right Honourable Lord, Viscount Leverhulme of the Western Isles died in Hampstead.
When the news reached Harris the sirens were sounded on Leverburgh pier and the workforce stop work immediately, this was to be a very sad day in the history of Leverburgh.
The people of Lewis and Harris were sorry to hear about the passing of Lord Leverhulme. Those of them that had crofts were glad that they could fall back on their crofts, but sadly there were many landless families, and the 1920s and 1930s was a lean time for everybody.
Since his executors and the Board of Lever brothers had no interest in the Leverburgh project they ordered the work to cease and the work force were laid off.
They put the South Harris Estate up for sale and in October 1925 the pier site at Leverburgh was sold for £5,000 and the 33,000 acres of land in South Harris sold for a mere £900.
Apart from some of the houses that were built for his managers very little remains to suggest that such a great development ever existed.
Managers Houses built for Lever
No pensioner on those shores will ever forget the great man for he has benefited them all. In 1907 a private members bill was put before the Commons by Liberal MP for Wirral, Mr. William Hesketh Lever wanting to increase income tax so as to provide a state pension for the elderly which would be paid through the Post Office.
In 1908 the Old Age Pension Act was passed.
His entire venture in Leverburgh cost an estimated £500,000, maybe if Lord Leverhulme had survived a few more years things may have been very different in Leverburgh today.
Towards the end of the 20th century Lever Brothers sold Mac Fisheries. It was said that it could be argued that Mac Fisheries was a very sound investment, and on the whole, the financial outlays of Leverhulme in the Hebrides was probably re-reimbursed many times over by Mac Fisheries.
1920s to 1950s to Continue……….at a later date.
The following quotes and a considerable amount of the history has been supplied to me by
Mr Reg Joslyn
Reg was a Manager for Premier Supermarkets and then Mac Fisheries. He managed quite a few branches over the years, all Supermarkets, in chronological order .
Chelsea, Earls Court, Dartford, Maidenhead, Harrow and Camberley. He did two stints in Maidenhead, his home town for thirty years.
The smallest store was Chelsea and the largest, Harrow.
‘We called the first two stores, ‘frying pan stores’ being in central London and very much in bedsit land, tenants only had small and often single gas rings to cook on, if you could fry it , we could sell it’
Thank you Reg for all your help.
During the Second World War food was strictly rationed and in very short supply, fish was never rationed & although never plentiful it certainly helped as a supplement to the meagre food rations available with Mac Fisheries playing a major role in retail fish sales. Fish supplies depended on a good fishing trip by our brave fishermen who were often attacked by enemy aircraft; a zoning system was devised by the Government where delivery to shops was dependent of which area trawlers docked, Essex one week, Sussex the next and so on.
Macs shops would have a notice displayed in their windows IE: fish tomorrow 10.30, long queues of housewives would form waiting for the shop to open which was usually staffed by elderly gents or women as most of the younger men had gone to war.
Quote……..our local Fulham branch was run by Vera, a large female with horned rimmed glasses, a long blue & white stripped apron from which hung a knife sharpening steel , the allowance was two herrings, one each for mum & I, which mum soused, the awful smell of fish cooking lasted for days, the fish heads went to the cat. Having sold her allocation Vera would shut up shop until the next delivery….Reg.
The end of food rationing in 1954 meant housewives could freely serve meat again, resulting in a sharp decline in demand for wet fish, also, new to the market was frozen fish fingers. This new form of pre-packed ready to cook food was an instant hit to the housewife and started to have an impact on wet fish sales instantly. Macs realized they could not live by fish alone, they had to expand.
Early expansion involved introducing additional foods such as vegetables and dairy products, but shop size often proved a problem, to help solve this issue larger units were bought and stocked with a range of food consisting of fish, fruit & vegetables, provisions, groceries & even a butchers dept.
Many shop moves came about during the later half of the 1950s, some moves involved a completely new area of the town and what with the extensive rebuilding programs the government had approved for shopping areas such as Parades, Squares, etc, Macs often took on a new unit located in such areas.
Other moves may have been to a larger shop just two doors away.
These new shops were very successful and within the company given the title Multi Traders.
Quote…. an excellent one traded in Kensington High Street….Reg
With the confidence this gave Macs directors and financial backing from the parent company Unilever, it was decided to enter the world of super-markets, a very new concept in food retailing at the time.
During the 50s another long established retailing company Express Dairy had entered this same field and were opening stores in large buildings like old music halls and closed cinemas etc, trading with the name Premier Super Markets.
This company was up for sale during April 1964.
Quote…. From the beginning of March 1964 Premier Super Markets was buzzing with rumours about a potential takeover of the company, instead of giving full attention to running their stores mangers were ringing each other with the latest information some of it quite worrying, it got to the stage where it was affecting some managers efficient running of their stores. Premier’s senior head office staff became aware of the situation and called a meeting of General Managers to their head office at Ruislip on 23rd March at which the full board of directors attended.
We were assured the rumours were incorrect, there was no intention to sell the Company, they had every confidence in the company’s future and our positions were secure. We returned to our stores with a sense of relief and renewed enthusiasm for our jobs.
A week later while on the shop floor of my store in Chelsea a telegraph boy asked for the Manger and gave me a telegram!!…….Reg
Mac Fisheries had purchased Premier Super Markets for £1,000,000 a huge sum of money back in 1964.
At the time of the take-over Mac Fisheries had already started to open their own Food Centres when they could find suitable sites, the total number of stores they achieved is unsure and process was very slow, purchasing Premier made them a sizeable Company overnight.
Quote……..this is where I come in having been a Store Manager for Premier for six years I was also taken over and became a Mac man.
In the early days of super marketing there was very much a pioneering spirit with new and exciting things like public address systems, name badges, music for the shoppers, also new problems such as shop lifters and to counter that, two way security mirrors and store detectives.
Shop lifting was a serious area, no C.C.T.V or electronic scanners at the exit then, had to rely on the mirrors and the store tecs, (as they became know). I had a very good security manager by the name of Jock Frazer, he could tell a shoplifter before they’d even pinched something. Unfortunately staff pilferage was another evil, I had to be hard and always prosecuted anyone caught be it customer or staff….Reg
Paul Gilam Macs Operations Manager at the take over considered the title Super Market brash & preferred Food Centre. This title was used for a while but the Super Market heading soon crept back in and stayed with the company to the end.
As food centres Mac Fisheries began expanding countrywide, having stores built to their own design, ironically fish became a bit of a problem being regarded by the public as smelly wet stuff & didn’t fit in with the plate glass, stainless steel image of modern retailing, also the thought of it being near other perishable foods did not go down well.
From 1964 – 75 Macs opened many new FC stores with over 80 as a final figure, some sites were not well chosen being in a quiet part of town.
Major changes occurred to the company’s image so as to tie in with the new concept of trading. The one thing most people remember was the change of the company’s traditional colours, from blue to orange.
Another small change was within the company logo, the four fish would lose their head and tails leaving just a symbolic shape of fish, all typical of Mac Markets desire to get away from the fish connection, see the following link.
This carrier bag was in use from 1968 onwards, the company had the effrontery to charge 6d to shoppers but gave them out free for purchases over £5 which was the average weekly shopping bill then, the bags good quality really shows up to-days low standards.
From the late 60s the last thing Supermarket Group wanted was to have the name Mac Fisheries on their fascia or at the worst even a connection with ‘that company that sell fish’.
People would think it was just a giant fish shop.
Food Centres opened in traditional town centres, no large out of town shopping Malls then. If there was already an established Mac fish shop in town that shop was left at that.
Many towns had a Mac Fisheries and a Mac Market operating at the same time.
No fish in the new stores if it could be helped, where fish was needed in a Food Centre reluctantly a shop within a shop was created.
Mac Markets seemed to make good progress through early years introducing excellent staff training schemes, good distribution of merchandise to stores through a modern warehouse in Farnborough Hants, also they pioneered a computerized order and stock control system which was the forerunner of today’s bar coding. See the following 3 photographs
Awards were given as gifts for 15 and 40 years of service, for 15 years the choices were a canteen of cutlery / wrist watch / living room clock.
Staff incentive schemes were also another inspiration (see the following quote and letter)
Quote…. A personal touch, the award mentioned in the letter was £100, back in 71 that paid for two weeks holiday including spending money for both of us in Austria, but I never won anything else worth winning…..Reg
Click to read letter
More letters, Note: these were sellotaped to the staff notice board.
In1967 Supermarket group managers started to became aware of their much larger store size’s, along with turnover & staffing levels and comparing them to the smaller fish shops, tended to look down on them as a poor relation.
Big mistake Mac Fisheries was the Unilever Company with Mac Markets just the Supermarket group, Mac Fisheries had the political clout and this was made very clear to all Supermarket staff at the time of the sell off in 1979.
Of course with the other ‘on the rise’ Super Markets IE Sainsbury’s etc, Unilever were very aware that their competitors were their customers and had to be very careful not to be seen giving Mac Markets advantageous terms, they gave all the large companies exactly the same buying rates, and still do today, have you ever noticed when one supermarket company has an offer on a particular item of merchandise, they all have the same.
Unilever was helped by Mac Market staff by giving any items manufactured by them pride of place on shelves and in cabinets. They also helped them with market research and product placement.
So what went wrong? Mac M had a problem, unfortunately a serious one, even with the combined Food Centres approximate yearly turnover of £50 million (1973), annual company profit levels were always meagre from 1974, the larger Super Markets were expanding and what with the changing lifestyle of the general public and transportation to larger out of town complex’s and Malls, along with vehicle ownership becoming easier and easier, they started to show loss’s in figures and customers, which meant Unilever had to bail them out cash wise.
Unilever were a good parent company to Mac F and Mac M and treated their staff very well, but in 1975 there was an extreme cost cutting program mainly Bracknell head office staff, not just clerks etc but quite senior field management,
The workers annual conference (to some was the company highlight of the year) was usually held in a top class hotel with brilliant entertainment…..see the following extract from a 1977 Mac Matters magazine, an in-house distribution.
Close to the end this was reduced to a second rate venue, and left to the staff to entertain themselves. The problems were really starting to show.
Open the following link to read an article printed in the 1977 Mac Matters magazine which was expressing Unilever’s confidence in Macs future. Was this just an effort to raise morale within the workforce?
Unilever had lost patience, and even though Mac Fisheries was the only retail company they owned in the U.K. amongst their massive conglomerate of companies and obviously their loyalty to Lord Leverhulme, (Mac Fisheries founder from 1919) they never really seemed happy with owning a Company in retailing, preferring what was really their forte of food manufacturing and wholesale supply.
From 1975 non profit making stores were closed down, but in a strange bid, new stores were still being sourced and built.
See the following Photo of a London bus in the Queens Silver Jubilee colours advertising the opening of their latest store.
In April 1979 the Food Centres were sold to International Stores and the surviving wet fish shops were simply closed down over a short time.
It does make you wonder that if Unilever hadn’t got involved with Super Marketing would Mac Fisheries still be around today?……Probably not.
An interesting fact arising from these studies was:
The reason Express Dairy sold Premier was a cash flow problem which was affecting their efforts in perfecting long life milk, the sale of Premier raised the cash needed and everybody gained long life milk.