Kays Heritage Group

exploring the history of Kays

Kays of Worcester

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There can be few families, living in the city of Worcester, who have not, at some time, had one of their relatives work at Kays in some capacity or another. Kays also had offices and warehouses 

throughout the country.  Leeds, Glasgow, York, Lancaster, Bradford, Newtown, Bristol and Droitwich all had a direct connection with Kays.

Kays was a major employer in Worcester, from the time when W. Kilbourne Kay started the company in 1890, until its eventual closure in 2007.

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Kay & Co Ltd was based for many years in this building, known as St Oswald’s, which situated in the Tything, the historic street that runs north from Worcester city centre. 


This building is a superb example of the architecture of the early 20th century and was designed by Simpson and Ayrton, a distinguished London firm of architects,

The Kays Heritage Group was formed in May 2000 to enable the rich and varied history of the well known mail-order company, Kay & Co Ltd., to be preserved for posterity.  

We are always interested to learn about the people who were employed by the company, in whatever capacity, or were their customers (or Agents, as they were known).  

It is the social history as well as the documentation of the company’s history through photographs, letters and memories from those who have them, that the Heritage Group seeks to gather and preserve.

We would like to hear from any ex-employees, or their relatives, who worked in the offices and warehouses at Worcester, Leeds, Glasgow, Newtown, Bradford, Bristol, Droitwich, Lancaster and York.  

We would also like to hear from any agents or customers who received the catalogue and purchased items from it.  

Please contact the group by e-mail, if you have any anecdotes of your time at Kays whether as an employee or customer, and especially if you have photographs that can help us add to our knowledge of Kays. 

At present, we are making an effort to update and amend the website to include and present you with as much of the heritage as we can. If you can assist us with compiling the history of the company, then please do contact us. 

Please visit this site regularly as new information is always being added.

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The city of Worcester has developed along the east and west banks of the River Severn since Roman times. Worcester’s magnificent Norman Cathedral dominates the view from the banks of the river. It is a city steeped in history and tradition and was at one time one of the most important cities in England.
Worcester is in many ways the typical English provincial city with its development of industry and commerce co-existing with the rural economy and the countryside. As a city, it is still the home of several well-known enterprises such as the Royal Worcester Porcelain Works and Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Source and the oldest newspaper in the world, the Berrow’s Worcester Journal.
The birthplace of that most English composer, Sir Edward Elgar, is close by at Lower Broadheath. The springs that supply Malvern Water to the world are also close by, as the Malvern Hills are on the western boundary of Worcestershire County and are visible from the city (on a clear day).
Worcester was for many years also the headquarters and centre of operations of the largest, and perhaps the oldest, mail-order company in Britain – Kay & Co Ltd. To document and write the history of Kays, as a business is to take a trip through the development of what is, today, referred to as the consumer society. It is a history of shopping over 200 years.
In 1886, a young man made a life changing decision that would not only affect him and his family but ultimately the economic and social culture of the whole country. His name was William Kilbourne Kay and he founded the company that is now known as Kay & Co Ltd.
Originally from Market Harborough in Leicestershire, Kay appears to have come to Worcester as a young man. An established jeweller and watchmaker by the name of John Martin Skarratt employed him. Skarratt ran the business that his grandfather, also called John Skarratt, had established in Worcester during the 1790s.
The senior John Skarratt grew up in London and was apprenticed as a watchmaker there. He moved to Worcester in the latter part of the eighteenth century but although the exact date is not known Skarratt was running a successful clock and watch business in 1794. Skarratt grew his business from humble beginnings from his shop in Goose Lane, Worcester and he expanded his trade so that by 1814 he had moved his enterprise to larger premises in Broad Street, which is only a short distance from Goose Lane. Here he developed his clock and watch business as Skarratt & Co supplying “the Nobility, Gentry, and the Public in general of Worcester and its Vicinity”.
At some time during the nineteenth century, Goose Lane was renamed as St Swithin’s Street and the street is still called by that name to this day. The street is still part of Worcester’s main central shopping area situated around the Cross, in the centre of the city. The original shop used by Skarratt can be seen in St Swithin’s Street and continues to be used as a retail premises to this day.
William Kilbourne Kay must have felt that he had “prospects” in the employ of Skarratt for he had married his sweetheart, Miss Jessie Farenden in February 1883. Jessie must have originally come from Southampton for they were married at the Parish Church of St Luke’s in that city on the fifteenth of February in that year. Kay’s “rank or profession” is given as a “jeweller’s assistant” on his marriage certificate.
Tom, their eldest son, was born in December 1883 and the address given by Kay on the birth certificate indicates that he was living at number 3 Broad Street which is the address of Skarratt & Co., so he was literally living above the shop. Although he appears to have been born in the mid 1850s ( and the exact date is still the subject of research), this birth certificate is the first official record of William Kilbourne Kay in Worcester. At the time of his marriage and the birth of his son Kilbourne Kay would have been in his late twenties.
William Kilbourne Kay must have learnt a great deal from working at Skarratt & Co. as there is a record of a jeweller’s and watchmaker's business in Worcester trading as Kay, Jones and Co., in the early 1880s and pocket watches exist from this company and are dated to this time. It is believed that Kay formed this company with an apprenticed watchmaker, Mr. Jones, as his first real venture into business. This business appears not to have lasted too long as by the mid 1880s, Kay had either left Mr Jones and started up his own business or Mr Jones had left the company. Whatever the reasons, by 1886, Kay had started a new business known simply as Kay’s of Worcester and he sold jewellery, watches, and household items. He operated the business from number 4, The Foregate in Worcester and it was here that the company remained for over ten years. By 1891, according to the official census of that year, he was living at 115 Ombersley Road, Worcester with his wife, Jessie, three children and two servants. His occupation is given as a “wholesale jeweller”. He had become a successful businessman within eight years of being married and within five years of starting his own company and he continued to be successful throughout the remainder of his life.
Kay would have been actively competing against his old employer but he offered something that Skarratt’s never did. Kay offered his customers a catalogue of goods from which they could make a selection, order, and pay cash for the items they wanted. It is believed but not confirmed that Kay may have been inspired by the business operated by Mr Pryce-Jones of Newtown, Montgomeryshire (now Powys) who is recognised by many as being the pioneer of the mail-order type of business in the U.K.
Kay’s catalogues were sent out by post, on request from individual customers, but this proved to be a very expensive operation as it was soon realised that not all of the catalogues generated orders. Kay saw that he was loosing opportunities for sales when a customer did not order but kept the catalogue and his business was incurring costs that it could afford in its early days. He saw the opportunity to expand his business by offering responsible and self-motivated men who wished to be their own master, the rights to sell Kay’s products from the catalogues that the company supplied. These men would be allocated a geographic area in which to work and they travelled around their territory selling from the catalogues. They made their living from the commission paid by Kay, based on their sales and takings each week. These men were known within Kays as “travellers” and it was their responsibility to contact reputable householders in their area and sell them the goods that Kay supplied. Goods were only supplied on a “cash with order” basis and therefore it can be assumed that only the more affluent households could afford the items offered for sale.
Always seeking to develop and be innovative, Kay saw that a change to supplying goods through the Kay’s Universal Club method would revolutionise his business. It would allow him to sell to another potentially lucrative market and increase his company’s turnover. It is worth detailing the methods used by Kay to ensure that his business prospered in the difficult times of the late nineteenth century. One method used relied on the travellers making visits to factories in the major industrial centres that surrounded cities such as Birmingham, Manchester, and Leeds and ask permission from the factory owners to sell goods to a group or “club” of their workers. Each member of the “club” would make their selection from a catalogue left by the traveller. The worker who held the catalogue was known as an “agent” for the traveller and they were responsible for collecting the weekly monies from their fellow club members. As each week passed each member of the group would gradually pay for the goods that they had ordered and when the total order had been paid for the goods were despatched to the traveller from Worcester. It was the traveller that distributed the goods to the individual worker in the club and visited him in his home. No doubt the traveller also paid a small commission direct to his “agent” for their efforts in collecting the orders and the monies from their fellow members.
Another method of direct selling was also used for groups of workers who wanted to purchase a pocket watch. Often workers in the late nineteenth century had to provide their own watches even if their job demanded accurate time keeping. An example of this would be a man who worked on the railways as a guard or driver. The traveller from Kays would offer a suitable pocket watch from the catalogue to the group or club. What was an original concept to Kay’s business was that he supplied two pocket watches to each traveller as samples, so that they could show the members of their clubs what it was that they were buying and perhaps influence them to buy the most appropriate watch from Kays. The traveller however had to ensure that there were at least twenty members in each club in order to guarantee that it would be successful. Twenty members in the club made the calculation of the weekly “subscription” easy. There were, in the pre-decimal currency days, twenty shillings to a pound, so members would easily know how much they had to pay each and every week. For example, if each pocket watch were to cost thirty shillings then the weekly subscription for each member would be 1/6d a week, over the twenty weeks. (The use of twenty-week free credit terms is still part of the modern Kay’s offer to its customers and is a direct link back to the very start of the business.) The traveller then wrote all of the names of the club members onto a ledger sheet that he alone maintained. This ledger recorded the payments made and when they were made against the name of each member of the club. By being meticulous in this way the traveller could see who was up-to-date or was failing to keep up their payments. Each member of the club was also given an individual payment card on which their payments were recorded and a receipt given by the traveller. By collecting the money from each member, each week, the traveller ensured that he had the money in his possession to order a pocket watch each week. Every week the name of a lucky member was ”drawn from the hat”. They got their watch but would still have to pay the club each week. This method worked very successfully for the majority of clubs as peer pressure from the other members, together with “the common decency and manners” of the time ensured that working men kept their word. Any defaulter on payments would be “in no doubt from his fellow club members of their displeasure”. The traveller would also get his commission on the sales each week. It is believed, but not confirmed, that this method on buying pocket watches gave rise to the common expression used to explain buying something on credit terms as to “buy something on tick”.
Kay’s premises at The Foregate meant that his business was very close to the railway station in Worcester city centre (which is known as Foregate Street Station to this day) so the distribution of the catalogues and goods to his customers was relatively easy. At that time, in the mid 1880s, Kay employed two clerks and an errand boy but by the early 1890s he was employing at least twenty people and had expanded his operations by acquiring another building adjacent to the Foregate premises. These were used as a warehouse.
As with all successful commercial enterprises the need to expand to fulfil increased demand forced a change of premises. Kay moved his business from The Foregate to a site in Shrub Hill Road in 1894. The building he occupied had originally been built as a railway and carriage works (at the cost of £60,000 in the 1850s), but this business had failed, partly because of the cost of the buildings they had built and the site lay had remained unused for many years. It was in 1881 that the Corporation of the City of Worcester decided to organise a “Great Commercial Exhibition” and the Shrub Hill site was chosen as the venue for this showcase event. The exhibition itself took place between July and October 1882 and was judged a great success however, the buildings at Shrub Hill were not used again after the exhibition was removed and they fell into a state of disrepair. Kay decided to rent them on a fifteen-year agreement in 1893 and he spent a considerable amount of money refurbishing the buildings and making them suitable for his new centre of operations. The buildings offered many advantages to the company, which by this time was known as “Kay’s Universal Stores”.