Hazel Fort’s Thoughts on the David Lewis Lecture

Today, we had a most informative talk on the subject one of Liverpool’s most prominent nineteenth century philanthropists, David Lewis. Our own John Sharp told us of the life of this most remarkable man.

He started life as David Levy, the son of a London Jewish tailor, but instead of joining the family business, in 1839, aged fifteen, David travelled North. He worked as an apprentice for Bernard Hyam & Co. It is a tribute to his industry that, at the tender age of nineteen, he was travelling round Scotland setting up further branches of the business. It is a mystery as to why or when Levy became Lewis: perhaps he thought the English name would carry more kudos.

In 1856, he married the daughter of a rabbi, Bertha Cohen, and began his own business. His clothes for men were made in his own workshops. Many of us remember Lewis’s department store, which only closed in 2010.  A ten storey building, it was renowned for selling clothing which mimicked London fashions but were also reasonably priced, thus bringing good quality clothing at affordable prices to ordinary people. David had definite business tenets: the price of the clothes was the price you paid, there was no ‘tick’ or haggling; all profits were ploughed back into the business which meant that, soon, he was opening stores in Manchester and the rest of the country. His only failure seems to have been Sheffield. His philosophy was that everyone deserved access to a decent life, and this was reflected in the suits and overcoats which he sold cheaply but manufactured at a profit. It was the era of progression, when someone from the a modest background could use his talents coupled with industry to get on in life, and such people wanted to dress as their status befitted – think of Stephenson, the Kay brothers and Isambard Kingdom Brunel. In the 1890s and 70s, he expanded his business to include women’s clothes and shoes. In 1877, he opened another store, Bon Marche. Later, Lewis’s expanded its range of goods to include tobacco and groceries.  As time passed it included materials, kitchenware, white goods, books and cosmetics – a true department store.

Bon Marche was the first store to have a Christmas Grotto. In 1885, David Lewis chartered the ‘Great Eastern’ and had her moored on the Mersey as part of the International Exhibition.  He died in this year and was buried in the Hebrew Cemetery in Fairfield.

Childless at his death, he left his wife well provided for, but bequeathed a considerable amount of money in trust to benefit the people who had helped him make his fortune, his customers.

The David Lewis Hostel was one of his legacies to the city, another being The David Lewis Northern Hospital. The Hostel was a place where you could stay if you were travelling and needed a place to stay for one or two nights. It was basic but comfortable and you could also get nourishing food in the restaurant there for a reasonable price. It boasted a conference room and a games room where you could get a game of chess or you could visit the billiards room. Again, David’s philanthropy was at the fore: everyone deserved decent opportunities and, to that end, people from the local community could visit the hostel and avail themselves of all the entertainment it offered. The jewel in the crown had to be the fully-equipped theatre within the hostel. Built on London lines, the theatre put on plays and other shows, and even played host to operas. John, himself, was a member of the New Theatre Company, which put on many Shakespeare productions.  He attributes his longevity in the theatre and amateur dramatics to the training he received from the David Lewis Theatre.

David Lewis’s philanthropy was evident in Manchester where the trust built a home for epileptics, but Liverpool maintained that David Lewis was one of its own.

Hazel Fort

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