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WILLIAM WHITELEY (1831-1907)

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Originally appearing in Volume V28, Page 606 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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WILLIAM WHITELEY (1831-1907), English " Universal Provider," was born at Agbrigg, near Wakefield, Yorkshire, on the 29th of September 1831, the son of a corn-factor. At the age of sixteen he was apprenticed to a firm of drapers at Wakefield. In 1851 he made his first visit to London to see the Great Exhibition, and was so impressed with the size and activity of the metropolis that he determined to settle there as soon as his apprenticeship was over. A year later he obtained a subordinate position in a draper's establishment in the city, and after studying the drapery trade in this and other London establishments for ten years, in 1863 himself opened a small shop for the sale of fancy drapery in Westbourne Grove, Bayswater. His capital amounted to about £700, which he had saved from his salaries and commissions, and he at first employed two young girls and an errand boy. Friends in the trade had assured him that Westbourne Grove was one of the two worst streets in London for his business, but Whiteley had noted the number and quality of the people who passed the premises every afternoon, and relied on his own judgment. Events justified his confidence, and within a year he was employing fifteen hands. He made a consistent practice of marking all goods in plain figures and of "dressing" his shop-window attractively, both unusual features in the retail trading of the time, and to this, coupled with the fact that he was satisfied with small profits, he largely attributed a success in which his own genius for organization and energy played a conspicuous part. In ,866 Whiteley added general drapery to his other business, opening by degrees shop after shop and department after department, till he was finally enabled to call himself the " Universal Provider," and boast that there was nothing which his stores could not supply. " Whiteley's was, in fact, the first great instance of a large general goods store in London, held under one man's control. In 1899 the business, of which the profits then averaged over £1oo,000 per annum, was turned into a limited liability company, Whiteley retaining the bulk of the shares. On the 23rd of January 1907 he was shot dead, after an interview in his private office, by Horace George Rayner, who claimed (but, as was proved, wrongly) to be his illegitimate son and who had been refused pecuniary assistance. Rayner was found guilty of murder, and sentenced to be hanged; but the home secretary (Mr Herbert Gladstone), in response to an agitation for his reprieve,commuted the sentence to penal servitude for life.
End of Article: WILLIAM WHITELEY (1831-1907)
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