Russell & Bromley History

Russell & Bromley is a British shoe retailer with a high-street retail operation. The business headquarters is based on Farwig Lane in Bromley, Kent, England. The business has remained under the control of the Bromley Family since its creation over 120 years ago.

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Early History

The Russell & Bromley story began in 1873 when George Frederick Bromley left his home in Hastings to work as a journeyman-shoemaker for prosperous Albion Russell of Lewes. He fell in love with his employer’s daughter Elizabeth and in 1874 he married her.

Six years later the young couple took over the management of her father’s branch shop at Seaside Road, Eastbourne and for the first time, the sign of ‘Russell & Bromley’ appeared above a shop door.

Until then only the Russells had been known as shoemakers – and highly respected ones in Sussex for more than fifty years. Elizabeth’s grandfather, John Clifford Russell had established his own boot and shoe manufacturing business in Cuddingly, Kent, about 1820.

For the first ten years of its existence the new Russell & Bromley shop at Eastbourne was part of the Russell family firm. Other branches were opened at Newhaven and East Grinstead

The branch shop at Seaside Road was soon a flourishing little business. George did the actual shoe-making and selling; Elizabeth looked after the accounts and brought up their five children.

Elizabeth inherited the Russell & Bromley shop in Eastbourne in 1888 when her father, Albion Russell Snr, died. Her brother, Albion, inherited the three main establishments at Lewes, Newhaven and East Grinstead.

From that date the Russell and the Bromley family go their parallel ways in the history of shoemaking for another sixty years.

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Frederick Bromley

The eldest of the Bromley children was Frederick, or F.R.B. as he became known in the great business he created. He had been born and brought up in the shoe trade and he was twelve years old when his parents inherited their branch shop. When he began to take an interest in its financial affairs nobody knows, but a year or so later when the Bromleys moved from their small shop to better premises in Gilgredge Road, he was helping his mother with the bookkeeping.

George Bromley’s health was failing and that meant more responsibility for his wife. F.R.B. left school and took charge of the shop, and did it so successfully that by the age of eighteen he was in complete control. To gain practical knowledge of shoe-making, he was apprenticed for a while to his Uncle Albion at Lewes. But he had already made up his mind that his future lay in the selling rather than the making of shoes, and that one shop wasn’t enough. In 1897, George Frederick Bromley died, and young F.R.B. was head of the family, responsible for his mother, younger brothers and sister.

In 1898, when he was twenty-two, F.R.B. decided that it was time he went into business on his own account. He borrowed his first capital from the family and, with a little extra help from the bank, brought a small shoe shop in Tonbridge. With it he took over the son of the former owner as his assistant, but moved himself into the living quarters above the shop.

The venture did so well that in the following year, when he was 23, he bought his second business in the High Street at Sevenoaks, this time in the family name of Russell & Bromley. He managed both shops fairly easily from Tonbridge, while his mother ran the family home and the shop in Eastbourne.

At the beginning of the Twentieth Century the entire Bromley family moved from Eastbourne to a new and more centrally placed home at Sevenoaks and Elizabeth transferred all her interests in the firm of Russell & Bromley to her twenty-five-year-old son.

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The Move to Bromley

F.R.B. bought a fourth business in St Leonards, then his first shop in Bromley – at 21 Widmore Road. This purchase was something of a milestone. Whether his ancestors had originally come from the town is uncertain, but young Mr. Bromley looked at Bromley with interested eyes. It was a growing and attractive town near enough to the fringes of London for good transport, yet with a character and future of its own.

Since the expanding business of Russell & Bromley would need headquarters the town of Bromley seemed the right address. So in 1905 he bought a house for his mother in Wendover road and later a second shop in the High Street.

Because he already owned one business in the district, this second shop was opened in the name of his uncle’s firm, A. Russell & Son. Actually there was no connection between the two firms. The families were close friends and interested in each other’s progress, but commercially they were quite apart.

The Bromley shops provided Russell & Bromley with their first official head office and repair factory, and the family and the business have belonged to Bromley ever since.

Five years after he settled in Kent, F.R.B. married Miss Hilda Underwood. They lived first of all at Bromley and later at Orpington, where their two sons Frederick Keith and Michael Cornish were born.

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WWI and Increased Expansion

World War I followed soon afterwards, and in the way of all family businesses, young Mrs. Bromley found herself in the office replacing men who had gone to the front.

Later, in 1923 when the firm became a limited liability company, Mrs. Bromley took her official place on the board as one of the first two directors.

F.R.B.’s young sister Elizabeth was already in the business, in charge of hosiery buying. She remained unmarried, living with her mother at Wendover, and except for a spell of war work in a munitions factory, she was to serve the company for nearly forty years. The tradition of a family business had begun.

Even with a war to cope with, the firm continued to grow. New branches were opened at Herne Bay and Margate, then Leytonstone, Streatham, Ealing and Broadstairs. Until just after the war F.R.B. had followed the same pattern with each new expansion. He brought an existing business, took over the premises, stock and staff, and invariably inspired them all with his own boundless enthusiasm and integrity. He seemed to have an uncanny genius of recognising the best shops and the best employees.

In 1920 he built his first entirely new shop, in Bromley High Street, and drew up plans for the rebuilding of the repair shop and warehouse to serve the widening circle of Russell & Bromley branches. By 1930, in spite of post-war depression, there were sixteen of them.

F.R.B. had started in the business in his early teens and had always believed in giving youth its chance so in 1936 he handed over control of Russell & Bromley to his sons Keith and Michael. They were in their very early twenties but already trained in shoe-making and management.

F.R.B. went with his wife on a series of fishing trips. Between journeys he kept a benevolent eye on the business until the Second World War drove him back to England where he died in 1943.

Under two new sets of initials, F.K.B. and M.C.B., Russell & Bromley continued growing. By 1939 there were twenty shops some as far away as Southampton, Clacton and Guildford.

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WWII, London and Lederer

When World War II came most retail businesses were disrupted by rationing. Russell & Bromley, being in the South of England, had bombing as well. Three out of the twenty shops were completely destroyed and many others repeatedly damaged. Clacton, Margate and Broadstairs were evacuated and Bromley was a front-line town.

Clearing up and rebuilding followed in the post-war years and with it, in the F.R.B. tradition, more expansion … this time right into the West End of London. The first London shop was opened in 1947 at the corner of Bond Street and Conduit Street. The following year the company took over the English branch of the international firm of Lederer, famous for their leather handbags. With this deal they also gained their first shop in Knightsbridge, and Russell & Bromley, after seventy years of trading, was installed firmly in two of the best shopping streets in the world.

In the history of Russell & Bromley the most important development was the taking over of the seven shops in the original parent company. The deal was completed in 1947.

Elizabeth Bromley (née Russell) lived to see most of the family successes. She died in 1937 at the age of 87, half a century after she had seen the first Russell & Bromley sign hung above her door in Eastbourne.

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60s and 70s

The present Head Office and Warehousing are situated in Bromley, having been officially opened by Mrs Hilda Bromley in 1959. Once established, this was quickly followed by a series of important decisions taken during the 60’s and 70’s. First of all, F.K.B.’s children decided not to enter the business but M.C.B.’s three children decided to do so. Nicola was the company’s Press Officer, Peter was the company’s Chairman and Roger combined his position as Managing Director with that of Ladies Buyer.

By 1968 it was decided to close up to a quarter of the branches. Although viable, they were either very small or situated in localities with little or no expansion possibilities.

Plans were also made to expand away from the south and concentrate efforts into larger branches situated in city centres. Manchester, Leeds and Southport were soon to appear and then the first experience of shopping centres with the opening of Brent Cross in 1976.

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By 1981 Princes Street, Edinburgh, could also boast a branch. Russell & Bromley was now a national company and, even more importantly, a household name.

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Present Day

Russell & Bromley currently has around 40 branches, many with separate Children's Departments. There are also 4 stand-alone Children's Branches.

The ladies collection includes many exclusive brands, alongside its own label, including Stuart Weitzman, Beverly Feldman, Donald J. Pliner and Aquatalia, and is complemented by an extensive handbag collection.

The men’s collection features traditional and classic styling through to modern fashion looks including brands such as Moreschi, Barkers, Lacoste, Sebago and Panama Jack.

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