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Shoolbred, James & Co. (1814-1934)

Shoolbred, James & Co.

Tottenham Court Road, London; furniture makers, upholsterers and retailers (fl.1814-c.1934)

James Shoolbred was a linen draper of Scottish descent. In 1814 he formed the partnership, Shoolbred & Co., which moved to 153 Tottenham Court Road in 1817. The firm gradually expanded to include woollen drapery, silk mercery, haberdashery and carpet supplies. By 1840 Shoolbred was in partnership with Cooke and were listed in the 1845 London Directory at 145-156 Tottenham Court Road and 43 & 44 Grafton Street as Shoolbred, Cooke & Co.

Tottenham House
Copyright (Attribution/Credit)
Peter Jackson Collection
Shop front of Shoolbred and Cooke, Drapers, Tottenham Court Road, London. Illustration for Shop Fronts of London by N Whittock (Sherwood, Gilbert and Piper, 1840). Credit: Look and Learn / Peter Jackson Collection

An earlier drawing of Tottenham House, c.1822, shows it as a small draper’s shop and a reduced image of this was used as a trade mark of the firm in the 1880s.  

The 1861 census recorded the widower, James (aged 51) as a general draper living at The Elms, Uxbridge Road, Acton, with his three sons: Alfred (24), Frederick J./T. (19), and Walter (18) all general drapers, and his daughter, Jane L. (17). This was a sizeable property as the main house also accommodated a house keeper, butler, groom, cook, groom & four maids. The Elms Lodge housed a coachman’s family and there was another property with a coachman. James Shoolbred jnr., mercer (aged 31), was living in another property in Acton Vale at this time.  

James died in 1862 (his will & probate were originally sworn with the value of under £250,000 and then resworn at under £200,000 in March 1864). His sons continued to expand the business as James Shoolbred & Co. Ltd. of Tottenham Court Road and surrounding streets

Growth of the company

The 1871 London Post Office Directory also listed the address of 76 Newgate Street (possibly a factory) and this address was recorded for the firm until 1877. Although some furniture had been sold prior to this, the firm announced in The Furniture Gazette, 28 June 1873, the opening of a new department furniture and decoration, managed by D Murray, in their large premises on Tottenham Court Road. The Furniture Gazette Directory, 1876 & 1877, listed the firm as upholsterers and furniture makers at four locations: 

  • 151-158 Tottenham Court Road
  • 34-45 Grafton Street East
  • 33-39 University Street
  • 260, 262 & 264 Euston Road (manufactory)

At the end of 1876 Mr. W. D. Hodges of Shoolbreds bought the well-known cabinet-making and upholstery business of Richard Newton, 1 & 3 Fulham Road [The Furniture Gazette, 1 January 1876]. The death of Thomas Jones of Shoolbred & Co., was reported in The Furniture Gazette, 31 March 1877, giving the impression that he was a noteworthy employee of the firm.

By 1881 the firm had a frontage of 250ft on Tottenham Court Road with a depth of 300 ft, covering just under 1 ¾ acres. There were seventy counting house staff and 1,800-2,000 employees spread across the main building and seven other premises within easy reach of Tottenham Court Road. 

The Furniture Gazette, 8 January 1881, gives a description of the carpet, upholstery & bedding, cabinet departments and mentions that electricity had been installed. Carpet-making took place above the stables, which housed sixty-three vans and 126 horses, in Torrington Place. Cabinet making and turning took place in Midford Place and another factory in Ogle Street housed the finishing workshops for cabinet work and upholstery, two floors housed workshops for the restoration of furniture and the basement housed the wine & spirits store. The blind factory was housed in Tottenham House and there was a furniture repository in Euston Road. 

800 employees attended the ‘Shoolbred & Co. at dinner’ each day which was held ‘in cheerful and well-ventilated rooms’.  Meat consumption at these dinners averaged 800-1000 lb, 5cwt potatoes & 150 quartern loaves. The young female employees had a large, well furnished apartment equipped with a piano, where they spent their evenings, whilst the men had similar and there were also two libraries. Shoolbreds contributed sixty men to the Queen’s Westminster Rifles Corps and there was an ‘in house’ brass band. Musical, athletics, rowing and football groups as well as a literary and dramatic club, and debating society were all organised for employees to improve ‘the quickening of their intellectual powers’.   

trade card
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Historic New England
Trade card for, Jas. Shoolbred & Co., linen & woolen drapers, Tottenham House, London, England, undated. © Historic New England

The London Post Office Directory, 1891 & 1895, listed the firm at the following eleven locations, which in some cases indicated the premises’ use:

  • 7-31 & 36 Grafton Street
  • 2, 3 & 4 Midford Place (cabinet making)
  • 7 & 8 Midford Place (decorating department)
  • Queen’s Buildings, Tottenham Court Road (blind factory)
  • 6 Torrington Place (upholstery); 260-266 Euston Road (cabinet making)
  • 79-97 Huntley Street (carpet planning & warehouse)
  • 32-39, 41 & 43 University Street (linen drapers)
  • 16-23 Upper Gower Street (stables & factory)
  • 150 Tottenham Court Road (woollen drapers)
  • 161 & 162 Tottenham Court Road (linen drapers)
  • 32-39, 41 & 43 Tottenham Court Road (upholstery & cabinet retailers)    
Design and Style 

Much of the furniture stock was made in the firm’s own workshops and professional designers such as Owen W. Cavis and H. W. Batley were engaged. The latter specialised in Japanese and Old English furniture styles and also designed pianos, one ‘Art Furniture’ example, with Gothic legs and Japanese ornament, for Shoolbred (illus. Aslin (1962), pl. D. The Furniture Gazette, 21 October 1876, published editorial regarding a catalogue of bedroom furniture designs; one of Adam style illus. Other styles included Old English, Japanese, Jacobean, Medieval and Louis Seize, with the signature of the designer, Owen W. Davis. 

As late as 1880 when the ‘Old English’ style was at the height of its popularity, Shoolbreds claimed to have the superiority in upholstery over their rivals because they employed French and German upholsterers. They also made some fine ebonised furniture with painted panels and furniture in the Louis Seize style, as illustrated in their 1874-89 catalogues. A rosewood drawing room suite and corner by Shoolbreds was selected for publicity in Cabinet Maker in August 1880 because it represented ‘the prevailing style of the day, a free treatment of Queen Anne’; it was certainly not derived from genuine furniture or architecture of that period, the term here merely implied the application of a few eighteenth century details. 

Illustrations from the James Shoolbred & Company's 1876 catalogue, 1 January 1876. Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Shoolbreds marketed their furniture in a series of artistic catalogues produced annually with new designs. The furniture was always displayed and photographed alongside the textiles, carpets and other accessories that the company sold, creating sample interiors for customers to view. Plates of the furnished interiors of some rooms were repeated in the firm's catalogues for over twenty years and included ‘masterpieces of Adam, Chippendale, Sheraton and the English Renaissance [as well as] the practical solidity of early Victorian lines, now once again attaining  a certain vogue’ (1910). The firm subcontracted some furniture production and it is known that a cabinet, the design of which was featured in the 1882 catalogue, was made by Robertson & Son, Alnwick (illus. Agius (1978), pl. 242). 

Exhibition 1876
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Free Library of Philadelphia
James Shoolbred & Co. display of 'Three rooms with furniture' at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, 1876. Free Library of Philadelphia (accessed Feb 24, 2022)

The firm exhibited at the 1853 New York Exhibition and also at the 1874 London International Exhibition where they displayed ‘an Italian sideboard’ and ‘Oriental furniture’ [The Furniture Gazette, 20 June & 15 August 1874]; also 'an English sideboard and other decorative furniture (exhibit nos 3962-3965). At the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial exhibition they had the biggest stand in the British section, with six rooms complete with carpets and wall hangings; they presented the Jacobean, Queen Anne and Anglo-Indian styles and showed a mahogany dining room suite in the ‘Italian Renaissance’ style, designed by Owen William Davis. Shoolbred was awarded a medal for its furniture at this Exhibition [[illus. Meyer (2006), p. 214; The Furniture Gazette, 15 January 1876; 14 October 1876].

At the 1878 Paris Exhibition they furnished the snuggery of Doulton & Co.’s terracotta house, the furniture mostly in satinwood with silk panelling to designs by H. W. Batley, including a side table and a piano [illus. Meyer (2006), p. 239]. They also showed work in the main Industrial court, where they took a large space of three separate divisions, to display walnut and rosewood library furniture, a dining room suite, an oak mantelpiece, a buffet and bedroom furniture in inlaid teak all by the same designer. Their furniture was deemed the best quality of the period and the firm was awarded a silver medal for library, bedroom and dining room furniture at this 1878 Exhibition [The Furniture Gazette, 21 September 1878]. 

The Furniture Gazette, 7 & 28 May 1881, also recorded Shoolbreds’ participation in the Exhibition of Works of Art applied to Furniture held at the Royal Albert Hall in May 1881. Their display was presented as a dining room with oak furniture, made under the superintendence of Mr. J. Angus, ‘who has long and ably presided over this department of the Tottenham House business’. The firm is recorded in the Lord Chamberlain’s accounts in 1885 and was awarded a Royal Warrant.


The Furniture Gazette, 31 March, 16 & 23 June 1877, described and illustrated designs of the suite of furniture, designed by O. W. Davis, in unpolished oak made as a presentation to the late Lord Mayor, the R. H. William James Cotton M. P., Lord Mayor 1875-1876 and Alderman of the Lime Street Ward since 1866. The suite comprised a dining table, two carving tables, dining wagon, sideboard with sarcophagus under, 30 small leather covered seat & back chairs and 2 carving chairs, and a fire screen. 

The Furniture Gazette also published details of other commissions including:

  • Furniture for the Angel Hotel, Islington [11 December 1880]
  • Upholstery for the Royal Comedy Theatre [22 October, 1881]
  • Furniture for the revival of Sheridan’s School for Scandel at the Vauderville Theatre [4 February 1882]
  • Furniture for De Keyser’s Royal Hotel, Blackfriars [18 March & 29 April 1882]
  • Upholstery work for Ye Falstaff Restaurant, Eastcheap and Philpot Lane [17 February 1883]
  • The constructional fittings and decorative works for the Alhambra Theatre [3 May 1884]
  • Furniture and decorations for Hatchett’s Hotel, Piccadilly [3 January 1885]
  • General school furniture (£626) and bedsteads and fire irons (£168) for the Edmonton Board of Guardians [1 March 1886]
  • Some of the furniture and all the carpeting and blinds for The Constitutional Club, Northumberland Avenue [1 November 1886]
  • Furniture for the Company of the Queen’s Westminster Rifle Volunteers [1 April 1888]
  • Furniture for the new infirmary near the Workhouse, Barnet for the Guardians [1 May 1888]  

The firms Maple, Shoolbred and S J Waring & Sons were involved from 1890-96 with the interior work of the new Hotel Cecil in the Strand but the only known surviving interiors (panelling and furniture) supplied by Shoolbreds are at Kinloch Castle, Isle of Rum, Scotland. The castle was built in 1897-1904 by Sir George Bullough, whose family made its fortune in textile manufactory in Lancashire and who owned the island. Sir George died in 1939 and after the death of his wife, Monica Lily in 1967, the castle passed to Scottish National Heritage. 

Court cases

Like most of their competitors in the cabinet making and upholstery trade, Shoolbred & Co. was involved with several court cases. The Furniture Gazette, 12 & 26 March 1881, recorded a case where Mr Samuel Charles Phillips, a trimming manufacturer in Holborn, was charged with obtaining by fraudulent pretences a bracket and other items to the value of £160 from Messrs Shoolbred & Co. The firm subsequently supplied some Chippendale furniture and then further orders totalling £850.  During an initial hearing it was stated that Shoolbred’s manager, Mr Bowen, had been in contact with both Mr & Mrs Phillips and had been misled by them as to their wealth. The defendant was remanded and at a later hearing on 10 March 1881, the judge decided to commit the prisoner on the charge of obtaining goods under false pretences. He was granted remand under the Debtors Act as a further charge of perjury was to be preferred.

In 1883 Shoolbred brought a court action against Mr & Mrs Threlkeld Edwards. Mrs Edwards produced a letter written by her solicitors in 1880 stating that she had sufficient funds from a marriage settlement to purchase furniture up to £300, however, she spent £337 6s 7d. During the course of proceedings it became evident that Mr & Mrs Edwards were no longer living together. The defence case was that the trustees had never received a formal request from Mrs Edwards to settle the debt with Shoolbred. In concluding comments the judge noted the untrustworthy evidence of the defendants and their solicitors, Messrs. Elmslie, and ruled that the defendants should be liable for the cost of the furniture as Shoolbred had taken every reasonable step to establish their liability [The Furniture Gazette, 24 November 1883].

Labour laws

With others in the retail trade, in 1886 Shoolbred spoke to the Select Committee of the House of Commons with reference to the bill before Parliament which would limit the hours of labour of persons under 18 years old employed in wholesale or retail shops or warehouses to a maximum of twelve hours per day.  He stated that he employed 700 shop assistants, of whom eighty were under the age of 18. Their hours of labour were from 8.30am-6pm during 4 months, until 5.30pm for 5 months, until 7pm during the 3 summer months, and until 2pm on Saturdays all the year round. He favoured early closing but did not feel that the Bill under consideration would enable with shortening the hours and would very materially prejudice young people [The Furniture Gazette, 1 March 1886].

Shoolbred family

The Electoral Roll, 1890, recorded Frederick Thomas, James, Walter and William Thomas Shoolbred all as landlords of 262 Euston Road, although some of them were registered to vote in other Wards, so presumably living elsewhere.

  • Frederick Thomas Shoolbred had continued working in the business, although he had moved to Hove in Sussex by 1881. He died in 1922 and probate value for effects was over £110,000. 
  • James Shoolbred of 38 Lancaster Gate, Hyde Park, died in 1900, leaving a widow, Matilda Joanna, and probate for effects was sworn at £7,758. The 1871 census recorded James jnr. as a retired draper aged 41.
  • Walter Shoolbred of Connaught Place, London, died in 1904. His brother Frederick Thomas was his executor. His probate was sworn at over £576,000.  
  • William Shoolbred, who during a 1864 fraud court case described himself as the ‘senior partner’ of the firm but no other information about him is known.  

About 1894 the firm of Frederick Parker, already a supplier to Shoolbreds, moved to 280 Euston Road, a property owned by Shoolbreds. This building comprised two floors; one for the chair makers, timber store and showroom and the floor above for upholsterers. However, Shoolbreds decided to pull down the factory and Parker left in 1895.  

The London Post Office Directory, 1902, listed the firm with

  • 262-270 Euston Road (factories)
  • Midford Place (cabinet making workshops)
  • Queen’s Buildings (blind factory)
  • 6 Torrington Place (upholstery workshops)
  • Tottenham House (use not stated)
  • 151-158 Tottenham Court Road (silk mercers & drapers) 
  • 161 & 161 Tottenham Court Road (upholstery, cabinet & carpet retail)

Other trades recorded were house decorators and furniture removers

In 1928 Shoolbreds mounted an exhibition of ‘Modern Furniture’ but in 1931 the stock and goodwill of the firm was bought by Harrods. By the end of 1934 the shop was closed and the merchandise sold off.

Sources: Aslin, 19th Century English Furniture (1962); Joy, ‘The Royal Victorian Furniture-Makers, 1837-87’, The Burlington Magazine (November 1969); Joy, The Overseas Trade in Nineteenth Century, Furniture History (1970); Joy, Pictorial Dictionary of British 19th Century Furniture Design (1977); Barty-King, Maples. Fine Furnishers. A Household Name for 150 Years (1992); Donnelly, ‘British Furniture at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, 1876’, Furniture History (2001); Claxton Stevens, ‘A Recently Discovered Piece of Ephemera relating to James Shoolbred & Co. Ltd’, FHS Newsletter (November 2002); Meyer, Great Exhibitions. London, New York, Paris, Philadelphia. 1851-1900 (2006).