Judy Faraday, John Lewis’s archivist, has spent the last year researching the retailer’s history for the 150th anniversary.

John Lewis's first bank book

Here are the objects that she has singled out as the most notable and which help tell the story best from the very beginning. 

John Lewis’s first bank book

“This is the only thing we have left from 1864”, Faraday says. “It’s a small, leather-covered book that shows John Lewis’s bank account.” The book starts in February, a few months before the Oxford Street shop opened on May 2, and illustrates the founder’s determination and dedication.

During February John Lewis made a “sizeable deposit” after he collected money from family and friends to add to his savings. It was the initial investment he used to buy stock for the shop on Oxford Street. “It demonstrates how serious this young man was,” says Faraday. “He had worked long and hard to get this money together.”

John Lewis had been orphaned at the age of eight, and at 14 started an apprenticeship with a linen draper in Wells, Somerset. He worked at a range of apprenticeships all over the country, and finished at Peter Robinson’s, a well-known Oxford Street draper. “For him to amass this money and use it to open his own store shows the man’s tenacity and eagerness to fulfil what he thought was his destiny,” Faraday observes.

The bank book reflects how the business got off the ground, and, as Faraday notes: “It’s really quite key as to why the business did so well. If he had worked so hard, he certainly wasn’t going to give up.”

What would John Lewis, who had worked so tirelessly to establish the retailer, think of what it has become today? When his son Spedan Lewis took over, he created the partnership business model that his staunch capitalist father wouldn’t have approved of. “I think he would be extremely proud,” Faraday says. “He would probably be quite amazed that his son’s business model has been such a success, but I think he would be the first to agree that it was worth undertaking that experiment.”

Tea money tin from 1940

This tiny money box was the only object to survive the bomb that hit the Oxford Street store in 1940 during the Second World War. The building was totally destroyed and wasn’t fully rebuilt until 1960 because of a national post-war steel shortage.

The tea tin, Faraday says, is one of the most interesting pieces on display at John Lewis’s exhibition on its history, which opens on May 3 at its Oxford Street store.

“It shows how far the business has come since 1940,” she says. “It’s a direct link with staff who were working in the shop and it signifies how the business has grown and the hard work everybody has put in. It’s a phoenix-rising-from-the -ashes story. It’s a reminder of how bad things were in the 1940s.”

Part of the reason the retailer survived the war, Faraday explains, was because Spedan Lewis purchased 15 department stores from Harry Gordon Selfridge in 1940. That meant that when the flagship was bombed, trading could still continue from the other outlets and the business could continue to grow. “If we hadn’t bought those shops and the bomb had dropped on Oxford Street, the business wouldn’t still be here. We did have another shop on Oxford Street though, which was bought in 1928 and known as John Lewis East, so we weren’t completely without a presence on Oxford Street.”

It’s not clear how long John Lewis went without a flagship, although pictures of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953 show the store in the background apparently open and trading. Faraday says it is not evident how much the war cost the business in total.

Since the Second World War, there is a lot about the retailer that has remained constant. “The size of the business is what has ultimately changed,” Faraday says. “What’s difficult is making sure we retain the culture, despite growth.”

The Constitution

It’s fairly common for businesses to have a mission statement, but John Lewis’s constitution is probably unique.

Written by Spedan Lewis when he created the partnership in 1929, it sets down the rules and regulations for how the staff should run the business. It includes everything from how the house magazine, The Gazette, should report on business news and involve staff, right through to how to treat customers.

Faraday says: “Although some of the rules and regulations look a bit outdated, there’s still a real link to the way that we expect to treat our customers today.” Even seemingly tiny things, such as the fact that staff shouldn’t get into a store lift if it means a customer will be left behind, continue to be an important part of the overall offer.

“The constitution is key,” Faraday says. “It was designed along those lines to give everybody a very clear understanding about the culture of the business, and it remains important today.”

It’s not as though staff walk around quoting from the document, she acknowledges. “But it remains the backbone of the business and it helps us understand what we do and why we do it. It’s unique.”

Faraday explains that the retailer’s unusual structure made the constitution a necessity. “If he was running an ordinary business it probably wouldn’t have been necessary, but because it was such an unusual model it was important to make things clear from the outset and there was no question about how things should work.”

Today’s partners don’t need to keep the 290-page book on them at all times, however – it’s available on the retailer’s intranet and, while the core values remain the same, it has been updated several times since the first edition.

John Lewis at 150: The history of the department store