Founded in 1730, Gillows of Lancaster & London quickly grew to become one of the most important and well-respected furniture makers of the Regency period. Nearly three centuries on, their name remains a standard for craftsmanship and quality in British cabinet making.
Company founder Robert Gillow was born in August 1704 in the Lancashire village of Singleton, not far from the city of Lancaster, which at the time was a major trading port. Having taken an apprenticeship with a local firm, Robert travelled to the West Indies as a ship’s carpenter in 1720, bringing back samples of mahogany, amongst the first samples imported to the UK.
Shortly after becoming a freeman, he established his own company Gillow of Lancaster in 1730. The firm specialised in joinery, house construction, the fitting of ship’s cabins and a range of simple traditional mahogany furniture. It was this use of the exotic imported hardwood that would elevate Gillows from a regional carpenter to the highest echelons of English society.
As trade blossomed, Robert was able to employ the services of local master craftsmen to enhance the styles and range of furniture on offer. He further cemented the company’s future by apprenticing his eldest son Richard Gillow (1733-1811) to a London cabinet maker where he could learn the latest fashions.
Upon his return, Richard was made a partner in the family firm which became Robert Gillow & Son in 1757, and the younger Gillow would soon become the driving force of the business. Together with his younger brother, also named Robert (1746-1795), the sons established new workshops in London and Lancaster and began taking orders from London’s wealthy elite. Robert Jnr would run the London branch of the company while Richard oversaw the heart of the business, ensuring a steady flow of finished orders headed south from the Lancaster workshops.
To strengthen their burgeoning London business, Gillows took premises in Oxford Road (now Oxford Street) in 1764, which was run by Richard’s cousin Thomas Gillows. This would continue to be the firm’s London premises until 1906, and the site is now occupied by Selfridges. From these opulent showrooms, clients could order bespoke furniture from their own architect’s designs. Alternatively, they could select from sketchbooks offering the latest styles from celebrated designers such as Robert Adam, Thomas Chippendale, George Hepplewhite, and Thomas Sheraton.
Quality and innovation were the cornerstone of Gillows enduring success, from the high calibre of mahogany and veneers employed in their work, to the breadth and originality of goods offered. Notable inventions for the company were the extending or Imperial dining table, and the Davenport desk, supposedly named after a Captain Davenport who was the first client to commission such an order. Among the more weird and wonderful items to appear in the Gillow’s sketchbooks are clothes horses, squirrel cages and even coffins.
One of the firms most notable early patrons was King George IV, who during his time as Prince Regent ordered a number of pieces for The Royal Pavilion at Brighton. One such item is this charming Library Table which was later moved to Buckingham Palace under the reign of Queen Victoria. Perhaps the finest collection of Gillows furnishings can be found at Tatton Hall in Cheshire. Designed in the 1770s, the home was extensively decorated with items purchased from Gillows of Lancaster, more than 150 of which can be seen in their original setting today.
Following the death of Richard Gillow in 1811, control of the firm passed to his three sons who elected to sell the business in 1814. The company was taken over by a partnership of Lancaster businessmen by the name of Redmayne, Whiteside and Ferguson, but the firm continued to trade as Gillow & Co.
Once again, the company enjoyed a sustained period of success, branching out into the field of furnishing luxury yachts and cruise liners. Commissions during this era included the Royal Yacht Victoria and Albert, Livadia, the private yacht of Tsar Alexander III, and the ocean liners Lusitania, Heliopolis, and Cairo.
In May 1851, Gillows won one of their most important commissions to date by securing the tender to manufacture furniture and fittings for the Palace of Westminster. The contract was a huge undertaking and saw the firm deliver seating, tables, desks and cabinets for offices, dining spaces, committee rooms and the Commons Library.
Financially overstretched and struggling to compete with the influx of cheaper mass-produced furniture, Gillows merged with Liverpool based cabinet makers S J Waring & Sons in 1903. The newly titled Waring and Gillow, continued to outfit luxury liners and yachts, and secured lucrative contracts to supply prestigious hotels such as the Waldorf and the Ritz, but early successes were relatively short lived.
The First and Second World Wars brought fresh challenges as the company’s output was switched to a war footing, manufacturing aircraft propellers, ammunition chests, tents, kit bags and camouflage netting. In the interim years, Waring and Gillow fortunes were further hampered by The Great Depression of 1929 and the resulting global financial crisis. The business was eventually sold to Great Universal Stores in 1953 and production at the Lancaster workshops ceased a decade later on March 31st, 1962.
Today, the commercial records and design books of Gillows of Lancaster and London represent arguably the greatest surviving record of the golden era of British cabinet making. Saved from private sale in 1966, the archives were purchased by Westminster City Libraries and can be viewed at the Westminster Archives Centre. A wonderful collection of Gillows furniture, sketch books and associated items can also be enjoyed at the Judges’ Lodgings Museum in Lancaster, a stone’s throw from the firm’s former premises on Castle Hill.