The story of Fred Aldous Ltd is a tale that spans 125 years. It is a story about a family business, beards and a lot of people called Fred. It's also a story about pulling together to triumph over adversity, but most of all it is a story that reveals how our loyal tribe of staff and customers (and a few smart ideas) have helped us to remain a unique creative enterprise after all these years. Because a lot can happen over 12 and a half decades we've broken-down our long history, which we've dubbed The Beast, into smaller easy-reading eras so you can enjoy learning all about us.
1886 was a year of big achievements; Queen Victoria celebrated her golden jubilee, the Statue of Liberty was erected in New York City, Coca-Cola was invented and we, Fred Aldous Ltd, started trading.
Like many smart entrepreneurs our founder Frederick Aldous, we call him Fred the First, was inspired by a simple idea.
He had been working as a clerk in cotton mills and at yeast merchants in Manchester when he decided to set up his own business importing materials to sell to his former employers.
The business started out as an astounding success. Fred, who was renowned for his extensive facial hair, would sell more or less a whole boat load of stock before it landed in Britain from South East Asia and, in particular, he did a roaring trade selling cane and willow to basket makers who sold their baskets to the mills.
This influx of profits enabled Fred to ditch the cart he had been working from and move the business into our first home 3 Elbow Street, which is now called Edgehill Street.
Elbow Street was renowned not only for being our original base but for also having very little floor space. Apparently more than one secretary refused to work in the cramped conditions.
In 1902 Fred's eldest son Fred the Second, who was less beardy but even more industrious than his dad, joined the company as an errand boy - ignoring his mother's wish for him to attend Manchester Grammar School.
His younger brother Frank came on board four years later and the siblings worked hard alongside their father until 1914 when World War One broke out. Fred joined up, fighting in Belgium and France, while Frank was appointed to the Board of Trade in London where he organised imports for the duration of the war.
After the war ended Fred the Second returned home and began working with his father and brother again at Elbow Street.
Perhaps the most influential person in our history, Fred the Second is described by some members of the family as 'the genius entrepreneur'. After the war the cotton industry in Manchester began to decline and this potentially could have been disastrous for the company as we relied heavily on trade with the mills.
Luckily for us, Fred spotted that the end was nigh for cotton and decided to expand the handicraft side of the business, which had been a sideline up until then. This decision not only changed the whole direction of the company but it took us into a period of prosperity - women's institutes, guilds and school children were queueing around the block to buy craft materials from us.
Business was going so well that in 1923 we had to expand into rooms at Hatter Street and to an arch under Manchester's old Exchange Train Station. Things continued to improve and just six years later the entire handicrafts wing of the business moved to 45 Thomas Street (as you can see we've always loved Manchester's Northern Quarter).
Alice will be remembered most for the craft booklets she produced and the meticulous minutes she compiled during the company meetings. The booklets, or Atlas Leaflets as we call them, were dispatched to our customers all over the world and helped millions of people learn how to create.
This period of prosperity was followed by some big changes. In 1936 our founder Fred the First died leaving the company to his five remaining children (Frank died in 1927). Fred the Second bought the rest of the business from his sisters Annie, Ethel, Carrie and Alice and moved us into a new shop and warehouse at 8 Nicholas Croft.
Despite selling her share of Fred Aldous Ltd to her brother, Alice remained in the company and made a significant contribution to our success. Under Fred the Second we continued to grow and three of his sons joined our ranks. John (we called him Jack) started working with us in 1936, followed by David in '38 and Alan in '40.
The brothers worked for the company until they were called-up to fight in World War Two in 1941.
Jack, David and Alan returned from the war in 1945 and each of them was given a key role in the company.
Jack was put in charge of the growing wholesale business, David looked after the accounts and Alan managed the shop while Fred the Second continued to run the show.
By 1955 we had a large staff of almost 100 (thanks to the impact the mail order side of the business), we had moved into a swanky new home at 20-22 Withy Grove and our wholesale arm, known as Atlas Handicrafts, had expanded into an address on Spring Alley.
This was a real time of growth and team building activities became very important. We took trips to the seaside in the summer, had staff dances in the winter, and there was even a Fred Aldous Ltd band.
To this day we still have a big Christmas bash every year, which always involves a good deal of revelry and a raffle too.
Unfortunately the good times couldn't last forever. Towards the end of the '50s television gained mass popularity and every family in the UK had to have one, which meant that our customers were spending less time making things as a form of entertainment.
We went through a tough period and the financial costs of our swanky new shops weighed heavy on the Aldous family.
David left the company in '58 to become an accountant, Jack bought the Atlas Handicrafts wholesale business and began to trade as an independent company in '60, we had to leave our Withy Grove store and move to 31 Back Piccadilly in '63, and tragically Alan died in '66.
This left Fred the Second running the company he had worked at for more than 60 years at the age of 77 without the help of his sons. His sister Alice, his daughter Rosalind, Alan's widow Hilda and his wife Adelaide remained at the company and were a great source of support during this difficult time.
Alan's death was a great shock to Fred Aldous Ltd and it led to a series of events which completely changed the way we were run.
After his brother's death Christopher Frederick Aldous (Fred the Third) together with his wife Johanna volunteered to leave their farm in the Derbyshire countryside so they could take some of the weight off Chris's dad's shoulders.
Chris enlisted the help of his eldest sister Freda (the only female Fred), who had been working as teacher, and together they started to set us back on track.
Chris and Freda had an immediate impact. Shortly after their arrival we moved into our present home at 37 Lever Street and in '68 Chris's son Robert Frederick Aldous (Fred the Fourth) joined our ranks.
Chris's daughter Susan joined a year later and she was followed by her husband Trevor Walker in '72 and her youngest brother Graham in '74.
Fred the Second retired in 1970 after 68 years of service. He was 81-years-old. He died just two years later. He made more of an impact on the company than anybody else. It was his idea to nurture the handicrafts side of the business and he was a fantastic 'people person' who knew exactly how to make you feel good.
He left us at an exciting time of regrowth when Chris and his new team were beginning to rebuild the business.
Their first task was to restructure the company so we could cope with the Three Day Week (this was when power could only be used for three days a week) when it was introduced in January 1974.
Luckily we still had the arches under Exchange Station so for the next two months until March 1974 (when the Three Day Week ended) we spent Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday (no power days) packing goods for the mail order service at the arches.
Thanks to this savvy reorganisation we began to flourish once again and in 1979 we opened our own manufacturing plant in Peak Dale, Derbyshire. This was a huge step forward for the company because until then we had been creating products and printing our famous product catalogue in a cow shed in Buxton.
This period of stability continued for Fred Aldous Ltd. Rob, Trev and Graham became directors and the troubles that television had caused became a thing of the past.
Mary, Chris's youngest daughter, started work in '83, which meant all of Chris's family were working for the company, and it wasn't long before Rob's wife Bernadette and Gra's wife Julie began working at Peak Dale in '87.
Despite this renewed success we still had to work together to overcome a number of hurdles. The first of which was a wrecking ball!
One day Rob and Trev turned up at our arch to find a group of workmen demolishing the back wall - exposing our stock to the damp Manchester weather! After some investigation (and standing in front of the ball) Rob and Trev discovered that the back wall was not actually ours.
It belonged to another building and had been conveniently blocking the back of our arch. This meant that we had to let the workmen demolish the wall but once again we pulled together and managed to construct another wall to protect our stock pretty sharpish.
After more than 60 years of use we got rid of the arch in 1984. It had begun to leak and moisture was seeping in through the roof so it was no longer a suitable place to store our stock. We found all sorts of stuff when we were clearing out, including ancient products and a few petrified stray cats (the damp had slowly turned them to stone!).
If wrecking balls weren't bad enough, in June 1987 we also had to cope with a fire. And it was a big one! £27,000 of stock was damaged, due mainly to our sprinklers, but that didn't stop us.
We love a challenge so we all worked non-stop to ensure that the shop would be open again by the following Monday. Incidents like this demonstrate what we're all about - being a family business with loyal hard-working staff.
1992 marked another significant point in our history. The fifth generation of the family came to work with us and Chris, the man who had abandoned a quiet life of farming to save us from near extinction, passed on his role of managing director to his son Rob, although he didn't retire till 1999.
That same year Mark Frederick Aldous (Fred the Fifth), Rob's son, and Paul Stephen Walker, Trev's son, joined the team aged just 13.
These two scallywags, who are now our managing directors, started out their careers holding BMX competitions in the stockroom/basement and dragging other members of staff outside to play football. They've stepped up their game a bit since then though.
As a company we've always been at the cutting-edge, technologically speaking, and in 1993 we were one of the first companies in Manchester to own a computer (this was back in the day when computers were the size of tanks and cost around £5,000). Obviously word about this got around because someone tried to steal it - this led to one of the biggest disasters in our company's history. Another fire!
The burglars broke into the shop via an air vent, very Mission Impossible, and tried to take the computer. However, Rob had thoughtfully chained it down and the robbers hadn't expected this.
What seems to have happened is that the thieves tried to melt the computer enough to remove the chain, but this didn't work so they decided to trash the shop and set it on fire. Again the sprinklers came to the 'rescue' except the water that put out the fire also mixed with an open sack of plaster powder which flowed over all of our stock before setting hard like a rock.
We turned up to work to find the place looking like The White Cliffs of Dover. It took a lot of effort from all our staff (and their friends and relatives) to sort out the mess but we managed to get running again after just a few days.
In 1995 we opened our first Fred Aldous Ltd franchise in Chorley, Lancashire. We bought the store from one of our wholesale customers and we put a craft-mad lady called Maureen in charge of it. The Chorley shop was open for exactly 2000 days and we did a roaring trade but we had to shut it in 2001 when Maureen sadly died. We had a real buzz at the Chorley shop and we're considering franchising again one day so watch this space!
Four years later in 2005 another exciting opportunity presented itself to us - Microsoft got in touch! Laura's (one of our current managers) mum worked for Microsoft UK and put our name forward when the computer giants were looking for a British company to trial their new retail management system.
Apparently when Microsoft were launching the product in the States they tested it in Bill Gates's cousin's model shop and then paid a journalist from the New York Times to review it and give it a positive endorsement. They wanted to do the same thing in the UK so we were the obvious choice.
The Microsoft deal was an amazing venture for us but it was also a lot of hard work because we had a number of premises and several revenue streams to restructure. Mark and Paul rose to the challenge, just like all their predecessors before them, and steered the company smoothly through this transition, which was one of their first big projects. They managed to instigate all of the changes on time, on budget and they were able to streamline the way that we are run.
In 2007 they oversaw another major task - our growth into the top shop.
Until then our Lever Street home had been a basement shop and a sub-basement in which we used to store our stock. When the street level shop became vacant it was Mark and Paul's idea to expand into it.
Initially the older members of the family were reluctant to move into the top shop but Mark and Paul persuaded them and since then the company has gone from strength to strength.
Thanks to their bright ideas Mark and Paul were made managing directors in 2010.
2011 marked our 125 year anniversary and, if you haven't heard about this already, we organised loads of fun activities to celebrate! These included an artist in residence programme, a vintage craft fair and a massive party.
We decided to celebrate this birthday in style because we wanted to show our appreciation to our dedicated staff, past and present, and our legion of customers. We wanted to celebrate people like Mavis who started her career as a work experience girl and worked with us for 54 years (finishing in 2002) and Pauline who is still with us after 36 years. Most of all we wanted to celebrate people like you who care about us enough to read the whole of The Beast.
Thank you so much for supporting us for all these years. Without your belief in our products and your investment in our ideas we wouldn't be able to do what we do best - supply creative people with materials to make things. In fact, everything you need, to make anything you want.
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