Our founder: the John Spedan Lewis story

With an ambitious vision of co-ownership, and of how a business could put the happiness of its employees at the heart of everything it did, and profit by it, John Spedan Lewis left a radical mark on commercial history. The John Spedan Lewis way is as alive today as it was 90 years ago.

John Spedan Lewis, c1906
John Spedan Lewis c1906

The early years

Born in September 1885, John Spedan Lewis was the eldest of two sons whose father had opened the John Lewis department store in Oxford Street. By the age of 21, not only had he acquired a quarter share holding in the department store, he was well on his way to becoming Director of Peter Jones, the other shop in his father's control.

Download a copy of the letter introducing John Spedan Lewis as a partner in the business (PDF size: 335KB), written by his father in 1907.

The beginnings of a radical idea

It was during this time that Spedan Lewis became aware that he, his brother and his father between them were enjoying earnings equivalent to those of the entire workforce in both shops. But it wasn't until a riding accident forced him to convalesce that he was able to spend time developing his ideas for the future of the business, ideas that would radically change its foundation.

With the happiness of his employees firmly at the centre of his mind, he began to instigate new systems and practices as soon as he returned to work. Intent on bettering the working conditions and spirit of the company, he offered shortened working days, the setting up of a staff committee, a third week's holiday paid holiday was an innovation for the retail trade at this time and eventually, a house magazine, the Gazette, which is still published today.

Trying it out at Peter Jones

By 1914, a conflict with his father, who was alarmed by some of these bold practices, meant Spedan withdrew any active involvement with the Oxford Street shop in exchange for total control of Peter Jones. And although it had been unhealthy financially, Spedan's bravery paid off as within five years it converted an annual deficit of £8,000 to a profit of £20,000.

Founding the John Lewis Partnership

In 1920, the first profit-sharing scheme was introduced along with a representative staff council. A reconciliation with his father after his mothers death meant the cooperation between the two stores resumed, then his father's eventual death in 1928 gave Spedan sole ownership. He created the first Constitution and the following year the John Lewis Partnership Limited and signed the First Trust Settlement. This gave him practical control of the business, but allowed the profits to be distributed among the employees. Twenty-one years later, he signed the irrevocable Second Trust Settlement, and the Partnership became the property of the people employed within it.

Voice of history

John Spedan Lewis talking to the BBC about his vision for the Partnership - Dear to my heart recorded on 15 April 1957.

Read a transcript of the broadcast - Dear to my heart (PDF size: 16KB).

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