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Marks & Spencer is one of the largest clothing retailers in the UK and in 2008 was recorded as the 43rd largest retailer in the world with 895 stores worldwide. The company is a long standing British heritage with its roots firmly in Yorkshire. Michael Marks was originally from Slonim, a formerly Russian area of Poland now part of Belarus, and fled to England from Jewish persecution around 1882. He began working in Leeds for a company that employed refugees before travelling around West Yorkshire as a general salesman. In 1884, he met a local businessman Isaac Dewhirst, who helped him set up his own stall on Kirkgate Market. Everything on his stall was sold for one penny, so was an early example of the ‘penny bazaar’ and ranged from nails and screws to soap and wooden spoons.  He married Hannah Cohen in Leeds in 1886, which can be seen on the official BMD index available on TheGenealogist.co.uk and the couple can be found on the 1891 Yorkshire census living at Great George Street with their daughter Rebecca and son Simon, who would later become head of the business.

Michael Marks

Hannah is recorded on the 1891 census as ‘Anna Marks’ as it was common on census forms for family members to be recorded by their nick-name rather than their formal name.  Her brother Jacob Cohen is also living with the family.  Census records can be very useful when trying to trace details of the wife’s family without ordering a marriage certificate, as you will often find members of her family visiting or living at the address.  Complete census transcripts from 1841 to 1901 are available on TheGenealogist.co.uk for England and Wales, with unique search tools such as the Keyword Master search, Family Forename search and House and Street Search available.  The Marks family move to Cheetham Hill Road, Manchester in 1893, which is where you find the family on the 1901 census.  Entering Cheetham Hill Road onto our House and Street search allows you to bring up all entries for the address and then select a specific house number to view details of people living at the address.  You could also use the Family forename Search, enter Michael, Hannah, Simon and Rebecca and view all families on the 1901 census which contain people with these names.  Results can be narrowed down by entering a year of birth and relation to Head for each person, and also a surname.

Thomas Spencer

In 1894, Michael Marks decided to expand from his market stall and open a shop in the lower part of the building on Cheetham Hill Road.  He started looking for a partner to invest and help run the business, initially approaching his friend Isaac Dewhirst.  Dewhirst declined the offer but introduced Marks to his cashier Thomas Spencer.

Thomas Spencer was born in Skipton, Yorkshire in 1852, to shoemakers John and Elizabeth. His first appearance on the census shows him in 1861 with his now widowed mother, sister, brother and great aunt.  His elder brother James appears to have taken on the family business with his occupation recorded as ‘shoemaker’.  By the census of 1871, Thomas has moved to Bradford and become an apprentice to draper Thomas Brown.  Thomas married his first wife Elizabeth Baxter in Leeds in May 1873, and their first child Grace Baxter Spencer was born in September.  Sadly Elizabeth died in 1891 and Thomas married his second wife Agnes Whitfield in Leeds in 1892.

Thomas Spencer as an apprentice on the Yorkshire 1871 census


Simon Marks

Michael Marks and Thomas Spencer began their business partnership in 1894, each contributing a £300 share.  Spencer was extremely practical, well organised, an excellent book keeper, and also brought with him many useful contacts that he had made whilst working for Dewhurst, which helped them to get the best price for goods.  Together with Marks’ shrewd business mind, it was an ideal partnership and they opened their first store at 20 Cheetham Road in Manchester. 

By 1901 the business had grown considerably and they were able to build their own warehouse at Derby Street, Manchester, which became their first registered address and official head quarters.  By 1903 their original £600 investment had turned into £30,000 and Spencer decided to retire from the business.  Thomas Spencer passed away in July 1905 and Michael Marks died in December 1907, so Marks’ son Simon took over as Chairman in 1916 at the age of 28 and continued to lead the company for 56 years.  The St. Michael brand which was established in 1928 and used up until 2000, was Simon’s tribute to his father.

Images courtesy of The Marks & Spencer Company Archive: marksintime.marksandspencer.com

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