The royal window and the mail order company.
Often when I’m asked where I’m from or where do I work I’m left with a blank expression on the other person’s face. “Oh, is that in the valleys?”
No, I live in Mid Wales. Wales is a large country, to a certain extent, and the valleys are just a very small part of it in the south east corner of it. It’s like saying you’re from Manchester and the response is “that’s near London isn’t it?”
Anyway, I digress. The point of my post is that a lot of people don’t know the geography of Wales and just have a preconception that we’re all singers in a male voice choir and still head down mine shafts.
Mid Wales is much more scenic (in my opinion) than any other part of Wales. It’s rural with a large agricultural community.
But what actually surprises people more is when you tell them about the innovation, research and development, high-tech businesses, and entrepreneurial sole traders that are based and working in the area.
Yes, there is much more than sheep in Mid Wales.
But this element of our community — and an important economic one at that — is not new.
Over 100 years ago the area’s people were being innovative and yet to a certain extent remain unknown to the vast majortity of the UK population — even many of those who were born and brought up here in more recent times.
One of the key towns in the area is Newtown. And the name Newtown dates back to when its was originally a Newtown in the 1200's, although many still think it’s from the 1960s and 1970s when government money was pumped into the town and the local region to support the expansion and inward investment of mainly manufacturers from other parts of the UK.
Newtown was home to several inspirational people who have left a mark on industry and the social fabric of the UK and yet are not widely celebrated or necessarily recognised.
Pryce Pryce Jones is one.
He set up and developed a business based on the area’s flannel industry. It was a significant employer in the region in the 1800s and into the early 1900s.
While there remians a more modern woollen mill in Newtown today, it employs a handful compared to the hundreds for decades earlier.
Pryce Pryce Jones realised that there was a much wider market and products for the flannel industry.
And he developed what became the world’s first mail order company in Newtown.
Yet if you asked anyone in the UK about the mail order business, they’d most likely tell you it was started in the second half of the 20th century in the United States.
But no. Pryce Pryce Jones started delivering flannel products and other wares from Newtown and counted Queen Victoria among his customers.
And it was no small business. Hundreds were employed by him and two of Newtown’s largest buildings still stand out in the town highlighting his success.
The Pryce Jones Building and Agriculture House, which was originally connected by an enclosed gantry, were where his massive emporium and mail order were based.
In the late 1800s customers in London could place an order in the morning and it would be delivered by train by late afternoon (Newtown Railway Station and the Cambrian Railway Line sit across the road from the building). So the “same day” delivery courier was in fact a much older service than many realise today.
Whole families worked for the business and major social and sporting events were held in the town throughout the year for them, bringing hundreds of people together in this small community.
More recently the building maintained its links with the mail order sector with the Kays catalogue company based there and more recently Littlewoods, although the call centre taking orders from throughout the UK was closed a couple of years ago.
If you visit the Pryce Jones Building today you will see the exterior celebrates the Pryce Jones empire, with plaques and stonework highlighting countries the company delivered products to as well as the royal patronages it held.
The photograph above is of a window in the main stairway leading to the first floor of the building, celebrating the then company’s patronage with Queen Victoria.
The building maintains it sense of glory, set out as only a very large and successful emporium was in the early 1900s.
You can almost feel the history in the walls.
I remember being taken into the building as a child in the 1970s and early 1980s and thinking what a vast shop this was with each floor dedicated to clothing, homewares and obviously a very large toy section.
So when I refer to the area I live and work, I’m quite proud that even if nobody really knows where it is, it was actually at the forefront modern day industry.
I’ll feature some more of the area’s famous commercial and industry heritage in the future, including the home of the Laura Ashley empire and the work of social reformer Robert Owen, who was born and died in the town but is better known for founding the Co-Operative movement in the UK.