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Gieves Ltd / Gieves & Hawkes

Gieves Ltd / Gieves & Hawkes

Gieves Ltd can trace their roots back to the late 18th Century but were an amalgamation of a number of naval outfitting companies, with the first Gieves only becoming involved in 1835.

Melchisedek Meredith set up in business as a naval tailor in 1785 at 73 High Street, Portsmouth. With other naval tailors working in the fortified dockyard of Portsea, an area most respectable people would not go, Meredith was canny to open on the High Street. He widened his customer base in doing so and soon earned an enviable reputation. Most of the great naval commanders of the period were his clients including Rodney, Hood, Howe, Collingwood and Nelson. The regulation blue wool jacket that Horatio Nelson wore, and died in, at Trafalgar came from Mel Meredith.

Meredith's business flourished in part due to his location but also because of the increase in size of the navy during the Seven Years' War, the introduction of stricter dress regulations in the late 18th century and the Napoleonic Wars. However, his affable nature and relaxed attitude in chasing his debtors meant that when he died in 1814, his business had considerable debts of its own. His 17 year old son, Augustus who was training as a doctor, was compelled to continue the business with his widowed mother.

With peace in Europe after Waterloo in 1815, both the navy and army dramatically reduced their numbers and so with it, the demand for uniforms. In order to try to increase business, Augustus Meredith opened premises in London but in 1837 declared the business bankrupt. Four years later it was sold to Joseph Galt, a tailor and near Portsmouth neighbour at 63 High Street. In 1852 James Gieves joined in partnership and the business was renamed Galt & Gieve.

James Gieve's family were Huguenot shoemakers from Exeter but he had previously been employed at a bank. Perhaps it was Gieve's background in banking that led to the company grasping the opportunities that war and a changing world presented. During the Crimean War of 1853 to 1856, James fitted out a yacht as a tailor's workshop and took it to the Black Sea. If customers could not come to him, he would go to them.

Perhaps inspired by the many London suppliers who offered army officers a complete package of portable campaign furniture, Galt & Gieve first offered their naval trunk in 1854. The company had spotted a hole in the market. Aside from needing uniforms, naval officers needed various other pieces of equipment from telescopes and dirks to storage space and washing equipment. Their trunk was an ideal starter kit for a cadet or officer and neatly contained most of the items that they would need including space for uniforms and a secure compartment for valuables. Although the large trunk is dour on the outside with an iron clad, painted pine carcass, the interior was fitted with various mahogany lift out trays and drawers. The inside of the lid had an adjustable mirror and brass hooks holding a telescope, dirk and parallel rule. It was so popular that they were still making it 50 years later in the 20th century.

As the navy looked to update itself in the middle of the 19th century, adapting to the age of steam, Galt & Gieve benefitted. New regulations invariably meant more business. HMS Britannia was established as a new training college at Dartmouth in 1863 and so gave the company a new customer base, at the start of their careers. By 1859 the company were doing so well that they had moved to larger premises at 111 High Street, Portsmouth.

In 1887, James Gieve became the sole owner but died only a year later leaving his sons to take over the business. One of them, James Watson Gieve, was to play an important part in the development of the business. He had wanted a career in banking and had to be persuaded by the family to take over on his father's death. He trained as a cutter, and although it gave him an understanding of the core business, his abilities were better suited to management. With the opportunities that were offered by the changes and increase in size of the navy in the second half of the 19th century, James Gieve was the right man to take full advantage. In 1891 they showed their wares at the Royal Naval Exhibition in Chelsea under the name J. Gieves & Sons, Late Galt, Gieve & Co.

As the Royal Navy expanded, so did the company. They targeted the cadets at Dartmouth and later at Osbourne, supplying them with kit as well as Admiralty approved guidance books that no doubt also advertised the company. By the early 20th century, 98% of cadets benefitted from Gieve's business plan. In time, they would become close to a possible 4000 adult customers. A credit account system was also put in place to ease the financial burden on a young officer. To consolidate these potential customers, branches were opened in most of the major British ports. Exceptional service also inspired customer loyalty. If an officer wanted theatre tickets, flowers for their sweetheart or the use of a motor car, Gieves would arrange it. Nothing was too much trouble or any location a bar.

The company also bought a number of its suppliers at once ensuring its needs could always be met whilst making it harder for their competitors. The gold lace embroiders Joseph Starkey (established in 1835) and the merino cloth manufacturers Strachan & Stroud were taken over in the 1890's.

At the turn of the 20th century, Gieve opened premises in New Burlington Street, London and then in 1901 at 21 St. George Street. From just having the ground floor, they took over the whole building 2 years later. In 1904 Charles Matthews, whose company was established by his father Henry at 66 Queen's Street, Portsmouth around 1816, joined the business. Matthews had already acquired Seagrove (long established Portsea Naval tailors, cutlers and campaign furniture retailers listed separately in Makers). The business was now called Gieve, Matthews & Seagrove Ltd. In 1910 they bought an unknown carpentry business to help meet the demand for their popular Naval or sometimes called Midshipman trunks.

Gieves wanted to establish themselves amongst the best London tailors and the location of their premises was important to achieve this. By 1912, they had moved again, this time to 63 South Molton Street. In 1916, the company name changed to Gieves Ltd. By 1919 they had moved to Royal Navy House, 21 Old Bond Street. Whilst expanding in London, they still kept large premises in Southsea to meet the needs of their naval customers on the south coast.

Although their principal business was still tailors and outfitters to the armed forces, the range of goods they offered had grown to include everything from luggage and grooming products to footwear and walking sticks.

The 20th century brought the highs and lows of 2 World Wars and their Bond Street premises were bombed during the blitz. Outside the periods of war, the company looked to increase their civilian customers and a number of shops were opened in provincial towns such as Cheltenham, Leicester and Chester. As the century progressed, Gieves seemed to be less relevant to modern day living. Hawkes, a London business founded as a saddlery and military cap maker in 1771 were similarly suffering. Gieves acquired Hawkes in 1974, along with their desirable premises at 1 Saville Row. Both companies had strong reputations and their amalgamation gave them a new lease of life. So much so that Gieves and Hawkes are probably the most famous of the London tailors and still going strong today.

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