Sunday, 9 July 2017

Plumstead and the Origins of Dolcis Shoes

Plumstead and the Origins of Dolcis Shoes

by Barbara Holland

Plumstead does indeed have a place in the history of the Dolcis shoe company. Readers of a certain age – and I’m one of them – will remember the names of the different shoe shops which used to dominate the high street. As well as Dolcis, there was Barratts, Bata, Curtess, Freeman, Hardy & Willis, Lilley & Skinner, Ravel, Saxone, Timpsons …....and many more.

A good history of Dolcis shoes can be found here, but there is little detail of the early days in Plumstead.  The founder of the company was John Upson, who was born in 1823 in Saxmundham, Suffolk.  In the 1841 Census he is recorded as an apprentice shoemaker to a William Gardener in Market Hill, Framlingham in Suffolk.

He married Hannah Hearn in Suffolk in 1843 and by 1851 they had moved to Newington, Surrey, which was in the centre of London’s leather industry. They lived at 20 Union Row with 3 children, and by this time John Upson was recorded in the census as a Wholesale Boot Manufacturer.

Soon after, they moved to the Bexley area where 4 of their 9 children were born between 1852 and 1857.  During this period in Bexley, John suffered 2 pieces of bad fortune. First, in 1853, his brother-in-law James Hearn(e), who was working for him as a cordwainer (shoemaker), was accused of embezzlement by John, and sent for trial. Despite a trawl through local newspapers, I haven’t been able to find out whether he was found guilty.  Second, in 1854, John was made bankrupt.  He may have moved back to Framlingham at some point after this, as one of his sons was born there in 1858, and there is a record of another insolvency involving a John Upson, a bootmaker, in Framlingham in 1859.

However, by the time of the 1861 Census, we find John Upson now aged 37, his wife and 8 children and his brother, living at 19½ Sussex Place, Plumstead Road.  His occupation is shown as a Bootmaker.  Sussex Place was the name given to a terrace of properties – mostly shops – on the south side of Plumstead Road between Maxey Road and Invermore Place.  This image of the Sussex Arms shows the western end of the terrace.  The Glyndon Estate now occupies this area.

In 1862, the Post Office Directory lists John Upson as a boot and shoe maker at 17 Burrage Road Plumstead as well as at 19½ Sussex Place.  In the 1861 Census, there is a shoemaker named Alfred B. Mitchell living at 17a Burrage Road, with the premises described as a shoe shop.It is at this time that Johnis said to be selling his wares on a stall or barrow in Woolwich Market.

In 1871, the family are recorded in the Census at 70 Plumstead Road (probably the same address as in 1861 but re-numbered), with John Upson now a boot & shoe salesman and 3 of his children employed as assistants.

The 1874 Post Office Directory lists him as a bootmaker still at 70 Plumstead Road, but with shops at 127 High Street Chatham, 15 High Street Dartford, and 5 Week Street Maidstone.

By 1881, John had clearly made enough money to have retired by the age of 58. He was living at a house named ‘Clydesdale’, Lee Road ,Kidbrooke, with one of his daughters and 2 servants.  (His wife was not listed on the census return but was lodging in Ramsgate at 7 Codrington Villas. In 1891 she was a boarder at 10 Lewisham High Street, living ‘on her own means’. Possibly she separated from her husband?  She died on 16th January 1895 in Woolwich).

The 1882 Kent Post Office Directory shows that the family now had a boot and shoe warehouse at 87 Calverley Road Tunbridge Wells, and further shops at 32 New Road Greenhithe and 3 & 4 Hare Street and 108 & 109 Powis Street in Woolwich.  By 1891, the shops were named John Upson & Co.  

The picture here  shows theWoolwich shop under the name ‘The London Boot Company’, and this one of Upson & Company from the late 1890s.  In 1902 the shop is listed at 65 & 67 Powis Street and had a manager by the name of George H. Tanner.

At some point prior to his retirement, John handed over the running of the company to his eldest son, Frederick William Upson. In 1881 Frederick was the manager of the shop in Powis Street, Woolwich with his brother Charles as an assistant.  In 1901 his occupation was recorded as a Boot Factor, employing staff.

John Upson moved again, first to Herne Hill (1891 Census) and finally to St.Leonards, Sussex (1901 Census). He died on 21st October 1909, a wealthy man, leaving over £96,000 in his will to his son Frederick William.

When John Upson moved to St. Leonards in about 1891, he built himself a grand house called Val Mascal in Hollington Park.  According to local historians, this house has a very interesting connection to the well-known socialist novel ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ by Robert Tressell, the nom de plume of the painter and decorator, Robert Noonan.  It is thought that the property which features in the story – ‘The Cave’ – is largely based on Val Mascal.  More about this can be found here.  Robert Noonan would have been working in St. Leonards for the building firm Burton & Co., who did some work on Val Mascal in 1903 and 1904, at a time when John Upson was living there.

John’s son, Frederick William, inherited Val Mascal and was living there at the time of the 1911 Census with his wife, Agnes, 3 of his 11 surviving children, a son-in law and his 2 children. They had 6 live-in servants and a gardener and coachman living in cottages.   Frederick died at the age of 80 in 1930 and left the shoe business and other assets worth over £195,000 to his son John ‘Jack’ Randolph Upson, aged 45.

John Randolph Upson was born in Camberwell in 1884. In the 1911 Census he was living at 38 Breakspeares Road in Lewisham (with 3 servants), working as a boot and shoe factor.  He attested for the Army Reserve in the First World War in 1916 and was mobilised for the Inns of Court Officer Training Corps in 1918. He then served as a Sergeant in the 5th Cavalry Reserve Regiment until the end of the war. His service papers show that he was the Managing Director of Upson  & Co by this time. Although there is no record of a marriage in this country, his service record indicates that he had a wife, with a change of address shown for her from 5 Oakcroft Road Blackheath to ‘The Cottage’ Thruxton, Hampshire.

Jack Upson, seems to have lived the high life after the war, sailing First Class to New York on a number of occasions in the 1920s and 1930s, with addresses in St. James Square W1 or at The Albany in Piccadilly. It was during this period, in 1927, that Upsons & Co. became a public company, and expanded through the 1920s to own 135 shops in London and the Home Counties. He also founded the Monseigneur Restaurant, home to some of the best music in the England, in Jermyn Street in 1930, allegedly to entertain his ‘lady friends’. It closed only a few years later in 1934, after Jack began to lose interest in the venture and amid mounting costs.

He died in a nursing home, Rushey Court, Wallington, Berkshire in 1941, leaving more than £280,000 to his married sister Queenie Norah Keliher and Graham Charles Grundy, his warehouse manager.  His will shows him as being Chairman and Managing Director of Upsons Ltd (The Dolcis Shoe Co.).


Upson’s/Dolcis was absorbed by the British Shoe Corporation in 1956.

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