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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust


Bonds of Norwich

John Lewis on All Saints Green is one of Norwich's most prominent department stores but for many older people it will always be known as Bonds, taking its name from the founder who started the firm when he bought a small draper's shop in Ber Street.

The Founder

Robert Hearne Bond was the son of a farmer, but was brought up by his widowed mother Ann at Hall Common Farm, at Ludham in Norfolk. After working initially as a grocer's assistant in London, Robert was employed as a 'draper's foreman' by his older brother John in Chelmsford, who was a draper in the town. Bonds of Chelmsford prospered and grew and was taken over by Debenhams before the Second World War.

In February 1879, having married Mary Owen, Robert Bond took over Woodlands draper's shop at the city end of Ber Street, their son Ernest being born in a room over the shop the following month. It was not a prime location, being remote from the main shopping area, and Bond had entered a very competitive business. There were nearly ninety drapers in Norwich, many serving residential areas such as Ber Street, and apart from Bonds there were five other drapers in Ber Street alone, including a branch of Curl Brothers a few doors down.

Bond wasted no time, placing a large advertisement on the front of the Norwich Mercury announcing a 'Great Sale of Drapery', offering the entire stock he had purchased from the previous owner at considerably less than half price. Two weeks later another advert offered 'Cheap Drapery' with prices commencing at one penny, three farthings and 'A Quantity of Hats and Fancy goods almost given away.' His efforts appear to have paid off as by the end of April 1879, under the banner 'Cheap Drapery, Cheap Drapery' Bond was advertising his new stock of spring goods 'Which will be found the cheapest in the city' and drawing attention to his large stock of trimmed hats and bonnets. The shop offered no credit - everything had to be paid for in cash - 'Ready Money Only'. There were other inducements to shop at Bonds - customers who spent a guinea were offered a glass of port or sherry. For small items pins were given in change - if an item came to one shilling and eleven pence a small card with pins on would be given instead of the penny change, hence the term 'pin money'. To maximise display space bolts of cloth were placed on the pavement outside the shop. This had its disadvantages when dogs were looking for somewhere to relieve themselves!

When the second anniversary of the business came round Robert and Mary Bond were sharing their home above the shop with two assistants, two draper's apprentices and a milliner's assistant. Mary is generally credited with building up the millinery business. Known as Department Number 1 as it was the first to be established and was a particular feature of the store - during the inter-war period there were twenty eight milliners busy making hats, thirty sales assistants selling them, and it was claimed the store would sell up to a thousand hats on a Saturday.

The increasing success of the shop enabled Robert Bond to expand, buying adjacent properties in Ber Street and a shop in St George's Bridge Street which didn't last long. Robert and Mary's two sons joined the business, William in 1897 and Ernest in 1903. Both would serve the firm, by then trading as R H Bond and Sons, for many years, William succeeding his father as Chairman, followed by Ernest. A third son, John Owen Bond became an architect. His practice would be responsible for the 1938 extension to the store and the postwar rebuilding. The Owen Bond Partnership is still in business today.

Robert Bond died in 1924, much mourned, his funeral service taking place at St Michael at Thorn where he had worshipped and been church warden for many years. After the church was destroyed by enemy action in 1942 Eric Hinde purchased some of the stone, including the one where he and Majorie Bond had knelt on their wedding day in 1931 which he had laid on the threshold of their current and subsequent homes until his death.

The first arcade

By R H Bond's death the store had frontages on both Ber Street and All Saints Green, connected by an arcade, opened in 1914 and claimed to be the first in the country. The nineteen twenties saw Bonds become one of the city's major stores and in 1930 the Thatched Cinema on All Saints Green was acquired and converted for use as a restaurant, conference hall and offices. Used as a furniture showroom during the day it was large enough to accommodate dinners and dances for several hundred people in the evenings.

Much attention was paid to training of staff. Joyce Gurney-Read recorded that 'It was the custom for staff to serve a three year apprenticeship, and in most cases pay for the privilege, but Ernest was against this, so apprentices were paid 6s. per week plus lunches. Their first year was spent packing, and unpacking, disentangling string, smoothing out tissue paper, picking up pins, and brushing and dusting the vast departmental displays. After three years they were promoted to 'improvers' and were then occasionally allowed to serve if all the sales staff were busy. All fashion garments carried a 'Bonds' label which had to be sewn in, and this was one of the 'improvers' jobs, as well as going through all stock to ensure that buttons were secure!'

In 1938 the premises at numbers 23 to 25 All Saints Green, next door to the Thatched Cinema, became available and a new showroom was built, designed by John Owen Bond. Medieval in appearance it was intended to complement the style of the Thatched. By this time the store was firmly established as one of the city's major drapers and employed over 200 people. In addition to William and Ernest a third generation of the Bond family had become involved in running the business. Ernest's sister Ida Bond and his son Richard joined the firm along with Eric Hinde, his son-in-law. Eric was to serve the company for many years from 1931 and after his return from war service when he had suffered imprisonment by the Japanese after being captured at Singapore, becoming Managing Director in 1949. He also played his part in the civic life of the city, serving as a Norwich City Councilor,Alderman and Magistrate, and being elected Lord Mayor in 1951 and twice serving as Deputy Lord Mayor. He also served on the Management Committee of the Norwich and Norwich Hospital, prior to the reorganization of the NHS in 1974.

Bonds suffered severe wartime damage when, in the early morning of the 27th June 1942, All Saint's Green was heavily bombed and the store and the Thatched Cinema completely burnt out. Within a few days the shop was trading again with clothes and hardware from stock held at Ernest Bond's home as he and his wife had moved in with his daughter Majorie Hinde and her family whilst Eric was held as a prisoner-of-war in Singapore (Majorie not knowing for 10 months whether he was dead or alive). Ernest, then aged 63 had acquired some buses and parked them on the store car park from where the goods were sold. This story featured in an article in a national magazine on 'The spirit that Hitler would never beat'. Other departments were found emergency accommodation elsewhere in Norwich, including on Orford Place opposite the bombed out site of Curls. In December 1944 the business suffered a more personal blow when William Bond died suddenly whilst at the store. He was 70 but still actively involved in the business.

Post-war rebuilding

In 1946 rebuilding began. Robert Own Bond, grandson of the founder and now working in his father's architectural practice, designed the sweeping three story neo-Georgian store, now a Listed Building, that still dominates the junction of Ber Street and All Saints Green. It took nearly five years to complete but gave the city its first modern department store. The opening up of All Saints Green formed part of the post war 'Norwich Plan' for rebuilding the city.

The postwar period was a successful one for Bonds. It was a time of increasing prosperity as Britain recovered from the war and domestic goods became more available and affordable. Having decided it could not compete at the bottom of the market, Bonds concentrated on selling top quality merchandise and providing a first class service to its customers. The store was still recognisably a drapers. Although selling furniture, carpets and hardware, baby and childrenswear, most of the goods featured in an advertisement for the January sale of 1960 were women's clothes, linen and bedding, some men's wear and items of haberdashery such as tablecloths and oven gloves. Hats still featured prominently with a thousand available at bargain prices ranging from five shillings to twenty shillings. In a sign of things to come the sale included new three Adamatic combined washing machine/spin driers at £70 each. How much of a bargain they were is uncertain as the advert makes it clear they were shop soiled demonstration models.

That same year Bonds bought the stock and goodwill of the long established menswear business of Greens in The Haymarket and a few years later the premises and stock of Cluttens, an East Dereham drapers, renaming it Bonds of Dereham. During the 1960s Bonds was only the second store in the country to go on a five day week, closing all day on Thursdays, which had previously been 'early closing day', to give the staff a five day working week. In the early 1970s the change to Mondays was made to provide a two day break. The business also took training seriously, and was the first store in East Anglia to win the Distributive Training Award under the then Distributive Industry Training Board.

The death of Ernest Bond in February 1963 at the age of 83 was the end of an era. Born above his father's shop in the year the year the business had been founded he had been Chairman until his death, when his son Richard succeeded him. Outside the firm his interests had been mainly sporting and he been a director of Norwich City Football Club for many years. His business advertised at Carrow Road with a sign at the River End proclaiming that 'Bond's Goods are Good Goods'. Stephen Hinde, Eric's younger son, joined the company in 1969 after six training elsewhere, becoming a Director in 1971, but resigning his executive responsibilities in 1979 although remaining as a Non-Executive Director. Eric Hinde became Deputy Chairman in 1974 being succeeded as Managing Director by his elder son Nicholas and in the same year Susan Platt, the eldest daughter of Richard Bond joined the Board, having previously worked for the firm. Vickie Bond, one of her younger sisters, was also an employee.

Bonds approached its centenary in 1979 with confidence. It was one of the city's only two family owned department stores and had recently finished a massive redevelopment which added 14,000 square feet of selling space. There was a two story extension and a new restaurant which had space for 160 diners. The store now had 70 departments and plans for further improvements. But the expansion had been costly and Nicholas Hinde hinted at the strain on the company's finances when he commented that it was a large investment for a privately owned business and referred to the difficulties of running such a business. At the time all of the directors except one were members of the Bond family. These difficulties became public when Nicholas resigned three years later after what was described as a boardroom split. He subsequently took over the small branch store in East Dereham which was renamed.

John Lewis takes over

Even so it came as shock when a few weeks later it was announced Bonds had been sold to the John Lewis Partnership for a figure believed to be about one million pounds. On Monday 24th May 1982 the store closed ten minutes early and the staff were informed. The new owners promised there would be no redundancies. Some light was shed on the reason for the sale a few days later when the financial position of Bonds became public. The business had made a loss of £297,000 in the previous year, three times that of 1980; the last profitable year had been 1978. The losses were largely attributed to the cost of the redevelopment and underlined the difficulties faced by small provincial stores in finding funds to develop their stores. The John Lewis Partnership had those resources and within two years announced plans to double the floor space and build a new multi-story car park next to the store. Renamed as John Lewis in 2001, the All Saints Green store continues to be one of Norwich's favoured destinations for shoppers, but for many older people it will still be Bonds.

I am very grateful to Stephen Hinde for his assistance in providing material which was of great help in writing this article.

Nick Williams

May 2014