From the category: Buildings

The early years of Robert Sayle

Robert Sayle Early years


Robert  Sayle was brought up in Norfolk with 5 brothers and 2 sisters.  The family was fairly well to do with his father being a landowner and farmer.  He farmed about 600 acres and in the early years of the 19th century, bought another 200 acres and around 1838/9 built a mansion on the family estate!

Robert was sent to school in Ely, possibly King’s School, but that cannot be confirmed.  He then went to London where it was thought he might become a solicitor but he decided to go into business so gained much of his knowledge of running a drapery business in London where he worked for a firm which was reputed to be at the centre of the drapery trade.

While he was working in London, his father was planning to set him up in business in Cambridge when a small drapery shop came up for sale on St Andrew’s Street.  It had been owned by John Cooch who started as an ironmonger but transferred into the drapery trade. He had named the store Victoria House possibly in honour of  Queen Victoria’s accession to the throne.

Robert Sayle was then about 24 years of age.

A few months after John Cooch held a grand closing down sale, Robert Sayle put an advertisement into the Cambridge Advertiser in March 1840 announcing that he would be opening his drapery store on the 21st March that year.  The same advert, with minor alterations, was put into the Advertiser the following week.

Robert Sayle made a clear statement in his advertisement that he would sell his goods for small profits and at the marked prices as there had previously been a habit of customers bargaining, in the hope of reducing the prices.  All his goods were priced in order that his customers would appreciate that there was no point in trying to bargain for lower prices. They had to get used to the fact that he would only take cash – ready money- for the high quality goods sold in his shop.

He introduced the large plate glass windows to the front of the shop, to show his wares, something which, previously,  had only been known in London stores.  These were to advertise his goods, rather than previous windows, which had the only purpose of letting in light.  All the shop staff were men for a long time as women were not expected to work unless in Service of some sort. In 1840 he lived above the shop.  In August 1849 be married Priscilla and their family gradually increased, with their six children.  The accommodation became rather cramped so In 1860 he took over the lease of Nos 10 and 11 St Andrew’s Street.  Here the family lived for eight or nine years until they decided to move out of town because he was worried about the poor hygiene in Cambridge.  They moved to Leighton House in Trumpington  in 1866/1869.  This was later used (and still is) as the main building for the Perse Prep School. It was decided that all his children should be well educated. The boys were sent to public schools.

 Robert Sayle was an Anglican although he had strong sympathy with other denominations, particularly the Wesleyans.  In 1865 he was instrumental in obtaining a plot of land for a Methodist Church on Hills Road, Cambridge.    He bought the Leys estate on Trumpington  Road and in 1875 the Leys School was built.  He was a keen supporter of women’s education and the Perse School for Girls was opened to be run along the same lines as the Perse School for Boys.

Robert was one of the guarantors of the YMCA buildings in St Tibbs Row the foundation stone for which was laid on 30th March 1870.  He was equally concerned for the welfare of the older citizens, giving contributions and other aid for the Royal Albert Almshouses on Hills Road to be built, these were opened in 1859.  In 1876 he purchased the Wrestlers Inn in Petty Cury  (which had been one of the old coaching houses) and allowed part of the land to used for the road to be widened for the new Post Office.  A further example of Robert Sayle’s involvement in Cambridge was that he purchased the Evangelistic Society Barnwell Theatre on Newmarket Road which was eventually renamed the Festival Theatre.

During the time of Robert Sayle, he opened premises in other countries including China, based in Shanghai and also Hong Kong.  Consequently, the silks sold in the Robert Sayle stores were of premium quality and the styles were of a very special nature with colours and patterns previously unknown in the Cambridge area.

   Robert Sayle was an immense benefactor to Cambridge and his death on 5th October 1883 was a great loss to the town.  

 After the death of Robert Sayle, and the Will details finalised, a Limited Company was formed   under the name, Robert Sayle and Co.  This happened between 1883 and 1885.  Priscilla, his widow and his family had been well provided for in his Will.

 The shop also kept the name of Robert Sayle and Co when it was bought by the Selfridges Provincial Stores in the mid-1930s.  Then just before the outbreak of World War ll, Selfridges felt that the Provincial stores were not performing as they had hoped and decided to sell the stores.  This was when the John Lewis Partnership under John Spedan Lewis  bought several of the stores which had previously been in the Selfridges group. These included George Henry Lee in Liverpool, Cole Brothers in Sheffield, Caley’s in Windsor and Trewin Brothers in Watford amongst others.  The sale went ahead and was finalised in 1940, soon after the outbreak of the war.

The John Lewis Partnership, in which John Spedan Lewis made all employees Partners in the business, went on from strength to strength and is now the large, very popular  group of Department Stores which have now added Waitrose , the Supermarket, to the group.