Napoleon may have called the British a nation of shopkeepers, but it was a young 19th century Welsh draper who turned the British into a nation of mail-order shoppers. On 16th October 1834, Pryce Pryce-Jones was born in the small village of Llanwchaiarn, one mile from the Welsh border town of Newtown. Twelve years later, he left school and began working for a local draper, John Davies.
Pryce-Jones was in the right place at the right time. These were boom times for Newtown’s woollen industry. Its Cambrian Woollen Mill was the largest wool manufacturer in Wales, and its produce was highly respected all over the world.
Over the next ten years, Pryce learned his craft of selling high-quality woollen flannel and other textiles to Newtown’s local townspeople.
In 1856, aged 22, Pryce-Jones took over John Davies’ drapery and also set up his own drapery business in another shop just round the corner. This gave him great access to the shoppers in town. But Pryce-Jones knew there were many other potential customers who couldn’t travel into Newtown.
With the introduction of the Penny Post in the 1840s, and the installation of post boxes across Britain during the 1850s and 1860s, Pryce-Jones realised he could use this new communication infrastructure. If customers knew what they wanted and the price, they could post their orders directly to him, rather than wait until they next travelled into town.
So, he distributed simple price lists to the landed gentry and larger households in the neighbouring villages. This worked well, and orders flooded in.
On 3rd October 1859, Pryce-Jones renamed his little drapery shop as the Royal Welsh Warehouse, to coincide with the arrival of the Llanidloes to Newtown railway line. Although this isolated line didn’t connect with any other railway lines at the time, it still gave Pryce-Jones easier access to the villages along the 17-mile mid-Wales route. For other customers, Pryce-Jones distributed their goods by stagecoach.
However, business took off two years later when, in 1861, the Oswestry to Newtown railway arrived. This connected Newtown with the rest of the UK’s ever-expanding railway network, making it possible for Pryce-Jones to send his products anywhere in the UK or the world.
In 1861, he printed a catalogue of his Welsh woollen wares, and historians now believe this brochure to be the world’s first mail-order catalogue.
Mail order was not just for the masses. In 1866, he received what was referred to as an “extensive order” from Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle. In 1875, the royal household placed another order for delivery to Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.
Pryce-Jones publicised Queen Victoria’s patronage on his catalogues, and was soon supplying royal households in Austria, Naples, Hanover, Russia, Denmark, and Germany.
He divided catalogues into sections, called Departments, and in the Corset Department of the Spring/Summer 1891 catalogue, Pryce-Jones offered The New Pelloptops corset, which was available in “white or black, for medium or full figures, with pure Greenland Whalebone,” and all for 17s 11d!
His catalogue carried menswear too, with departments devoted to shirts and jackets for cricket, boating, and tennis.
Another famous customer was Florence Nightingale, who liked his flannels so much he named a special width of flannel after her. It was a small, rectangular piece, often knitted or crocheted, and worn over the shoulders in bed.
Business flourished, and eighteen years later, he built a vast red brick warehouse in Newtown, right next to the town’s railway station. Officially opened on 3rd October 1779, he later expanded this enormous warehouse in 1895 and 1901, to comprise six floors and over 80,000 square feet.
By 1880, Pryce-Jones boasted having 100,000 customers, with some living as far afield as America and Australia. Because business was so brisk, the London and North Western Railway line set aside three wagons especially for his parcels, enabling him to offer next day delivery to most of England.
Queen Victoria knighted him in 1887, and by 1890 his customer base had doubled to 200,000.
In 1901, such was the enormous volume of goods he was despatching to customers, his Royal Welsh Warehouse gained its own Post Office.
One of his biggest orders also made him a pioneer. In 1876, the Russian army were looking for suitable material that soldiers could sleep on in battle zones. Pryce-Jones knew the superior Welsh Flannel would be up to the job, so he set about creating what’s now recognised as the fore-runner to the modern sleeping bag.
He took a sheet of Welsh flannel and folded it over, along its length, and then incorporated a pocket at the top, with an inflatable pillow. If he’d sewn up the bottom end and the open long end, he would have created what we recognise today as a sleeping bag.
He called it the Euklisia Rug, and it was two yards and 11 inches long, by one yard and 31 inches wide. He priced them at 3s 11d each.
The Russian army ordered 60,000 of them, but when the Siege of Pleven ended earlier than expected, the Russian army only needed 43,000, leaving Pryce-Jones with an unsold supply of 17,000. He soon sold them via his mail order catalogues, and they were popular in the Australian outback and in the Congo.
Pryce-Jones died on 11th January 1920, aged 85. Sadly, his business struggled during the Great Depression, and in 1938 the Liverpudlian chain store, Lewis’s, bought it.
Jeff Bezos changed the way the world shops when he created his online retail giant, Amazon. It’s a business model that has disrupted traditional retailers, particularly during the recent pandemic.
But it could be argued that the real pioneering disrupter was Sir Pryce Pryce-Jones. He was the British man from the Welsh border town of Newtown who gave the world access to some of the finest Welsh woollen wares via his trailblazing mail order shopping system.
For more information about Newtown, visit: https://newtown.org.uk
(c) Simon Whaley