A small village not far from London contains over a century’s worth of information about that most British of retailers — John Lewis.

It’s here in Cookham for a reason, as this is where John Spedan Lewis bought land to set up a country retreat for staff. However, plans drawn up in 1927 for a large estate never came to fruition, but the company still owns the land. Although the country club never arrived, a pottery was set up by Spedan Lewis to provide work for ex-servicemen, and it’s that former pottery that now houses the archive, which opened here in 2013.

Even the refurbished building is a work of art – notice the decorative woodwork, which a sign by the door explains came from an 1887 design once sold by the company as a fabric cover.

Most of the space inside is given to an exhibition showing off the company’s history, particularly its early years. It’s candidly a modest exhibition, but the items on show are fascinating – from an early bank book to information about the founders and the later managing directors.

I learned that John Lewis is the oldest retailer on Oxford Street on the same site, although naturally, the building expanded from a single corner shop to the whole block over the decades.

An incendiary bomb famously gutted the store during WWII, and one item in the archive that’s not currently on display is the sole surviving object from the fire — a badly burnt money tin, with the coins welded into the tin by the heat of the inferno.

Elsewhere, there’s a lot on display from the Partnership voting, including the 3-minute bell to stop people talking too long at the meetings (a very good idea!). Easy to miss, as it’s in a corner, is the first John Lewis own-brand radio, looking very much what you expect a radio from the 1940s to look like.

About a third of the room is given over the part of John Lewis that sells food — Waitrose. Founded in 1904, it was bought by John Lewis in 1937, and dominating the room is the large Waitrose shop sign, which turns out to have a bit of history.

This is from their second branch, which was a corner shop operation at the time. Opened in Acton, the store closed in 1924 when Waitrose moved to larger shops, and it was presumed the shop sign had been destroyed. In fact, it had simply been covered up and remained so until it was rediscovered in 1987, when stormy weather blew the cover off.

The stores were also so small that their early shopping trollies were quite narrow — one is on display. There’s also a bit about the evolution of the tills, from early wooden boxes to early computers.

The heart of the building isn’t the exhibition but an actual archive — hundreds upon hundreds of designs for fabrics and wallpapers all carefully mounted in metal frames to be inspected.

This is also the room where the camera gets put away as John Lewis still uses the designs, and there’s a whole range of commercial interests to protect. You are free to look with eyes only and flick through over a century of designs that have adorned people’s homes.

Most of the designs come from Stead McAlpin, a textile printer that was (secretly) bought by John Lewis but later sold, although John Lewis retained the archive.

There are more explanatory signs, but I was most struck by the size of one of the metal rollers used to print patterns onto wallpapers and how substantial the upfront investment in making it must have been — all for an improved design that they hoped would be popular.

The archive is still in use today, as shown in the display cases of modern items based on archival designs and how English Heritage was able to restore some furniture by hunting through the archive for matching patterns.

Overall, while I personally would have preferred to see more objects on display in the exhibition area, the archive is a delight to browse through the designs, and the many information signs will tell you a lot about this key retailer to the middle classes.

The Heritage Centre is open to the public on Saturdays from 10am to 4pm and is free to visit.

It’s in the village of Cookham, about a 20-minute walk from Cookham railway station, on the branch line from Maidenhead. The train is hourly, so time your visit carefully. If you’re driving, you can park nearby.

Visiting information is here.

Cookham village is postcard-pretty, and it’s not far from Cliveden, although the river gets in the way, making that a surprisingly long walk. If your timing to catch the train back is awkward, then a walk to Bourne End is only slightly further away, and that town is larger to have a wander around.


Be the first to know what's on in London, and the latest news published on ianVisits.

You can unsubscribe at any time from my weekly emails.

Tagged with: , ,

This website has been running now for over a decade, and while advertising revenue contributes to funding the website, it doesn't cover the costs. That is why I have set up a facility with DonorBox where you can contribute to the costs of the website and time invested in writing and research for the news articles.

It's very similar to the way The Guardian and many smaller websites are now seeking to generate an income in the face of rising costs and declining advertising.

Whether it's a one-off donation or a regular giver, every additional support goes a long way to covering the running costs of this website, and keeping you regularly topped up doses of Londony news and facts.

If you like what you read on here, then please support the website here.

Thank you

  1. Julian Dyer says:

    The other place to visit in Cookham is the small but superb Stanley Spencer gallery that features the artist’s highly distinctive paintings. It’s just over the road from the JLP heritage centre. Between them is the Odney Club, which is the JLP’s country club for its partners, and featured in some of Spencer’s paintings.

  2. MilesT says:

    You can complement your visit to the heritage centre with this book

    Currently available very cheaply second hand due to an inflated print run–I understand a copy was given to every current partner (and probably living long service retirees as well) at the time of the anniversary. I seem to recall the partner edition has a different ISBN and cover than the edition made available for general sale (and the partner edition ISBN was blocked for resale on Amazon).

    • Bill says:

      Thank you – I think I have ordered the last book that was selling very cheaply. I look forward to receive the book from that shop 😉

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Home >> News >> Day trips from London