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Great Victorian inventors and what we can learn today from the likes of M&S and Clarks

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First Great Western is set to travel back in time and re-name itself Great Western Railway – the venture synonymous with Victorian engineer icon Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

It hopes arching back to the name, green livery, old logo and new uniforms will re-inject the success of the past into the future.

A good time then to look back at five great British companies with Victorian roots, with values helping each to flourish in the modern era.

(1) Clarks

Formed in 1825 in the village of Street in Somerset by brothers James and Cyrus Clark, the two owned a tannery and, having spotted off-cuts and cast-offs one day, had a spark of genius. “Slippers”, James shouted, and soon the brothers were making over 1000 pairs a month.

The now global business, with sales of over £1.4bn, has stayed true to the innovative Victorian spirit registering over 100 patents over the years.

From the desert boot to the foot-gauge to accurately measure children’s feet and underfoot cushioning, the new styles and inventions keep coming.

Victorian to modern-day values: Innovation and staying close to local roots, employing local workers at Street factory.

(2) Tunnocks

Scottish biscuit maker Tunnocks, famous for its teacakes and wafers, was set up in 1890 by Thomas Tunnock after he paid £80 for a shop in Uddingston. 

Innovative marketing was always key for the firm even in the early days when entrepreneur Tunnock put an advert in the local newspaper which read: “Any local view painted on a shortbread plate – samples can be seen in shop.” It now has a very successful online store selling caramel wafer cufflinks and mugs. 

The family business has also stayed close to its original community – with its factory standing only 100 yards away from Thomas Tunnock’s original shop.

Victorian to modern-day values: Marketing, advertising and again working near to and employing from within the local community.

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(3) Marks & Spencer

“Don’t ask the price – it’s a penny,” was the slogan used by Belarus born immigrant Michael Marks when he opened his bazaar in Leeds in 1884 and discovered that those cheaper priced products were his best-selling goods. 

He went into partnership with Tom Spencer in 1894. They kept the penny slogan but also added “admission free” enabling customers the freedom to browse without any pressure to buy.

M&S say the values of innovation, inspiration, integrity and in-touch are as resonant today as they were then.

Victorian to modern-day values: Shows how the entrepreneurial spirit of the immigrant community has helped the UK. Also a recognition of what the customer wants. What has changed is the movement of focus away from almost discount value to quality.

(4) Hartley’s

The jam and jelly brand was created in 1871 when William Pickles Hartley, a Lancashire green grocer, had a consignment of jam go missing. Instead of letting his customers down he decided to make his own jam to sell in earthenware pots.

Victorian to modern-day values: Has moved from owner to owner including FTSE giant Premier Foods. Now owned by Hain Daniels Group. But still being innovative and still focused on the core job of making jam.

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(5) Brains Brewery

Still owned by the family of the founder Samuel Arthur Brain and his uncle Joseph Benjamin Brain, who took over a fledgling brewery in a small stone building behind a Cardiff pub in 1882. Now owns 270 pubs, bars and hotels across Wales and the West of England and heavily associated with the Wales rugby union team. It prides itself on maintaining its independent, family status.

Victorian to modern-day values: Has maintained its independence, diversified steadily into other areas such as hotels and kept close to its community through sponsorship of Welsh sport.

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