Spend time, cash and even a penny — how Hillards modernised shopping in Rotherham

Spend time, cash and even a penny — how Hillards modernised shopping in Rotherham

By Gareth Dennison | 29/01/2021

Spend time, cash and even a penny — how Hillards modernised shopping in Rotherham


EVER-evolving Forge Island has played a multitude of roles for Rotherham over the years.

It was heavily linked to iron and steelmaking after being leased to the Walker family in the mid-18th century — and was where the world’s first solid weldless railway tyres were made.

It is set to house a leisure development featuring a cinema, restaurants and a hotel — and in recent years has stepped up as a temporary bus station and Covid-19 test location.

But Hillards is what many will remember most fondly.

The £6 million Rotherham superstore opened in 1984 — a year before the company celebrated its centenary, and during an era when it had some of the largest and most modern outlets in the country.

Many supermarket features we take for granted were innovations at the time.

A brochure publicising the September 18 opening on Forge Island boasted about stocking DIY, gardening and kitchen goods as well as the groceries, and having in-store banking facilities, disabled toilets and a free car park with 320 spaces.

It proclaimed a “whole new style of shopping” with low prices and high levels of service and quality.

The publicity material said: “Part of the enjoyment is simply looking around. You’ll find everything from TV sets to T-shirts. Microwave ovens to oven-proof tableware.

“As we expect people to spend rather longer than usual in our store, we’ve even provided somewhere for them to spend a penny.”

A preview day was held a couple of days before the opening, and a competition was held to win £80 by guessing the length of tethering ropes beneath the big Hillards balloon floating high above the superstore. A few months earlier, the Advertiser reported on the footbridge link to Corporation Street, which was added by Hillards.

“The bridge, which spans the river behind the old Scala cinema, will link the Forge Island site to Corporation Street,” our article said.

“Designed to give shoppers easy access to the supermarket, the bridge is 46 metres long, weighs 44 tons and needed a specially adapted crane to hoist it into position.”

The chain had started life 99 years earlier with one shop in Cleckheaton, West Yorkshire. It was founded by tea trade apprentice John Wesley Hillard, from Somerset, who was the son of a skin hide merchant.

Mr Hillard borrowed £50 to open that first store — and by the end of the 19th century had 20 shops, trading as Lion stores.

These were often end-of-terrace houses with living rooms converted to retail space.

The Hillards Archive, a website preserving the history of the company, notes that Mr Hillard had more than 60 shops at the time of his death in 1935, aged 78.

“From the beginning, the company had exploited innovative ideas,” said a spokesman for the Hillards Charitable Trust.

“John Wesley had provided tea and biscuits to his early customers, along with their return tram fare home. In later years, free bus services took customers shopping at many of the supermarkets.

“And in the 1950s, mobile shops toured the housing estates around Bradford, only to be phased out as local bus services improved, and as more people gained the use of a car.

“Continuing the tradition of innovation, and pioneering the trend in the north, the company opened its first self-service store in Brighouse in 1952, only the second of its kind in Yorkshire.”

The slogan “Lion — king of the cut price jungle” was used at the time, and the first proper supermarket opened in a converted Wakefield warehouse in 1968.

David and Peter Hartley, grandsons of the founder, became joint managing directors in 1970, and oversaw an expansion into the Midlands and the change of store names to Hillards.

When it was floated on the London Stock Exchange in 1972, demand for shares was so high that a ballot had to be held.

The company operated both profit-sharing and share buying schemes for its employees as annual sales passed £300 million in the 80s.

But in February 1987, Tesco announced a hostile takeover bid.

This was strongly contested for three months and the buyer was forced to raise its offer twice to convince more shareholders to sell.

Eventually the firm had no choice but to reluctantly recommend people accept the offer.

“To say that this was ultimately a failure on behalf of the Hillards board would be an overly simplistic reading of the situation,” according to the archives website.

“Yes, ultimately the board, and therefore the family, lost control of their company to Tesco.  However, the defence campaign raised the profile of Hillards in the community and also significantly raised the Tesco offer.

“It delivered an excellent return for shareholders which, we should remember, is a significant aspect of the responsibility of the board of a company.”

Hillards — valued at £1.8 million in 1972 — sold for £228 million.

A year later, Peter, who had become executive chairman, set up the Hillards  Charitable Trust with wife Gay.

This supports charities in the 45 towns where Hillards had a supermarket — and still welcomes applications today.

Peter recalls the day Hillards bought the land for the Rotherham store. He told the Advertiser: “I remember signing the deal with the local council. They took us out to lunch and we gave them a cheque, for £1 million or £2 million, for the site. I remember we put the bridge over the river.”

And he would welcome applications from Rotherham charities for grants, which are usually made on a one-off basis, up to £1,000.

“One difficulty we have had for probably five years is actually getting in applications from some areas,” he said.

“We get an awful lot from Sheffield, which seems to be very geared up for this, but I can’t remember the last one we had from Rotherham.

“Ideally, we want to support projects for the elderly or young people, and not national charities.

“We support smaller, local charities, who often don’t even have their own websites, for example.”

Visit hillardstrust.org/grants to find out more and apply.