About

Kays was a major employer in Worcester, from the time W. Kilbourne Kay formed the company in 1890, until its closure in 2007. There can be few families, living in the city, who have not, at some time, had one of their relatives work at Kays in some capacity or another.

Kay & Co Ltd was based for many years in the purpose built premises, known as St Oswald’s, situated in the Tything, the historic street that runs north from Worcester city centre.  This building is a superb example of the architecture of the early 20th century and was designed by Simpson and Ayrton, a distinguished London firm of architects, who also designed the Worcester Art Gallery, Museum and Victoria Institute in Foregate Street.  This is a view of the St Oswald’s building that was taken in the early 1960s. (see A History of Kays for more details)

The Kays Heritage Group was formed in May 2000 to enable the rich and varied history of the well known mail-order company, Kay & Co Ltd., to be preserved for posterity.  

We are always interested to learn about the people who were employed by the company, in whatever capacity, or were their customers (or Agents, as they were known).  

It is the social history as well as the documentation of the company’s history through photographs, letters and memories from those who have them, that the Heritage Group seeks to gather and preserve.

The group would like to hear from any ex-employees who worked in the offices and warehouses at Worcester, Leeds, Glasgow, Newtown, Bradford, Bristol, Droitwich, Lancaster and York.  

The group would also like to hear from any agents or customers who received the catalogue and purchased items from it.  

Please contact the group by e-mail, if you have any anecdotes of your time at Kays whether as an employee or customer, and especially if you have photographs that can help us add to our knowledge of Kays. 

At present, we are making an effort to present you with as much of the heritage as we can. If you can assist us with compiling the history of the company, then please do contact us.  Please visit this site regularly as new information is always being added.

The group is looking forward to hearing from you. You can contact us at our e-mail address: enquiries”at”kaysheritage.org.uk; where the “at” should be replaced with a “@”.

© All images (except the Heritage Lottery Fund logo and the CD case image) and content in this website are copyright of the Kays Heritage Group unless otherwise stated, as is the trademark, logo and name – “Kays of Worcester”.  

© All images from any and all Kays’ catalogues and related publications or photographic work, published up to the end of the year 2000, are the property of the Kays Heritage Group and the copyright to these images is held by the Group.

© Images and content may not be used for any purpose, be that commercial or private, or digitally scanned or reproduced by any means, mechanically or electronically, without first obtaining the written consent of the Group.  A royalty fee may be payable for such usage.

Initial Funding was provided though the “Awards for All” scheme of the Heritage Lottery Fund (November 2002)

Kays ways Pays

Kays Ways Pays” was the motto, or advertising slogan, used by Kays in the 1950s and 1960s.  

The slogan was used to encourage both existing and new agents to sell the company’s products and services, that were on offer in the catalogue, to their customers.

Here we are using the motto as a means of showing those items that have featured in the catalogues and form part of the heritage collection. They are included here for the interest and benefit of visitors to the website.

This is a Kays “Climax” sewing machine dating from 1916.  Still in good working order, it differs very little from the Singer and other similar designs that were still on sale some sixty years later. How many items of clothing were created on this one?

 

 

 

 

The Kays “Easiworker” as featured in the catalogues from the early 1920s until the mid 1930s.

 

 

 

 

 

This is a page from the catalogue of 1913 showing the new shuttle mechanism for sewing machines that was being introduced.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is part of a 42 piece service that was sold from the catalogue between 1896 and 1914.  Each piece is marked on the base with the simple identification of “Kays, Worcester”. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is the page from the 1913 catalogue that shows the full illustration of the tea service shown above.  This tea service would have represented a major investment for any working family.  A clerk working for Kays in 1913 would have been paid approximately 12/6d each week so this service would have taken over two weeks wages to buy it.

The people at Kays

This is a picture of William Kilbourne Kay is a formal portrait taken from the 1907 catalogue.  He was born in September 1856 in the naval town of Portsmouth.  The first formal record of Kay as being in Worcester is in the Census of 1881 and he is living in lodgings at Park Street, Worcester.  His occupation is recorded as “Jeweller’s Assistant”.  Kay was employed by John Martin Skarratt, the grandson of the original John Skarratt.  By the time he was married in 1883, Kay was living at 3 Broad Street, Worcester and this is where his frist two children were born.  This was the address of Skarratt’s watchmakers at that time.  Kay would have been 51 years old when the formal portrait, shown here, was taken and had developed his business to be a substantial one.  He lived at Heron Lodge, London Road, Worcester at this time.

This formal portrait of William Kilbourne Kay was taken in 1920 when Kay would have been 64 years old.  Always a well-dressed man, he insisted on high standards of dress and professional behaviour from himself and his employees.  Despite the difficult times of the early 20th century, he had continued to grow the business and he was still actively involved in running the company until two years before his death.  After suffering a long illness through cancer, he died in May 1929 leaving his two sons, Tom, the eldest, and Edwin, running the company.  The third  and youngest brother, Jack, had become a director in 1926, after resigning his commission in the Army.  Tragically Tom K Kay died, at the age of 49, in 1933 leaving Edwin and Jack to run the business.

Few pictures exist of W Kilbourne Kay and his family so any photographs that could be added to this record of the man, his life and family would be welcomed.

 

modern image

Heron Lodge, the Kay’s family home in the early part of the 20th century.  Built by an  Admiral of the Royal Navy and named after his ship, HMS Heron, this impressive building lies in its own grounds off the London Road in Worcester.  HMS Heron is still a ship within today’s Royal Navy as it is the proper name of RNAS Yeovilton in Somerset.

The two views of Heron Lodge were taken three years apart.  The view above, was taken in 2005 when the building clearly needed restoration, whereas the view left was taken in July 2008 after work had started to restore the building to its former glories.

 

above – The Kays’ Marketing team taken in 1999 (sic), outside their offices at “Midland” Office, 205 Bromyard Road, Worcester.  Within a few years, the team had all but gone having been combined with the Marketing team at GUS Home Shopping in Manchester.  They provided the Kays “feel” to the way the catalogue shopping business was sold to the agents and customers by their creation of the Kays’ brand.  Where are they all now?

left – This is a picture of the VDU Input Room at St Oswald’s, Worcester and was taken in about 1974.  These young ladies were responsible for entering orders and agent’s account details into the mainframe computer.  There were other such rooms at Leeds, Glasgow, York, Bristol and Newtown, employing young women, in similar roles.  There were very few male VDU operators.

above – part of the Computer team enjoying the sun for this group photograph.  Taken at the back of the St Oswald’s building in Worcester during the summer of 1992, many members of the team are still employed in the company (December 2006).  By December 2007 all the IT functions had been transferred away from Worcester and the team was made redundant.  Part of the redevelopment of the St Oswalds building in to commercial and residential properties led to the demolition of the building behind the group.  It used to be the training room for the IT team.

These ladies are the “Stencil Girls” and were photographed in the summer of 1953.  The Stencil department was managed by Mr Noakes.  Because of the colour of their coveralls they were also known as the Geisha girls. Some of the group have been identified but there are still several un-named ladies.  Do you know any of the names.; did one of your relatives work for Kays at this time.

In 1926, William K Kay organised a day-out for his “entire office staff, their wives and friends” at Worcester office, to commemorate his 70th birthday.  On Saturday the 11th of September 1926, a chartered GWR train left Foregate Street station in Worcester and took the assembled staff down to Weston Super Mare for the day.  Kay paid for the breakfast and dinner for all of those who went on the outing on the outbound and return journey.  The company provided each member of staff with a “half-crown” (12p) for them to make their own arrangements for lunch.  The Worcester Herald reported that over 350 staff and guests, along with Mr & Mrs Kay and his family went to Weston for the day.  The envelope (above) was given to each member of staff so that they had everything they needed for the day.  Does anyone have a photo from their familiy albums showing their relatives on the the day itself?  Do any railway enthusiasts know of any images of the train which was apparently bedecked with birthday greetings and flowers?

From the early 1950s Kays realised that members of staff wanted to keep in touch with and be aware of events and activities that were taking place at the many other offices and warehouses around the U.K..  The publication of the Kays LINK, the in-house magazine, enabled this to be done.  Published until the late 1980s, the copies of the LINK are a valuable historical record of the people and social events that took place within the company.  Here are examples from the earliest (the black & white copy, dated 1953) to the last (top left, with red banner, from 1988).

If you have any photographs of people who worked for Kays throughout its offices and warehouses in the U.K., and you can identify who is in the photograph, where and when it was taken, then please contact the group (see Contact the Group)

Memorabilia

 

In 1965, Kay & Co Ltd commissioned a production run of Royal Worcester “round ash trays” (or RATS, as they were known to the Royal Worcester staff).  The trays were made of “Fine Bone China” and were fully marked as Royal Worcester pieces.

It is understood that over 100,000 sets of these dishes were produced for the company.  They were presented as a goodwill gesture to its agents, customers and, occasionally, staff.  The office of the Chairman was responsible for their distribution and personal letters from the Chairman often accompanied the dishes thanking the agent or customer for their efforts.

The “pin dishes” or “pin trays”, as they are now known, are approximately 4 inches in diameter and are edged in gold.  A set comprises of two dishes, each with a scene of Worcester that was especially drawn for the commission by Royal Worcester artists.  They were always sent out in presentation boxes, which could be either green or in later years, blue and marked as “Royal Worcester”.

One scene depicts the cathedral at Worcester, as viewed from the western bank of the River Severn.  The reverse of the current £20 note in circulation (2004) has a similar view.  The other scene is of the Edgar Tower that guards, to this day, the entrance to the cathedral precincts.

The Worcester Cathedral view

The rear of the dishes

The Edgar Tower view

The “real” Edgar Tower in 1913

In the year of the Silver Jubilee, 1977, Kays commissioned a pin dish from Royal Staffordshire and sent these out to its agents as goodwill gestures.  Although no records have yet been found to confirm the total production run, there must have been many thousands produced. The dish is approximately 12 cms in diameter and has a distinctive scalloped edge with gold trim.  The dishes were accompanied by a silver-coloured note of thanks. 

The Royal Coat of Arms (face)

The reverse of the dish

The “silver” note

This limited edition of some 5000 models (model reference D865/7) was made for Kays by Corgi, the well-known die-cast manufacturer, in the early 1980s.  The model features the “new” Kays logo that was launched in 1982.  The basic model is still used today by Corgi for promotional models for a wide range of companies.

Kays in the UK

These are some of the buildings used by Kays in Worcester city.  Both exterior and interior views are included.

The original clock and watch makers shop where in 1794 (or earlier) John Skarratt started to trade in Worcester.  Known as St Swithin’s Street today, it was originally known as Goose Lane.  The shop lasted Skarratt for about twenty years when he decided to moved the business to Broad Street.  In recent years, the shop was used by “Blooms”, a local florists, until they moved out in 2009.  The building has now (2011) been divided into two smaller shops.  

In 1994, Kays placed a commemorative bronze plaque on the outside wall of the building to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the business. 

This plaque was put onto the wall of the St Swithin’s Street shop (shown above) in 1994 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Kays.  Research has shown that the details given in the third sentence are historically inaccurate as Kays bought Skarratt’s in 1896.

In 1814, Skarratt moved his business to Number 2 Broad Street where it remained for the next ninety years.  Although the picture shows a two window frontage, this was expanded sometime later (believed to be in the mid 1850s) by the addition of another floor and an additional “wing”.  The premises were renumbered to Number 3, Broad Street.  The shop still exists today and “ShoeZone” operate their business from these premises. William Kilbourne Kay lived “above the shop” at Number 3, Broad Street and is recorded as doing so on the birth certificates of his first born son, Tom and his second son, Edwin.  The Kay family lived here until 1886.

The shop in Broad Street as it is in the 21st century.  The extensions to the original building can clearly be seen when compared to the view shown above.  This is how William Kay would have seen the building when he arrived for work each day in the 1870s.  The newly married Mr & Mrs Kay were living in the rooms behind the windows at the top of the building.  These are now store rooms.

This is number 4, The Foregate in Worcester.  Originally used by “Kay, Jones & Co”, jewellers and watchmakers, the first business enterprise of W K Kay and his business partner, George Jones, a local architect.  They started in business together in 1886 and watches from this period exist in the Heritage Collection.  The partners must have gone their separate ways, for by 1890, the premises of “Kays of Worcester” are operating from this building.  William Kilbourne Kay started his own enterprise, his “Universal Stores”, with an errand boy, some clerical and warehouse staff but within five years he was employing over fifty staff.  Today the building is used by “Humberts”, the local estate agents.

Shrub Hill Road, Worcester was the home of Kays from 1894 until 1908.  Known, to many in recent times, as “Heenan & Froude’s” (a local engineering company, who built Blackpool Tower, amongst other things), the building was originally built for a railway carriage works in the 1850s and was the venue for “the Great Commercial Exhibition” of 1882.  Not far from Shrub Hill railway station, Kays had easy access to the railways for deliveries of its goods.

This is the building that William Kilbourne Kay had built specifically to house the company’s operations from 1908 onwards.  Built to his specification, it was constructed between 1907 and 1908 and was considered to be a very modern building as it had central heating, electric lifts and its own telephone system.  It cost over £16,800 to build.  Known simply as St. Oswalds to all of the staff who have worked in the company during the 20th century, it was vacated in May 2002, when the company moved to new premises adjacent to the newly-built hospital complex at Newtown Road, Worcester.  St Oswald’s has now been bought by a local property developer and has been converted into luxury apartments and offices. 

This is the office that was the heart of the Kays organisation in the 1920s.  You can see W Kilbourne Kay at work dealing with correspondence and his secretary taking shorthand.  The office is on the very corner of the St Oswald’s building on the ground floor (see above).  The telephone system enabled Kay to reach all parts of his organisation without leaving his desk.  

This is a view of the main office in August 1920.  All of the customer (agent) accounts were administered from here and the filing and ledger clerks were key to ensuring that records were kept accurately for every one of Kays’ agents.  Staff were fined if they made an error on an agent’s account and all calculations were done without calculators!

The frontage of number 9-10 The Tything.  This is the only part of the original building, completed in 1938, that remained after the fire of 1941.  Used for many years as the Agency Office and Call Centre the office was closed in 2002.  The building is being converted into apartments and commercial offices.

This view of the Tything building shows how the building has been restored to as it was when first opened in 1939 and before the fire.  The redevelopment of the site into offices and residential property has seen the windows added to the first floor and the balustrade added above the roof line.  The look and feel of this impressive frontage as it was originally built has been maintained.

The Kays’ call centre, located in the Tything offices, was one of the many call centres located around the U.K. that took calls from customers and agents.  This view was taken in the early 1990s and shows the operators at work in well-designed and modern office accommodation.  The plum coloured carpet on the floor was especially made for the offices and cost several hundred thousands of pounds.  It was last seen being bulldozed up into the top right hand corner of this view, when these offices were demolished in 2004.  The Clydesdale Bank now have a similar operation on the site, in new offices that were built in 2004-2005.

This is a view of the company’s main warehouse located in the south-west of Worcester.  Known as “Pierau” (after the German designer), “Bromyard Road” or more recently as “250 Bransford Road”, the building was constructed in the late 1960s, and is a major distribution centre for the company’s parcels.  The site was originally occupied by Alley and MacLellan, an engineering company that made valves and springs.

The final days of demolition of the 250 Bransford Road site seen in August 2010. BY the end of the year the site was levelled and the debris was being removed.

The demolition of 250 Bransford Road was started in September 2008.  This is the view from the gate at the Bromyard Road entrance.  Midland Office, the Staff Shop and Bay 1 have been reduced to rubble.  The carton store is in the process of being demolished.

A closer view of the Carton Store being demolished in early October 2008.  By the end of the month the structure had been raized to the ground.  The rubble in the foreground was once the home of the Marketing team – Midland Office.

This impressive building is the Barbourne Warehouse located in Northwick Avenue to the north side of Worcester.  Acquired in the early 1950s, the building was originally built for a printing company in the 1890s.  Barbourne was used as a despatch warehouse until the larger warehouse at Bransford Road was built in 1967.            Closed in 1971 and then re-opened in 1975 the building was used until 2002 as offices and warehouses.  Like the other two office buildings in the Tything, it has now been converted to residential apartments. 

This impressive building, located near the centre of Worcester in Pierpoint Street, was used by Kays as its main photographic studio from 1968 until the Studio moved to a new site in 1992. Prior to being used as the Studio the company used the building as offices.  Many of the photographs used in the Kays’ catalogues were taken in these studios by the company’s own photographers.  There were also fully equipped studios and processing labs here.

In the 1950s, Kays bought a department store in the town of Kidderminster.  A number of office-based functions concerned with customer accounts were moved there from Worcester.  Little is known of what went on at Attwoods but the group would like to hear from anyone who can provide more details of the operations or more images of the store.

This impressive frontage at Marshall Street was completed in 1958.     Kays amalgamated Samuel Driver Ltd into their operations in 1956 and the company inherited the Driver’s site at Marshall Street, Leeds and then started a rebuilding programme.  New offices were built, as can be seen to the left and right of the entrance, in this view taken from the internal Kays staff newspaper, Kays Link.

The Sweet Street warehouse was completed in 1981 and was the last major building project undertaken by the company.  About 3/4 of the size of the Worcester warehouse, the “northern” customers were sent their orders from this warehouse.  It closed in August 2004.

In 2008 work started to demolish the building and by 2009 it had been removed entirely from the skyline of Leeds. (Any photographs of the demolition would be welcomed by the group).

The offices in the south-west of England were located in Baldwin Street, Bristol.  Several floors of this city-centre building were occupied by Kays and the tri-angular nature of the floors caused some interesting office layouts.  In the late 1970s the company moved to offices at Staple Hill in Bristol.

This gothic building was rented from an associate GUS furniture company that occupied the ground floor.  Although the address was Albion Street, the Trongate is the road that is in the foreground of this image.  Occupied by Kays in the late 1950s, the Albion Street offices remained open until the 1980s when the company moved to rented accommodation in George Square.  The office operations at Glasgow were closed in the mid 1990s and the work transferred to Leeds.

This is the “Royal Welsh Warehouse” in Newtown, Powys.  The original offices and warehouses of Pryce Jones Ltd were patronised by Queen Victoria while on her way to holiday on the coast at Aberystwyth.  Bought and sold by Kays three times during the 20th century, the offices of Pryce Jones became the main offices for Welsh agents and remain a part of the company operations today.  The company continued to issue the “Royal Welsh Warehouse” catalogue well into the 1990s.

The use of this historic site came to an end in August 2011 when Littlewood Group closed down their operations at Newtown ending a link in the town with the mail-order business within the UK of over 150 years.

This is a view of the Pryce Jones offices and warehouses in the early 20th century.

This is Peter Lane, York, taken in October 2006.  Kays had an office in this part of the city of York until the late 1980s when the office was closed and the work transferred to Leeds.  Memories of visiting this office would  give it to have been in the building at the far end of this view but correction to this would be welcome.  No trace of the fact that Kays once had an office here could be traced on the buildings, so any images of Kays in York that might be in the personal albums of past members of staff would be very welcome. 

Kays Catalogue

A social history in a book.  Having been published twice each year since the 1890s, Kays catalogues represent a fascinating archive of the way we lived in the past.  Not only are contemporary fashions included but there are also household items and luxury goods, thereby allowing the whole picture of life in past times to be examined.  

The catalogue collection is now, once again, available for research purposes and is housed within the University of Worcester campus at St John’s and in the Hive in Worcester.  Arrangements can be made to view the catalogues for genuine research purposes by contacting the University directly.

 If you have any specific requirements for information then please “Contact the Group“.  

When the company first issued a bound catalogue in the late 1890s, the frontispiece and cover were a simple black and white graphic, as shown in this image of the 1907 catalogue cover. More colourful images of the products started to be used in the years just before WW1.  The name of the company is given simply as “Kay’s Universal Stores, Worcester”.   The Great Universal Stores company, which eventually bought Kays in 1937, was formed in 1902 by the Rose brothers in Ardwick, Manchester.  The “Universal Stores” was a common name given to catalogue trading companies as they competed for market share by offering a very wide range of goods to their customers.  The company telephone number is given as “51” on this catalogue and even up until 1975, the company used Worcester 29551 as its telephone number, retaining the “51” link back to the early 20th century.

 

This is the cover of the Spring/Summer 1927 catalogue and is one of the few catalogue covers that features a Kays’ building, in this case the front entrance of 23, The Tything.  Known as St Oswalds by those who worked for the company, this building was designed and built for Kays and construction was completed in 1907.  What is unusual about this image is the perspective used in the drawing of the model on the steps of St Oswalds. It makes her over fourteen feet tall!  The skirt suit featured on the cover was available at the price of 69/- (£3.45p), and that included the hat!  Also intriguing to consider is the numbering of each catalogue issue.  This one is numbered “310”, so although there were two main issues of the catalogue each year, and this tradition had been established in 1890, we can only wonder if Kays were trying to imply that they had been issuing two catalogues each year for the last one hundred and fifty-five years. 

This wonderfully colourful and patriotic cover adorned the Coronation Celebration Spring/Summer Catalogue of 1953.  This was a time of great optimism in Britain as a new Elizabethan age was predicted and after the hardships of the Second World War and the decade that followed it, the country revelled in the excitement that the Coronation brought.  The catalogue features a range of gifts and toys that celebrated the Coronation.  As part of its plans to expand its business activities and make its offices more local to its agents and customers, Kays opened new offices in both Leeds and Glasgow.  They purchased a small Christmas club, called Samuel Driver Ltd, and amalgamated its operations into Kays.  It was Driver’s offices and warehouse that became the centre of the northern operations.

 

This page from one of the catalogues from the period of World War 2 illustrates how the well-dressed lady went out when visiting friends or just going out shopping.  Unlike catalogues of today the illustrations were drawn by Kays’ own graphic artists and are superb examples of their talent.  The relative cost of the clothing in the 1940’s surprises many, as our consumer society has made clothing a much more affordable commodity. The average weekly wage of a Kays’ office clerk in 1944 was 27/6 (£1.38), so the coats on this page represents a significant investment and as such could be paid for on the 20 week credit terms offered by the company to its customers.

 

Kays always sold a wide range of items and before the second World War, the company had developed its own brand of teas.  As late as 1959, Kays “Perfection” Tea was still featured in the catalogue.  The trade name “Perfection” was also used for a range of pocket watches sold by the company from 1897 until 1919. (see Watches & Clocks *)

Students of social and fashion history find the catalogues a superb source of information on how we lived and dressed in the past.

 

 

Kays has always featured watches and clocks in its catalogues, as the company’s origin started in that trade.  Watches were made by, and for, Kays in the early part of the 20th century but by 1965 other manufacturers were commissioned to produce Kays watches.  This is page from the Autumn/Winter 1965 catalogue with a selection of ladies and gentlemen’s watches.  Such watches as these were often presented to staff as rewards for 25 years continuous service to the company or as retirement gifts.                  

Collectors often ask for information as to how much items originally cost when they were first sold.  Here is a page of clocks from 1956 showing the variety of styles available but also featuring an electric clock for the first time. The Kays catalogue collection covers over 120 years of shopping history and is a valuable source of information on design styles so that theatre, film and television designers can “get it right” when it comes to a 20th century period production.

 Adults love to relive their own childhood by looking at the toys that they had as children.  A recent research project (Spring 2005) was on the history of the Sindy doll and the catalogue collection enabled the researcher to document the life of Sindy from her first appearance in a Kays catalogue in 1963 to her last in 1990.  This page from the AW 1965 catalogue is the first to feature Sindy and her friend, Paul.

Kays have featured many famous singers, actors and celebrities in its catalogues over last forty years or so.   This page from the Spring/Summer 1970 catalogue shows Anita Harris, the singer and entertainer, modelling her “collection”. 

 

Some celebrities were, “before they were famous”, models in the catalogue.  One of the joys of the research into Kays’ history is the discovery of an image from a known celebrity’s past.  This page from the AW 1962 catalogue has a signed picture of Jean Shrimpton, who went on to become one of the leading fashion models of the of the 1960s.  Renewed interest in Jean Shrimpton because of a new BBC drama has been generated in January 2012. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This cover is from the Spring-Summer 1963 catalogue and is an example of how Kays and Worcester cathedral were associated with each other during the 1960s and 1970s.  A similar view was used, albeit drawn to be a 18th century style, for the Royal Worcester pin dishes produced for Kays in 1965 (see Memorabilia)

 

 

 

 

TOYS – Superheroes from 1977 ranged from the Bionic Woman, Batman and, the ever popular, Dr Who.  The Daleks have remained a part of popular culture since they were introduced in the 1960s and Kays featured many models of the Doctors’ sworn enemies.   Batman has always been a popular fantasy hero with children of all ages and still has a strong market today.  The range of merchandise associated with such brands has expanded enormously.  Unfortunately the Bionic Woman faded into obscurity (along with the Six Million Dollar Man) but in September 2007 she is making a come-back!

 

TOYS – Star Wars –  The cult status of films such as “Star Wars” always presented an opportunity to feature toys on special display pages within the catalogue.  This is a page of toys from “The Return of the Jedi”, the last of the original trilogy that featured in the Autumn/Winter 1984 catalogue.  No doubt toy collectors wish they had bought these toys at the prices they were sold for in 1984, as some of the items featured are now very rare in deed.  The page from an earlier catalogue, shows the second of the initial trilogy of Star Wars films “The Empire Strikes Back”

 

TOYS – Star Wars – “The Return of the Jedi”.  Star Wars continues to hold a fascination to many people, both collectors and others, who long to add to their own collections of Star Wars memorabilia.

A History of Kays

Worcester was the home of the famous mail-order company, Kays, although in its heyday the company had many offices and warehouse located in many areas of the U.K..  

This is a brief history of the company, based on what we have discovered to date.  It includes many details and facts that have been obtained through research using the company’s archives, that are now form part of the Kays Heritage collection. 

If you can add more details about the company’s history, its employees, its operations or the locations from which the company operated, then please contact the group.

Kays can trace its heritage back to a jeweller and watchmaker based in Goose Lane, Worcester.  The street was renamed as St Swithin’s Street at some point during the 19th century but the shop itself still exists and is currently owned by a local florist.  

The shop was the original home to John Skarratt, an apprenticed clock and watchmaker from London, who founded his business in 1794 in these premises.  His business grew and prospered.

By 1814, Skarratt had moved his business to number 2, Broad Street.  The shop was expanded sometime in the mid-1860s and was renumbered to number 3 Broad Street.  Skarratt’s shop still exists as the “Shoe Zone” in the modern Broad Street.  

The first formal record of William Kilbourne Kay living in Worcester is given in the census of 1881.  He is recorded as living in gentlemen’s accommodation at number 10 Park Street, with Mrs Martha Taylor as his landlady.  He shared these accommodations with four other gentlemen.  

William Kay was born on September 11th 1856, in the city of Portsmouth and so he was 24 years old when he was recorded in the 1881 census.  His early years were spent as a lodger with a number of families under the protection of the local parish, as he was an orphan. His mother had died shortly after he was born and his father had subsequently remarried.  Sadly, in 1860, both his father and step-mother died leaving William and his younger half-brother, Edwin, as orphans.  

As a young man, William Kay moved to Worcester in the early 1870s and took employment with the grandson of the original John Skarratt – John Martin Skarratt, who had taken over the running of his grandfather’s (who died in 1829) and his father’s (who died in 1859) business.

William Kilbourne Kay was married in February 1883 to his sweetheart, Jessie Farenden, a primary school governess, at St Luke’s Church in Southampton, and their first child was born the following December.  The address for the birth given on the birth certificate reveals that Mr & Mrs Kay were living above the shop of JM Skarratt at number 3 Broad Street.

In 1886, shortly after the birth of his second son, Kay left the employ of Skarratt and went into partnership with a local architect named George Jones.  The two gentlemen started up their own jewellery and watch business, known as Kay, Jones & Co of Worcester, from premises in The Foregate.  The Kay and Jones families shared a home at Fort Royal and it is there that Kay’s third son is born in 1888.

By 1890, Kay and Jones had dissolved their partnership, but Kay remained in the Foregate premises and changed the name of the company to Kay’s of Worcester.  He employed four staff, comprising two clerks, an errand boy and himself.  It was strictly a “cash with order” business, based on orders received direct from the customers who subscribed to Kay’s catalogue.  The early catalogues were not dissimilar to those concertina files used today and in which household bills are kept.  Kay filled the catalogue with handbills of his product range.  There were no fashion or clothing items for sale.  Kay’s early “book” catalogues are filled with jewellery, watches, clocks and household items.

In the census of 1891, Kay is now recorded as living at Wilberforce House, Ombersley Road, Worcester with his wife, three children and two servants.  His occupation is given as a “wholesale jeweller”.  His business was prospering and he had the money to buy a good size family home.

The company had its own premises at number 4 The Foregate between 1886 and 1894 and they still exist to this day.

As with all commercial enterprises, the need to expand to fulfil demand forced another change of premises on Kay in 1894.  After some negotiations, Kay moved his business to a site in Shrub Hill Road.  These impressive buildings had originally been built for a railway engineering company in the 1850s and had been used for Worcester’s Commercial Exhibition of 1882 and afterwards had been used by a number of small enterprises. 

The buildings were modernised and new manufacturing plant installed.  As with the Foregate, Shrub Hill had many advantages in that the “offices and manufactories” were very close to Worcester’s main-line railway station.  Mail order was driven by the simple need to get goods delivered directly to the customer as quickly as possible and the closeness of the railway helped Kay to make a real success of his business.

Business must have been prospering, for in June 1895 Kay’s “Universal Stores” of Worcester was registered at Company’s House as Kay & Co Ltd., the name it still uses to this day.

In one of those twists of fate, Kay entered into discussions during 1896 to buy out John Martin Skarratt, the grandson of the original John Skarratt, and the man who gave him his first job in Worcester.  The two businesses were amalgamated in the May of that year after the contracts were signed and monies paid.  Kay could then legitimately claim that his business had been in existence for over one hundred years.  An important marketing ploy in the troubled times of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  There was also another very important aspect to this amalgamation.  Skarratt & Co held a contract with the Great Western Railways (GWR) to supply “clocks, watches and timepieces” to the railway and this contract passed to Kay & Co Ltd.  JM Skarratt retired to Cheltenham where he died in 1908.

Kays entered the twentieth century as a successful commercial concern.  The manufacture of many of the items featured in the catalogue was undertaken in the factory in Shrub Hill Road. Many others were being subcontracted to other “manufactories” in England and Europe.  In particular the watches and clocks were assembled, by hand, in Worcester.  There was a great play made to the “Made in England” mark on many of the items sold.  It was at this time (1902) that the board of directors accepted that the company should diversify and start to sell “Manchester Goods and Ladies Tailoring”.  It was stated in the minutes of the board that unless the company did diversify it would go into decline as the competition in the watch and jewellery business was growing.

By 1906, it was again apparent that the business had to change premises once more.  The reduction in the need to manufacture goods in Worcester and the expansion of the sales accounting effort meant that a purpose built office and warehouse would be needed.

During 1906-07 the company negotiated the purchase of the land adjacent to St Oswald’s Hospital in the Tything, Worcester for £4000 with the Diocese of Worcester.  The site was then redeveloped into the offices that were to be the company’s home for the next 94 years.  Number 23, The Tything was the centre of all of Kays’ activities and was designed to Kilbourne Kay’s own specifications.  The total cost of the new offices was approximately £16,800, which included an advanced central heating and cooling system, its own internal telephone system, electric lifts and staff toilet facilities.

The advent of the First World War caused a great deal of concern to the business as most of the men were called to serve King and country, including Kay’s sons, Tom and Edwin who were both directors of the company and his third son, Jack, who was a commissioned Army officer.  There was great debate by the board as to how the business could possibly survive the dire situation that prevailed over the war years, particularly as suppliers of their catalogue goods may not be able to deliver them.  Many items were obtained from European countries so it was critical that other supplies could be found.  Kay recognised the worth of having a stable workforce and it was at this point in history that a larger number of ladies started to be employed in the company in a wider variety of roles and duties.

The company faced new business pressures when the war ended and it is to Kilbourne Kay’s efforts that much of the success of the business in the post war years can be attributed.  He always wrote to the “travellers” giving them personal encouragement to do better for themselves and the business.  These were the men who travelled (hence their name) around their territory visiting each of their customers, recruiting new customers and maintaining accurate accounts of their business.

Kay and his sons, Tom and Edwin, travelled across the U.K. and Europe re-establishing business links with suppliers and buying stock for the catalogue.  This “grand tour” also ensured the continuation of the business by establishing new business contacts for items that could be sold through the catalogues.

Kays expanded as a business after WW1 and a review of the catalogues from this period shows the wide range of merchandise that was carried by the company. 

By the mid 1920s, William Kilbourne Kay took a reluctant step backwards from the running of the company due to his continuing ill health.  This resulted in Jack Kilbourne Kay, the youngest son, resigning his commission in the Army to take up a directorship in the company in 1926.

By the end of the decade, William Kilbourne Kay was suffering more and more with ill health and, in May 1929, he died at his home, The Elms, Battenhall, Worcester.  The family suffered further tragedy four years later when Tom Kilbourne Kay, the eldest son and Managing Director, died in April 1933 as a result of contracting pneumonia after “sleeping in a damp bed” while on business in London.  Edwin became Chairman and M.D. and Jack, the joint Managing Director.  Both brothers were in their mid to late forties by 1936 and had decided that they could not continue running the company.  They decided to sell the business and started to look for a suitable buyers.  

The history of the company now takes another turn.  In 1937, the newly appointed Managing Director of Great Universal Stores Ltd of Manchester, Isaac Wolfson and his brother, Charles, made a visit to the offices of Kays in Worcester.  Negotiations took place that resulted in the majority of the company’s shareholdings, held by the Kay family, being sold to G.U.S. and Kay & Co Ltd benefiting from being given “administrative and managerial support” from G.U.S. for the next twenty-five years.

One of the immediate results of the involvement of Isaac Wolfson in the running of the company was that a new building was constructed on some land owned by the company along the road from number 23, The Tything.  

These became the stockrooms and additional offices for the company and were opened in January 1939.  Unfortunately these offices caught fire in May 1941 and were totally destroyed as a result of the inferno.  The impressive facade was left intact and can still be seen at 9-10 The Tything.  New single-storey office accommodation was built behind this impressive frontage after the war finished.

World War Two saw similar challenges to that experienced in 1914-1918.  The catalogues were reduced in size to below 100 pages, due to paper rationing, but were still issued twice each year and they contained colour illustrations.  Rationing coupons were needed, as well as money, to buy most things.  Easy payment terms were heavily promoted, having been introduced back in 1910.  Kays’ offices were used as a stockroom for food and other supplies needed for the war effort.

When WW2 finished, the land behind the Tything offices was purchased by the County Council and the green lawns were dug up and replaced with a cinder car park area.  Many residents of Worcester may remember the Ministry of Transport vehicle licensing and tax office being on this car park at the back of the Tything where it remained up until the late 1970s.  In the 1960s, Worcestershire County Council had plans to redevelop the whole site, including Kays’ buildings into a new headquarters complex for their staff.  Fortunately these plans never came to be.  The thought of three thirteen storey office blocks in this area of Worcester does not bear thinking about and would have been a planning disaster.

In 1951 Kays expanded once more and bought an impressive red brick factory in Northwick Avenue, Barbourne in order to cope with the post-war growth in mail-order business.  This was used as a warehouse throughout the next two decades.  Closed in 1971 and then re-opened as an office three years later, after refurbishment, the Barbourne site remained a major part of the Worcester operations until it closed in 2002.  It is now a residential building.

The post war sales boom also changed the direction of the company’s business as it was recognised that those customers in the north of England and Scotland needed an office of their own.  The company bought an old flax mill, known as the Temple Works in Marshall Street, Leeds.  This impressive building was designed by the original owner to look like an Egyptian temple, hence the name.  Northern and Scottish agents and their customers were transferred to Leeds in the spring of 1953.  As far as the Scottish agents were concerned this was a short-term move as later in 1953 an office was also opened in Glasgow, when the company moved to rented office accommodation in Albion Street.

In 1956, further expansion of the northern part of Kays’ business saw the building of the Marshall Street offices, which were in use until the autumn of 2004.

In Worcester, a new single storey warehouse was built at 202 Bransford Road and this land purchase also gave Kays ownership of the historic Cinderella Sports Ground, the original home of Worcestershire County Cricket Club.  The pavilion here still has a Kays’ clock in its gable end and this was donated to the WCCC by a member in 1896. (Sadly due to much political toing and froing in 2006 Shop Direct started to demolish the pavillion and although a conservation order has been placed on the building it has been open to the elements for the winter and must be in a dreadful state)

In 1958, Kays bought an existing factory on the Berry Hill Estate in Droitwich and used this as a despatching warehouse for the larger items in the catalogue such as lawn mowers, cycles and other bulky items. 

Growth in the business saw rapid expansion during the 1960s.  Offices were opened in Newtown (Powys as is, Montgomery as was), York, Lancaster and Bristol.  Further expansion of the Leeds warehousing site was also completed.

It became obvious to the company that the warehouse facilities in Worcester need to be developed to cope with the expected increase in business.  Part of the site of an engineering works, Alley and MacLellan, at 205 Bromyard Road was purchased with plans to create a new warehouse facility on the site.  This was added to later when the whole site was bought and a new warehouse was designed and built on the land in the late 1960s.  In the mid-1980s, a large automated storage warehouse was also built.  The two warehouses used the most advanced warehouse systems available and remained one of the major despatch and stock warehouses in the company although the operations on the site closed in February 2007.

Perhaps the greatest change came in the late 1960s when the development and implementation of the computer systems that were to take the company forward in all of its operations, was approved by the board.  Initially the computer team was based in the St Oswald’s’ building (no. 23, The Tything) and another was set up in Leeds a little later.  These teams created the applications that allowed a further era of rapid business expansion.

In the late 1960s, another office building was purchased, this time from British Railways, adjacent to the railway station at Shrub Hill in Worcester.  In yet another twist of fate, the company had returned, after a period of over sixty years, to its roots.  The merchandise buying teams together with the publications department were relocated to the appropriately named, Elgar House.  This move allowed the computer teams to expand into offices at St Oswald’s where the main computer installation was located.

The 1970s saw a period of growth and stabilisation of the operations, although the postal strike of 1971 acted as a catalyst for the creation of the GUS group’s own transport fleet, known as White Arrow Express and what later became Reality.  Closer operational ties were forged with the sister mail-order operations of the British Mail Order Company (BMOC) and these links became more and more evident throughout the 1980s, when GUS Home Shopping Ltd was formed.  This company became the controlling organisation for the catalogue sales operations within the GUS group.

Kays business continued expanding in this period and investment in new building was made for the Leeds operation.  A four storey warehouse was constructed at Sweet Street, Leeds and this opened in 1981.   

This warehouse served the agents and customers in the northern half of the U.K. and continued to do so until it closed in August 2004.

In 1994 Kays celebrated its 200th anniversary.  A number of special events were held in Worcester including a celebration lunch for invited guests, in the July of that year.  A plaque was unveiled by the wife of the chairman of GUS on the shop at St Swithin’s Street where John Skarratt started the business in 1794 and eventually amalgamated with Kays in 1896.

And it is there that the story of Kays now reaches its end.  

By the year 2000, Kays was still a trading, published catalogue business but was now part of a GUS company known as Argos Retail Group and the company’s services, such as warehousing, IT, Call centres etc, were part of another GUS company, the Reality Group.  

In 2003, GUS sold the entire mail-order operation to March UK Ltd, a company formed by the Barclay Brother’s business empire.  These entrepreneurial businessmen had purchased the Littlewoods mail-order catalogue business in 1997 and the process of amalgamating these two famous names in the mail-order industry started. 

It was announced in May 2006 that the warehouse operations at Worcester would close at the end of 2006, effectively bringing to an end any links with the Kays name in Worcester after two centuries.  On February 23rd 2007, the warehouse operations at Worcester ceased and the staff left the site for the last time.

Shop Direct are concentrating their business operations in the north-west of England centred around Liverpool, the original home of the Littlewoods catalogue business.

As an aside, the company that was for many years one of the most successful retailers in the U.K., namely Great Universal Stores plc, ceased to be quoted on the Stock Exchange in September 2006 after the various divisions such as Burberry, Experian and Home Retail (Argos and Homebase) were de-merged from the plc.  

In May 2007, Littlewoods Shop Direct Home Shopping Ltd and their subsiduary Home Delivery Direct, announced that they would be relocating the National Sort and Distribution centre, currently at Droitwich, to a site in the Coventry area.  This move would be phased in over the next eighteen months or so.  When the Droitwich distribution centre closes the very last link to Kays and its operations in Worcestershire will have gone, ending over 210 years of commercial activity, by the company, in the county.

News

This section will include all of the news and views that will enable the membership and those who visit this web site to see what the group are doing and planning.

July 20th – “Kays at the Hive” – a whole day of activities inspired and based on Kays.  Heritage talks; coach trips to the Kays buildings; an especially commissioned play about Kays; a cat walk show and a silent disco.  All made the day memorable.

May 15th – The series on BBC2 that is entitled “The 70s” features the year 1978 and the presenter uses a Kays catalogue from that year to demonstrate how affluent the people of Britain had become.

May 12th – The BBC evening magazine programme “The ONE Show” features shell suits from the mid-1980s and uses a page from the Kays catalogue.

January 20th – The renewed interest in Jean Shrimpton has revealed that Kays used the young model in their catalogues of the early 1960s.

July 29th – The BBC Breakfast show features an article on the heritage collection and the work that the University is doing as part of its JISC funded “Lifestyle” project.

The local radio BBC Hereford & Worcester features the collection and the work that the University is doing as does the Daily Mail, on its website.

June 2011 – The “World of Kays” facebook page develops with pictures of catalogue pages featured almost daily.

November 2010 – Following the inital contact made by a TV production company woking for Channel 4 on a new series entitled, “The House that made Me”, a catalogue from the collection is featured in the programme on the childhood of the singer, Boy George.

Coincidently, the BBC One magazine programme “The One Show” features some images from the catalogues in an article on mail-order shopping, transmitted on November 29th.

Autumn – The entire heritage collection is rehomed at the University of Worcester.

August 2010 – The final stages of the demolition of the warehouse at 250 Bransford Road, Worcester take place.  The site is levelled and is up for sale for redevelopment.

February 2010 – The University of Worcester has agreed to be the custodian of the entire heritage collection and has created a reference area for students, academics and researchers within its campus at Worcester. Visit thie web site at http://www.worc.ac.uk/ils/635.htm

It has been announced by Shop Direct Ltd that they are closing the call centres that they operate in Newtown, Powys and Burnley, Lancs.  These were operational call centres for both Kays and GUS Home Shopping, respectively, and mark another loss of what was Kays and its heritage.

The Royal Welsh Warehouse at Newtown has been owned by Kays for many years and was created as a call centre in the mid-1980s.  The building was originally the warehouses and office of Pryce Jones who was the pioneer of mail-order in the United Kingdom.  The Royal Warrant was given to the business by Queen Victoria who often visited the premises on her way to Aberystwyth.

July 2009 –  Web site updated with new information.

February 2009 – The heritage collection is rehoused onto the University of Worcester campus.  After several months of negotiations, the University  has agreed to become the custodians of the collection to ensure its long-term preservation.

It is with sadness that the group has to report the death of former Managing Director, Mr Bruce Taylor.  Mr Taylor had been suffering with cancer of the bowel.

A few days later, Ray Crawford, who was the manager of the Midland Office in Worcester, died suddenly.

October 2008 – Demolition of the carton store at 250 Bransford Road is completed by the end of the month.  The skyline in this part of Worcester is now as it was before 1985 when the carton store was built.

An announcement is made by Shop Direct that the working patterns at the call centre at King’s Court are being reviewed and a consultation period with the workforce has started.

July 2008 –  Following some serious negotiations the group is near to reaching an agreement over the future of the heritage collection.  A press release will be made in the early autumn to announce the outcome of the talks.

May 2008 – Negotiations and discussions with approriate organizations have started in order to determine the future of the heritage collection now that it has been relocated to new storage facilities.

April 29th 2008 – Following the appeal for temporary storage space and the generosity of AA Global Group, the entire heritage collection has now been moved into its new home.  The group can now start meaningful negotiations with the appropriate organizations to ensure the future security of the collection.

April 17th 2008 –  The group is proud to announce that AA Global Language Services Ltd of Worcester (www.aaglobal.co.uk) have become a Patron the the group.  The managing director supports the work of the group in seeking to preserve the history and heritage of Kays and has offered storage facilities in his company’s offices for the archive.

April 2008 – An URGENT APPEAL is made to anyone who can offer the group some storage facilities for the heritage collection.  Ideally the collection should be stored within Worcestershire.    Consideration will be given to relocating the collection to a museum or academic institution who will preserve it for posterity.   Please contact the chairman if you can help.

March 2008 – The group has been given the sad news that it has to vacate its present storage facility for the collection.  Due to a change in ownership, the present storage facilities will not be available to the group after mid-May 2008, so work is now underway to find new storage facilities.

November 2007 – The “For Sale” signs go up on the site of 250 Bransford Road, Worcester.  A public consultation is launched by Worcester City Council to enable the public to voice their opinions on what should become of the site.

June 2007 – The talk on the “History of Kays” is delivered to the 5000th person during this month.  Since the talks were started in October 2002 the history of the company has developed thanks to the input from members of the audiences who have added their own memories and artefacts to the archive of the company.

May 2007 – The announcement was made that the National Sort and Distribution centre at Droitwich will be relocated to a site in the Coventry area within the next two years.  When this closes in Droitwich, it will see the end of the last vestiges of Kays and its commercial heritage disappear from Worcestershire.

March 2007 – Following the end of operations at Worcester, the Heritage Group has formed a new subsidiary group within its ranks.  Known as the Kays Association, this new group will act as a focal point for all social contact between ex-employees of the company from throughout the United Kingdom and beyond. Membership is open to all who were employed by Kays, no matter in what capacity.  It is hoped that enough interest is shown in the formation of the association to allow regular social events to be held bringing ex-colleagues back into contact with each other. Contact the Group for more information.

February 23rd 2007 – Today marks the final day of operations at the warehouse in Worcester.  This effectively ends any links that Kays as a company had with Worcester after over 200 years.  The new owners, Littlewoods Shop Direct, are concentrating their operations in the north-west of England and see no role for the Worcester based operations.  The last remaining management and staff were very emotional as they left the site for the last time.  Our best wishes to them all for the future.

February 2007 – After several months of work to dismantle the two-faced station clock stored at the Worcester warehouse, the Gloucestershire & Warwickshire Railway Trust, based at Toddington in Gloucestershire, have moved the clock and its movement to their storage facility.  The clock will be restored by them and if current plans come to fruition the clock could be placed, in working order, on a railway station on their line, in Worcestershire.

January 2007 – The Kays Heritage Group is proud to announce the news that White’s Electrical Services Ltd have been become patrons of the group.  Managing Director Lee White says, “I see the preservation of the history of companies, such as Kays, as very important.  The mail-order company had an impact on most families in the city of Worcester and my company is proud to support the Kays Heritage Group.” 

November 2006  – The entire heritage collection has now been placed in storage boxes and will be placed into storage within the next few weeks.  This will restrict the work of the group until a more permament home can be found but the group can still carry out research using the local facilities of the County Record Office and History Centre.

October 29th – BBC Radio Stoke features “catalogue shopping” on its mid-day show this Sunday.  Our chairman, Bernard Mills, was interviewed on air about the catalogue history that is Kays.

October 2006 – Following some publicity in the local newspapers, the group has now been offered a temporary home for the heritage collection.  This generous offer, by a local businessman, will mean that the collection has now been saved for posterity while plans are made to house the collection in a more permanent home.

September 2006 – Negotiations with an appropriate organisation to accept the donation of the two-faced railway platform clock have moved on and it is hoped that a successful transfer of this historic timepiece can be announced in the near future.

August 2006 – A new home for the Kays Heritage Collection is being sought as the existing “grace and favour” arrangements within the site of 250 Bransford Road, Worcester are likely to end in December 2006.  The group hopes that a benefactor can be found who would allow the collection to be re-housed in or around the city of Worcester.  Articles appear in the Worcester News and the Worcester Standard seeking help from their readership for a suitable room in which to store the collection.

June 2006 – Discussions have now started with an “appropriate” organisation over the donation of the two-faced station clock to them.

The two-faced railway station clock, that is at present stored within the warehouse at Worcester, was to have been donated to the STEAM museum at Swindon but they have declined the offer.  A new home in a suitable museum related to the railways is now being actively sought for this impressive piece of railway history (see Kays Watches and Clocks section).

May 9th 2006 – Littlewoods Shop Direct Home Shopping Ltd announce that the warehouse operations at 250 Bransford Road, Worcester are to cease in December 2006, with the loss of approximately 500 jobs.  This effectively ends Kays association with Worcester. The call centre operations, now known as Optimum Contact Services and located at King’s Court on the site of the Worcestershire Royal Hospital, are not affected.  As this operation has never really ever been Kays, the closure of the warehouse will mean that after 212 years, Worcester will no longer have any of the company’s operations within the city.  A sad end to such an important name in Worcester’s commercial history. 

May 2006 – On the 77th anniversary of the death of William Kilbourne Kay, flowers are laid on  his grave at Hallow church, north of Worcester.  An article in the Worcester News is published. 

March 2006 – Bernard Mills travels to Trowbridge in Wiltshire to deliver a talk of the history of Kays to the local history society.  

February 2006 – A new set of displays is put in place at the Tudor House Museum in Friar Street, Worcester.  Kays Heritage Group has now been given more space to display its history in a first floor room within the Tudor House.

November 2005 – Despite extensive research, the group has been unable to obtain a photograph of the house that the Kay’s family lived in after 1918.  The Elms, at Battenhall in Worcester, was demolished in the late 1960s to make way for a new estate in what is now known as Goodwood Avenue.  Do you know of any pictures of this house, if so let the group know please.

September 2005 – Shop Direct announces proposals to close the site at 250 Bransford Road in the summer of 2007 and starts a consultation period with Unions and staff.  

April 2005 – The Heritage Group joins the local History Forum.

March 2005 – New research into the genealogy of the Kay family has revealed that William Kilbourne Kay was born in Portsmouth and not Market Harborough as originally thought.

February 2005 – The group is now researching the production of the Kays catalogue and an article appeared in the Worcester Evening News on Monday 21st of February asking for information from ex-employees and models, both professional and amateur.

February 2005 – The Heritage Group becomes a “Friend” of the Worcester Heritage and Amenity Trust (WHAT), that is maintaining the Tudor House in Friar Street, Worcester and keeping it open to the public.  The Heritage Group has had a display on Kays, in the Tudor House, since it opened its doors to the public last May. 

September 2004 – Worcester City Heritage Day  This annual event was once again held in the historic Guildhall in Worcester. 

June 2004 – Kays (Lancaster) Heritage Group formed. After contacting the Worcester based group, ex-employees who worked at the Lancaster office have formed now their own group which plans to meet regularly and document the history of Lancaster office.  (Contact the group’s chairman (Contact the Group) if you are interested in forming a similar group.)

24th April 2004 – The group particpated in the South West division of the Industrial History Societies conference on held in Worcester.  

22nd February 2004 – The Heritage Open Day – This was another great success having been held on a Sunday for the first time.  Over thirty people came and shared their memories of Kays with the group members.

22nd February 2004 – The Heritage Open Day – The Heritage Collection will be opened to the public from 10:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. on Sunday 22nd of February.  This will be an ideal opportunity for visitors to see the wide range of memorabilia that the Heritage Group has collected to preserve the history of Kays.  The venue will be at the Heritage Centre at Kays warehouse on 250 Bransford Road, Worcester and admission is free.  There is ample parking for those coming by car.      Bernard Mills will be signing his recently published book on the History of Kays, on the day.

December 2003 – This month sees the publication of the book on the history of Kays written by Bernard Mills, the chairman of the group.  The book contains a brief history of the company and a collection of photographs and images from the archives owned by the group.  The title of the book is simply, “Kays of Worcester” and may be obtained direct from the Heritage Group at a cost of £9.50, including postage and packing.  Please e-mail the group at if you want to buy a copy and we will send you the instructions on how to order a copy of the book.

14th & 15th September 2003 – Heritage Days at Worcester’s historic Guildhall.  The Heritage group will be participating in this event organised by Worcester City Council.  

14th May 2003 – Kays Heritage Group joins the Friends of Worcestershire County Record Office.  At the Annual General Meeting of the Friends, a talk was given on the History of Kays. 

26th April 2003 – Kays Heritage Group Open Day – The Open Day was a great success.  A steady flow of visitors thoroughout the day ensured that everybody who did come along could take their time to look, read and discover for themselves the history behind Kays.  Members of the group were kept busy by their guests, many of who brought along their own memorabilia.  Some ex-employees met each other for the first time in years and shared their memories of past times working for the company.   The Heritage Group now plan to hold further Open Days in the future so visit the web site regularly for news.

Heritage Open Day – Saturday 26th of April 2003 – The Open Day will start at 9:30 am and continue until 4:00 pm.  There will be displays of artifacts and documents tracing the history of the company back over the last 100 years.  Visitors will have the opportunity to examine the collection of Kays catalogues and see many of the interesting items held by the collection.  The venue will be at the Kays Warehouse at 250 Bransford Road, Worcester and the route to the Heritage Centre will be signed to direct visitors.

5th March 2003      BBC Hereford & Worcester will be broadcasting live from the Open Day.  Mike George’s “Mike in the Morning” show will be at the Heritage Open Day throughout the show to update listeners on what is going on.

Group Membership

The Kays Heritage Group was formed in May 2000, so that the rich and varied heritage of Kay & Co Ltd, the Worcester based mail-order company, will be preserved for future generations to enjoy.  

Now that the company has ceased to have any of its operations in the city of Worcester it is now more important than ever to preserve the heritage of the company for posterity. 

The Heritage Group delivers a variety of talks on various aspects of the History of Kays to groups, clubs and other interested organisations such as Women’s Institutes (WI), Probus, Rotary Clubs, Townswomen’s Guild, historical societies etc. usually within Worcestershire but also within a reasonable travelling distance of the county, when travel expenses may be paid.  

There are two talks currently available:-

“Shopping over 200 years – A Shop in a Book“, which takes the audience on a journey back to the origins of the business in the late 18th century through its growth and development through the 19th and to the end of the 20th century. 

It features an insight into the company, its places of employment and its catalogues.

The second talk, “Kays Catalogues and What we bought”, concentrates on the operation of Kays and the development of the catalogue as a “shop in a book”.  Copiously illustrated with images taken from the Heritage Group’s unique collection of Kay’s catalogues, dating from 1890 to 2000, this talk shows just how fashions and styles have changed over the last 100 years.   

The talks contain many historical photographs, as well as images from the catalogues.  

They are a multi-media experience and each lasts about one hour.

Thanks to the initial support received from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the group has all of the equipment needed to present this fascinating story, so the talk can be given anywhere that has mains electricity available.

The chairman, Bernard Mills, will travel within Worcestershire and the surrounding counties to deliver the talk to interested groups.  Although there is no charge made for the talk itself, a donation towards the work of the group is very much appreciated.

Since starting to deliver the talk in October 2002, the group has delivered over 600 talks to over 10000 people (July 2013).

Membership is open to all who have a genuine interest in the company, its history and its heritage. 

The sheer size of the Kays’ archive is such that help and assistance is always being sought from those with an interest in the company’s heritage or those with an interest in history, in general.  

In these modern times, we realise that not everybody can spend a large proportion of their free time carrying out research or archiving.  If you can spare just a few hours spread over several months to scan some documents or transcribe some letters then that is all we ask.

If you are able and are prepared to undertake some more detailed research into the company either by visiting your local record office, especially in the cities and towns where Kays operated, or are willing to scan some catalogue pages, photographs or documents using your own computer (We will supply the media, such as DVD-RW, CD-R etc), then please contact us.

You may also have personal anecdotes or perhaps you could interview past or present customers or employees and help us to develop a living aural archive of the social history of Kays.  The group has also formed the “Kays Community Multi-media Archive Group”, whose purpose is to gather the personal memories of employees, past and present.  

The group does not receive on-going financial support from any organisation or company and is a totally independent group, which raises its own funds to further the researches into the company’s past.

Links

The Kays Heritage Group provides these web-site links to related sites in the interests of furthering any researches into the company’s heritage.  The Group cannot be held accountable or take any responsibility for any of the content on these linked sites.

Skarratt – A detailed web site containing an ever expanding collection of information on the family of Skarratt and its history.  It was John Skarratt, who in the 1790s, started his watch and clock making business in Worcester and was the founder of the business that employed a young WK Kay in the 1870s.  The company was eventually amalgamated into Kay & Co Ltd of Worcester in 1896.  

http://www.skarratt.org/

Didcot Railway Centre – Home of the Great Western Society and its unique collection of Great Western Railway steam engines, coaches, wagons, buildings and small relics and a recreation of Brunel’s broad gauge railway. Several Kays clocks are preserved here.

http://www.didcotrailwaycentre.org.uk

Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway – “the friendly line in the Cotswolds”.  This organisation operates the railway between Toddington, Gloucestershire, Winchcombe and Cheltenham Racecourse.  The preservation of both steam and diesel locomotives along with rolling stock and the associated infrastructures is carried out be volunteers.  

http://www.gwsr.com/

Severn Valley Railway – The official web-site for the working steam railway that runs from Kidderminster to Bridgnorth and details the history and preservation of this historic railway.  A Kays railway platform clock is preserved in working order on platform 2 at Bewdley station.

http://www.svr.co.uk/index.php

STEAM – the museum of the Great Western Railway. This is the site for the museum located in Swindon, which preserves the history of the Great Western Railway. Several Kays pocket watches and a clock feature in the displays.                 

http://www.steam-museum.org.uk/

University of Worcester – The University is the custodian of the entire heritage collection. Researchers, academics and students with a genuine need to examine the collection may contact the University direct at http://www.worc.ac.uk/ils/635.htm