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In 1860 Henry moved from the North East of England to Manchester, the powerhouse of the Industrial Revolution.
Here, he rented a stall on Salford’s Flat Iron Market and began to sell china and pottery.
Once a week he would make the pilgrimage to Stoke-on-Trent by horse to collect his wares from Wood & Sons.
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By 1868 Henry George Stephenson had built up enough capital to become the first tenant in Manchester’s newly built Barton Arcade.
To begin with, the business was very much focused on the retail market and sold many names that would later become famous in the industry. These included Doulton, Wedgwood, Royal Crown Derby, Maddocks and Thomas Webb. Alongside these brands were Stephenson’s own pottery ranges, sourced from Limoges, France.
Henry stocked all manner of wares, knowing that catering to every strata of the late 19th century was the best way to build his business.
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When the business first started, it had been named ‘Barton Arcade Glass and China Shops’. On 23rd April 1900, Henry took the steps of officially registering his business as a limited company — it became known from this point as ‘H.G. Stephenson Limited’.
This period saw the business thrive as it began to supply new sectors such as hospitals, hotels, breweries and the railways.
Before the arrival of the Great War, two of Henry’s sons —Harry and John — had entered the scene to make H.G. Stephenson Limited a family business. During this successful time, expansion allowed Stephensons to open additional stores in St. Ann’s Square and Piccadilly.
Here is the Stephenson family pictured in 1897 at their home in Broughton, Salford. Back left row left to right: Daisy Louise Aged 11, John Vincent George aged 18, Harry Malpas Aged 20, Robert Edgar Aged 15, Agnes Gladys Aged 13.
Middle row left to right: Reginald Johnstone Aged 17, Mary Agnes Aged 46, Edward Lionel Aged 20 months, Henry George Aged 50, Ernest Adrian Aged 12. Bottom row left to right: Violet Naomi Blanche Aged 8, Madeleine Mary Aged 4, Charles Geoffrey Aged 6.
The outbreak of the First World War heralded a spell of difficulty for most industries, Stephensons included.
With the war effort came a great recession that only added to the woes caused by stock shortages and a lack of labour. To make matters even worse, the company’s founder, Henry George Stephenson, passed away in 1918.
Supplies remained scarce after the war and embezzlement by a family member put the company into further troubles during a time of economic uncertainty.
The subsequent recession of the 1930s forced the closure of all but the Barton Arcade shops. It was the steadying hand of Ernest Stephenson (the 6th son of Henry George Stephenson) that kept the company afloat through these difficult times and, by the start of the Second World War, he was managing the business alone.
After sustaining significant bombing damage on the first night of the Manchester Blitz, the decision was made to close the retail section of the business at Barton Arcade.
Stephenson’s continued to trade wholesale from the basement though, with Ernest insistent that his nephew Harold, who was away fighting, had something to return home to.
In 1946, Harold returned safely from Burma. He would later become the company’s Managing Director from 1966-1970.
Through considered procurement and their support of the post-war rebirth of the British brewery trade, Stephenson’s were able to quickly recover from the aftermath of the war effort.
The decades following the war signaled a time of growth for the company with a commission from the City of Manchester for souvenir coronation mugs; additional store space being opened on 59 Deansgate and a move to develop a more comprehensive wholesale product offering to suit the catering and licensed trades.
Despite the period of stability, by the mid 1960’s it was evident that the business was becoming too large for central Manchester. More space was needed.
After 99 years at Barton Arcade, the need for a more efficient and larger warehousing operation prompted a move to Stephenson’s current home — The Kennerley Works site in Stockport.
By 1970, fourth generation Michael Stephenson (who’d joined the company in 1963) took over the Managing Director role from his father Harold. Michael quickly set about transforming Stephenson’s into the ‘one-stop-shop’ it is known as today.
New ranges such as bar sundries, cleaning chemicals and other ancillary items became a staple part of the Stephensons repertoire. The Cash & Carry was opened in 1982, with the Showroom following it in 1998.
This era saw the company develop strong ties with regional breweries including J.W. Lees, Frederic Robinsons and Daniel Thwaites; as well as initiating a presence in sectors such as education and care homes.
As the new millennium approached, it brought with it the fifth generation of the family.
Firstly, Julian Lewis-Booth joined in 1998. Armed with an experience of IT, sales and administration from his time working in London, he set about streamlining the company’s internal operations.
In 2005, Julian’s brother Henry (who’d worked with William Grant and Sainsbury’s) joined the business. By 2009, Henry had taken on the role of Managing Director, a position he still holds today.
Henry’s tenure has overseen staff numbers increase from 35 to over 100; the 2006 launch of the now industry-leading catalogue, a warehouse expansion to 13,500sq foot and a fourfold growth in turnover.
2018 marked 150 years in business for Stephenson’s. Rather than taking a step back to reflect upon the past though, the company instead embarked upon a full-steam-ahead year of progress and praise.
The start of the celebratory year saw Stephenson’s named as ‘Regional Distributor of the Year’ at the annual Food Service Packaging Association Awards.
A successful catalogue launch at NRB 2018 was then followed by a return to the original Barton Arcade store location to host a party for the company’s valued customers, suppliers and staff.
Rounding off an eventful year was the launch of the Manchester Bee Paper Straw and in a crowing achievement, Stephenson’s picked up a prestigious Manchester Evening News Business of the Year Award.
“Our history is fabulous, but we cannot rest on our laurels. If we’re not competitive or we miss a delivery, it counts for very little” – Henry Stephenson