Leeds Heritage Trail: Marks & Spencer

Michael Marks, a Russian born Polish refugee, opened his first penny bazaar in a covered arcade in Leeds in 1884. His slogan was ‘Don’t ask the price, it’s a penny’ and after successful trading, went into partnership ten years later with Tom Spencer, creating the beginnings of the company we know today.

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Mark’s in Time Company Archive, University of Leeds

To celebrate the company’s 100th birthday in 1984, Marks & Spencer collected together many historical artefacts to create the company archive.  This archive now contains more than 70,000 items from 1884 to the present day and is now located on the Leeds University campus in the Michael Marks building, approximately 20 minutes walk from Leeds railway station.  Further details can be found on the Marks in Time website.

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Displays of the original M & S Penny Bazaars

The archive is open Monday to Friday from 10.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m. and admission is free so recently I went along with a friend to take a look in their ‘Marks in Time’ galleries.  It’s located in a state of the art building on the edge of the campus and stepping through the doors we could see store signs demonstrating how they had changed over the years, it’s so easy to forget how they differed from those of today.

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Marks and Spencer packaging from the early days

The collection includes many items that were familiar to us and probably to most families in the United Kingdom.  The displays comprise clothing, toys, advertising materials, in-house newspapers and company papers.  It was interesting viewing the items on display bringing back some fond memories.  There were some vivid brown and orange table mats which I remember my grandmother owning, probably the height of fashion then but I don’t think many people would want them on their dining tables now!

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Marks & Spencer staff uniforms

Other items taking our interest were staff uniforms, it’s easy to forget how the staff used to dress.  We recognised some of the uniforms on display but of the ones above, only the belted uniform on the right was familiar to me.

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Display cabinets at the Marks & Spencer Company Archive

The archive contains an interesting timeline of key events in the company’s history.  From this we learnt some interesting facts such as Marks & Spencer becoming a public company in 1926 and of their flagship London store at Marble Arch opening in 1930, with food halls being introduced the following year.  The retailer opened its first overseas stores in 1975 with initial branches in France and Belgium.

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Ornate entranceway to Leeds Kirkgate Market

Having learnt lots about the bastion of U.K. high streets we left the archive to follow the heritage trail through Leeds city centre.  This took us to the Cross Arcade where Marks & Spencer’s first shop was originally located and then along to the Kirkgate Market.  This was the site of Michael Mark’s first stall way back in 1884, the small beginnings from which M&S evolved.  To celebrate the company’s historical links to Leeds, a heritage stall opened in 2013 near to where the original Penny Bazaar operated from.  Despite its small size, this stall has a wide range of tinned biscuits, chocolates, mugs and other items in heritage style tins and packaging to take home as souvenirs of the visit.  Tucked in one corner is a small coffee bar serving own brand teas and coffees.

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Marks & Spencer Heritage Stall, Kirkgate Market, Leeds

Next to the market stall hanging proudly is the Marks & Spencer centenary clock, marking 100 years of trading as a company from 1884 to 1984.  Both the clock and the market stall are in the company’s corporate shade of green.

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Marks & Spencer Centenary Clock, Kirkgate Market, Leeds

Following our nostalgic look at the history of Marks and Spencer it seemed only appropriate that we should head to their large, modern store in the nearby Trinity Leeds Shopping Centre for a dose of retail therapy and some groceries from their food hall.

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