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The company was established by Fred Dawes as a chain of television and radio rental shops in the 1950s. The business was initially named Fred Dawes. In 1969, the business was sold to Radio Rentals (which had merged with Thorn Electrical Industries in 1968), and all the rental accounts were transferred to Radio Rentals. All ninety of the Fred Dawes High Street stores became electrical retailers instead, and in 1971, Thorn acquired an Essex and Hertfordshire group of shops called Sidney Rumbelow's, and Fred Dawes stores were renamed Rumbelows. (According to his wife, Sid did not like or approve of this branding)
Several other regional chains were bought around this time period, including two chains that were already large and popular in Northwest England, NEMS and Strothers. As with Fred Dawes, these stores too were renamed Rumbelows. Combining previously unrelated chains occasionally created competing Rumbelows stores within yards of each other. Unfortunately, none of the values that made these small chains so successful were retained.
Centralised, dictatorial control was established from the Nantwich, Cheshire, headquarters, which suffered as much as it benefited as an early adopter of computerised accounting. Several of the former Strothers and NEMS stores also sold records, musical instruments and hi-fi equipment. The Rumbelows store in Whitechapel, Liverpool had been the heart of the NEMS Enterprises empire during the 1960s, when NEMS was owned by the Beatles' manager Brian Epstein.
Thorn EMI transferred all of Rumbelows' rental accounts over to their Radio Rentals chain, bolstering its market position. With its core business removed, Rumbelows sought a new identity as a more conventional (non rental) retailer, even adding computers to the product mix. In 1992, Thorn converted some of the remaining Rumbelows shops into DER, Multibroadcast or Radio Rentals branches.
Few observers were surprised by the reduction in profitability that resulted from this 'unconventional' business tactic, and fewer still were surprised, when Thorn closed the remaining 285 Rumbelows shops in February 1995. Rumbelows had been losing £12 million a year, and had never made a profit in its 24 years of existence. Some stores were sold to the German PC retail chain Escom. In July 1996, Escom itself subsequently folded, following financial difficulties.
In the 1980s, Martin Dawes (born c.1945), Fred's son, would carry on the family name in the electrical and electronic retailing sector, with his telecommunications business (mobile phones), which he sold in 1999, for £130 million.