Whiteley was born in Yorkshire in the small village of Purston, situated between Wakefield and Pontefract. His father was a prosperous corn dealer. William along with his three brothers enjoyed a healthy open-air life. He left school at the age of 14, and started work at his uncle's farm. He would have liked to have been a veterinary surgeon or perhaps a jockey but his parents had other ideas. In 1848 they started him on a seven-year apprenticeship with Harnew & Glover, the largest drapers in Wakefield. Whiteley took his new job seriously and received a 'severe drilling in the arts and mysteries of the trade.'
In 1851 he paid his first visit to London to see the Great Exhibition. The exhibition fired his imagination, particularly the magnificent displays of manufactured goods. All that could be bought or sold was on display, but nothing was for sale. Whiteley had the idea that he could create a store as grand as the Crystal Palace where all these goods could be under one roof and it would make him the most important shopkeeper in the world. Wakefield, once the centre of the Yorkshire woollen trade, was in decline and Whiteley now wanted to be something more than a small town draper. On completion of his apprenticeship he arrived in London with £10 in his pocket.
He took a job with R. Willey & Company in Ludgate Hill, and then Morrison & Dillon's to learn all aspects of the trade. Whiteley lived frugally. Not smoking or drinking he was able to save up £700, enough to start his own business. London was expanding rapidly in the 1860s and after considering Islington he turned his attention to Bayswater; the area was rapidly being developed into a high class residential district. He observed the number of fashionable people using Westbourne Grove and decided to open his shop there. He started his business in 1863 by opening a Fancy Goods shop at 31 Westbourne Grove, employing two girls to serve and a boy to run errands. Later one of the girls, Harriet Sarah Hall, became his wife.
Seizing every opportunity, he acquired a row of shops in Westbourne Grove in 1867 and turned them into 17 departments. Dressmaking was started in 1868, and a house agency and refreshment room, the first ventures outside drapery, opened in 1872. By then 622 people were employed on the premises and a further 1,000 outside. Whiteley started selling food in 1875, and a building and decorating department was added in 1876. This proved to be particularly profitable, as the large stuccoed houses in the area needed regular repainting. Claiming that he could provide anything from a pin to an elephant, William Whiteley dubbed himself "The Universal Provider".
He met strong opposition from smaller tradesmen, and also from the local authorities over his grand building plans, and several bad fires in the 1880s may have been caused by opponents. Business nonetheless prospered, aided by a delivery service extending up to 25 miles (40 km), and in 1887 the store was described as 'an immense symposium of the arts and industries of the nation and of the world'.
By 1890 over 6,000 staff were employed in the business, most of them living in company-owned male and female dormitories, having to obey 176 rules and working 7 am to 11 pm, six days a week. Whiteley also bought massive farmlands and erected food-processing factories to provide produce for the store and for staff catering. In 1896 he earned an unsolicited Royal Warrant from Queen Victoria - an unprecedented achievement.
Westbourne Grove Fire and reopening
In 1887 disaster struck and the store in Westbourne Grove burnt down. In his autobiography, Drawn From Memory, E. H. Shepard said the fire could be seen from Highgate Hill, and some days later when he and his brother Cyril were allowed to visit Westbourne Grove, that, "The long front of the shop was a sorry sight with part of the wall fallen and the rest blackened."
Whiteleys was to rise again like the Phoenix from the fire and was soon rebuilt, but later moved from Westbourne Grove to Queensway. When the Lord Mayor of London in the presence of thousands opened the new store in Queensway on 21 November 1911, it was claimed to be the largest British store in the world.
On 24 January 1907, Whiteley was shot dead at his shop by Horace George Raynor, aged 29, who claimed that he was Whiteley's illegitimate son. In his will Whiteley left £1,000,000 (a fabulous amount at that time, equivalent in 2014 to £89.5 million). Some of the money was used to create Whiteley Village, a retirement village near Walton-on-Thames.