William Whiteley

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William Whiteley
William Whiteley, about 1890
Born William Whiteley
29 September 1831
Purston, Yorkshire, England
Died 24 January 1907(1907-01-24) (aged 75)
Bayswater, England
Occupation Retail entrepreneur

William Whiteley (29 September 1831 – 24 January 1907) was an English entrepreneur of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was the founder of the William Whiteley Limited retail company whose eponymous department store became the Whiteleys shopping centre.

Early life[edit]

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.

Business career[edit]

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. 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.

Claiming that he could provide anything from a pin to an elephant, William Whiteley dubbed himself "The Universal Provider".


On 24 January 1907, Whiteley was shot dead at his shop by Horace George Rayner, aged 29, who claimed that he was Whiteley's illegitimate son. In his will Whiteley left £1 million (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.

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