Business tips from UK's oldest family firms

Balson's butchers shop in the 1880s Balson's butchers shop pictured in the 1880s

Some of the UK's oldest family businesses have survived for almost 500 years. What have they been doing right to make them so enduring?

According to the Institute for Family Business (IFB), there are around three million family firms in the UK.

It says the 10 companies below are thought to be among the oldest. Each offers an example to other family firms hoping to keep going for generations.

RJ Balson & Son - Butcher - Established 1515

If Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon had visited Bridport in Dorset, they could have eaten meat sold by Balson's the butcher.

Records show Robert Balson rented a market stall in 1515 in the "Shambles" - an open-air meat market where animals were slaughtered and blood would drip into the gutter on the street. A messy scene, the word shambles later came to be associated with disorder.

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Richard Balson

Descendants of Robert continued to rent a stall there. The family survived the arrival of bubonic plague in the town during the 17th Century.

In the Victorian era tragedy struck the business. Owner Arthur Balson, started living with a married woman and her young son Tom. During a game, Tom pretended to shoot Arthur with a gun, but did not realise it was loaded and accidentally shot Arthur dead in 1859. The business was taken over by Arthur's younger brother Richard.

Balson's is now run by Richard's great-great-grandson Richard Balson and uses recipes handed down through the generations.

On sale are ox cheeks and Bath chaps - a west country term for pig's cheeks.

Offering personal and attentive customer service has kept shoppers coming back over the centuries. Balson says he helps sort out his customers' problems from behind the counter.

"Usually if they've got a problem it's because they are not eating enough meat," he adds.

R Durtnell & Sons - Construction - Established 1591
Durtnell's Builder's yard Richard Durtnell managed to raise £360 in 1802 to buy his new builders' yard

Since the financial crash of 2008 over 7,000 UK building firms have gone out of business, but Durtnell and Sons, based in Brasted, Kent, has remained afloat since the reign of Elizabeth I.

Start Quote

I remember as a child going to London, there was a lot of arm-waving out the window, 'We built this and we built that'”

End Quote Alex Durtnell

Having built everything from country houses to cottages and council estates, the original Durtnell's were carpenter builders.

Spotting new ways of working has helped the company thrive and in the early 1800s, owner at the time, Richard Durtnell, made a crucial decision to bring together all the craftspeople he needed, such as glaziers and bricklayers, in one yard. As a result of this innovation, he became one of the first general builders.

"I remember as a child going to London, there was a lot of arm-waving out the window, 'We built this and we built that,'" says Alex Durtnell, who recently took over the business from his father.

"Sadly there weren't in-car TVs back then, so we actually had to listen to what dad was saying, and I thought: 'How boring is that.' Of course now I do the same thing with my children."

C Hoare & Co - Bank - Established 1672
A painting of the Fleet Street banking house dated 1829 A painting of the Fleet Street banking house dated 1829

With two branches in London, this independent bank can trace its origins back to the reign of Charles II when founder Sir Richard Hoare began trading as a goldsmith and banker. His clients included diarist Samuel Pepys and Charles II's widow Catherine of Braganza.

The bank's headquarters in Fleet Street was built in 1829, where they issued cheque books and "washing books" or early bank statements. Since then the company has changed with the times, introducing online banking in 2008.

During World War Two, the headquarters was caught in a Nazi bombing raid, and staff had to use water from the bank's well to extinguish the flames of the fire.

The tenth and eleventh generations of the Hoare family run the bank today and the company says the secret to their longevity is adhering to their core values and ethos - "to treat others as we would wish to be treated".

Mornflake - Miller - Established 1675
Brereton Mill in Cheshire was also owned by Mornflake (image circa 1885) Brereton Mill in Cheshire was also owned by Mornflake (image circa 1885)

William Lea started milling oats at Swettenham Mill in 1675 in Cheshire and 15 generations later the company is still trading.

"Obviously technology has moved on and we have new equipment, especially to keep up with the demand for our oats, but the general milling principle has stayed the same," says current managing director John Lea.

Mr Lea says constant innovation, investment and commitment to consumers is the key to staying in business. Innovation became particularly vital during World War Two. With home-grown, sustainable food a necessity in the war, then-owner Philip Lea was ordered by the Ministry of Food to leave the RAF and return home to Britain to "feed the nation".

As the family mills struggled to cope with the excess demand, a new mill and factory was built. It was one of the few construction projects not involving munitions to get the go-ahead during World War Two.

James Lock & Co - Hatters - Established 1676
Lock & Co's shop in the 19th Century Lock & Co's shop in the 19th Century

Following the great plague of 1665 and the great fire of 1666, wealthy residents from the City of London moved to the west of the city in search of clean air. Entrepreneurial shopkeepers spotted the exodus and opened up businesses in the emerging West End.

Choosing the right location was crucial to establishing James Lock & Co. With a shop close to St James Palace, the firm became milliners to the gentry and the military.

Over the years customers included Admiral Lord Nelson, Sir Winston Churchill and Charlie Chaplin, but its most famous product was the very first bowler hat in 1850.

While its mainstay is traditional headwear, such as fedoras and Trilbies, the shop also makes sure it keeps up to date with the latest trends. So as well as holding Royal warrants to supply hats to the Duke of Edinburgh and the Prince of Wales, Lock & Co says its hats have also been worn by Hollywood film stars and rappers.

Toye, Kenning & Spencer - Medals and regalia - Thought to have been established 1685
Toye & Co's metal work department in the 1930s The metal work department of Toye, Kenning & Spencer in the 1930s

"It is an immense responsibility to take on a family firm like this. I think it's very kin to a stately home, stately factory even," says chief executive Fiona Toye.

Using traditional techniques, the company makes insignia and regalia, such as the ribbons and medals presented to awardees of OBEs and CBEs, and have even helped renovate state chairs for the Kremlin.

Start Quote

Family firms are experts at evolving”

End Quote Fiona Graham, Institute for Family Business

Starting out as artisan silk weavers in London's East End, adapting to change and appealing to new markets has been the key to business survival.

In the 1850s, soldiers in the Crimean war wore bright red coats with detailed trimmings so they could be seen by their battalions amidst the smoke of the battlefield and Toye and Co were making this type of regalia by the late 1870s.

By the 1860s the company had already spotted opportunities for making silk trimming for working men's groups like friendly societies, so when the military turned to khaki uniforms from the 1880s, the company spotted another gap in the market with other societies like the Freemasons.

The company also made epaulettes, a sash and a hat for leading suffragette Flora Drummond - nicknamed "The General" - in 1908, and embroidered four ornate banners for Queen Elizabeth's coronation in 1953.

"Family firms are experts at evolving, ensuring they remain competitive over the generations and relevant in the modern world," says Fiona Graham of the IFB.

With the high costs of manufacturing in the UK, the firm may have to adapt to change again by moving production of some of their lower value stock overseas.

Folkes Group - Property and manufacture - Established 1697
An image from the old forge

Specialising in commercial property development and investment, this West Midlands-based company is now run by Constantine Folkes, the ninth generation to run the business.

Folkes evidently feels that staying true to the family's roots has been crucial to keeping the business going. He still lives in the area where the firm was first created.

Berry Bros & Rudd - Wine merchants - Established 1698
Berry brothers shop exterior

Established by widow Bourne as a grocer's in the neighbourhood of St James's, London, the business supplied the new and popular coffee houses in the area.

In the middle of the 18th Century the tradition of weighing distinguished customers on the company's scales began. Among those weighed were Beau Brummell and Lord Byron.

Berry brothers shop interior

In 1838, owner George Berry, became a special constable along with the future Emperor Napoleon III. During his exile in Britain, Napoleon III used the company's cellars to conduct secret meetings ahead of his return to France.

The day after the sinking of The Titanic in 1912, the business received a letter from the White Star Line shipping company saying 69 cases of their spirits and wine had been lost on the ship. However the letter did not make any reference to the loss of life.

While preserving tradition, the company has stayed relevant in modern times by spotting new international opportunities, such as introducing wines from China to the shop in 2013.

Salts Healthcare - Healthcare products - Established 1701
Soldiers being fitted with prosthetic limbs at the Cherry street clinic in Birmingham

Former locksmiths John and William Salt started the business in the early 1700s manufacturing surgical instruments, but the company seems to have been adept over the years at responding to gaps in the market and social change.

In World War One they made artificial limbs for injured soldiers and now specialise in ostomy and orthotic products.

Aspall Cyder - Cider makers - Established 1728
A document dated 1729 contains information on the purchase of apples A document dated 1729 contains information on the purchase of apples

Tracing their history back to the Crusades as associates of the Knights Templar, Aspall Cyder is now run by Barry and Henry, the eighth generation of Chevalliers. According to their family tree, King Henry I can be counted as their great grandfather, 26 times removed.

The business began when Clement Benjamin Chevallier, from Jersey, inherited Aspall Hall in Suffolk, but started to miss his favourite alcoholic drink.

Apple trees from Jersey were planted in the grounds and the brewery is still located at Aspall today.

As well as their long heritage, the company is not afraid to pioneer new techniques, producing vinegars as well as cider and apple juice.

Hidden Histories: Britain's Oldest Family Businesses starts on Wednesday 15 January at 21:00 GMT on BBC Four

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