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Sir John Blundell Maple - Victorian furniture entrepreneur
"I have had in my possession for many years a wooden travelling trunk with metal hinges and corners, more than 100 years old. When restored a year or so ago, a sign was exposed written in black paint: 'Sir J. Blundell Maple Bart M.P., Shire Horse Stud, Shafford, St Albans, Herts', all in capital letters. Can you tell me about him?"
Sir John Blundell Maple (1845-1903) was a furnishing store owner, perhaps the most successful of all Victorian retail entrepreneurs. He achieved great wealth, became a politician, a horserace breeder and a member of the Prince of Wales's set, and his emporium in London's Tottenham Court Road furnished everyone who was anyone in Victorian society.
Maple was born in 1845. His father, John Maple, had come from Horley, Surrey, where he had been apprenticed before opening a small shop there. John Maple senior moved to London, working first as a shop assistant, and then moving to Tottenham Court Road where he set up in business with James Cook. Within a few years the partnership had split and John Maple decided to run the business on his own. He began to succeed with what was at first a very small business, despite a fire and a building collapse. In fact, he was so successful that he was able to afford a good education for his son, John Blundell Maple (Blundell was his wife's maiden name).
At the age of 16, John Blundell Maple joined his father's business, which began to take off in ways never before imagined. John Blundell Maple had exceptional business skills and while still a young man was running the company. The British Empire was spreading round the world and Maples seized the opportunity - by the 1880s it was the largest furniture store on the planet. John Blundell Maple's skills and vision were crucial and the moment was right for expansion.
Maples manufactured their own luxury furniture in a complex eventually so vast that by the 1880s it occupied an area where once stood 200 houses. They were timber importers, and exporters of furniture and fittings to all parts of the world. They used steam power and electricity, had a fleet of horse-drawn vans, depository and showrooms, and employed a vast workforce.
Maples' market was the middle class and upwards - anyone anywhere who had money. They furnished palaces all over the world, including Tsar Nicholas's Winter Palace, the Hofburg Imperial Palace in Vienna, all the great hotels, and town and country homes. Prestigious British embassies were all furnished by Maples, even if it meant carrying the grand piano up the Khyber Pass on packhorses.
Then John Blundell Maple saw fit to enter public life. He bought the vast Childwickbury estate - later the home of the film director Stanley Kubrick - near St Albans in Hertfordshire. He also became a racehorse owner and breeder with stables in Newmarket - he bought the jockey Fred Archer's house. One of his Hertfordshire stud farms was for shire horses - hence the inscription on the travelling trunk in the listener's possession. Shafford Farm was on the estate. Maples entertained royalty and rubbed shoulders with such as Lord Rothschild, the Sassoons, Lord Rosebery - the racing elite. He owned a large racing stud with as many 40 horses at a time. From 1885 onwards he won many important races, though never a Classic; he was champion owner in 1901.
Maple went into politics as the Conservative MP for Dulwich in 1887, was knighted five years later, and became a baronet in 1897. He was a generous public benefactor, providing St Albans with the fully equipped Sisters Hospital (named after his two daughters who had died in successive years), and Clarence Park, a public park and sports ground. He also enabled the rebuilding of University College Hospital, London. Maple died aged 58 from Bright's Disease in 1903, only two months after being at last admitted to the Jockey Club.
Making History consulted
Hugh Barty-King, Maples Fine Furnishers - A Household Word for 150 Years (Quiller Press, 1992)
Vanessa has presented science and current affairs programmes for BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Discovery and has presented for BBC Radio 4 & Five Live and a regular contributor to the Daily Telegraph and the Mail on Sunday, Scotsman and Sunday Herald.
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