Christmas: The mail order pioneer who started a billion-pound industry

By Peter Shuttleworth
BBC News

Image caption,
The Pryce Jones catalogue was thought to be the world's first mail order catalogue when it started in 1861

Lots of things about Christmas are different this year, including how and where the gifts you've unwrapped today were probably bought.

It's that mail order shopping industry, now worth billions, which was inspired by a little known 19th Century Welsh draper who lived "in the middle of nowhere" and left school at 12.

Pryce Jones could only dream of the impact his entrepreneurial vision would have on the world when he was selling Welsh flannel to Queen Victoria and Florence Nightingale in the late 1800s.

He is said to have "effectively set up a company similar to today's Amazon", not in California's Silicon Valley or one of the world's trading epicentres - but in rural mid Wales.

Jones is credited as being the pioneer of a global mail order industry now worth about £75bn - which has seen unprecedented growth in the past few weeks as people prepare for a Covid Christmas.

A third of all Christmas shopping is forecast to have been done online this year as coronavirus lockdowns across the UK - and across the globe - made many shoppers decide getting gifts delivered to the front door is safer and easier than buying on the High Street.

Mail order is now big, big business, so perhaps swap London - Paris - New York for London - Paris - Newtown for what is described as an "extraordinary" rags-to-riches story.

Image source, Newtown Textile Museum
Image caption,
Pryce Jones' patrons included the royal houses of Austria, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Russia and the UK

Forget the internet and delivery drivers, Pryce Jones used the superhighway of the day - the railway and parcel post.

He didn't have an app or website, but in 1861 he started delivering catalogues - thought to be the world's first mail order catalogue - of his latest fashion items, from bloomers to a three-piece suit, to his 200,000 customers around the UK and the world.

He even went so far as a purpose-built warehouse - with its own post office - next to the railway line to connect his premises to the rest of the world, making a small market town in Montgomeryshire a "major centre of international trade".

He looked after his best customers too.

Image source, Newtown Textile Museum
Image caption,
The Pryce Jones catalogue featured the latest fashion

"Florence Nightingale liked his stuff so much he named a special width of flannel after her, the Florence Nightingale flannel," said local historian John Evans.

"Queen Victoria was an early customer and it was said Queen Victoria only wore Welsh flannel bloomers!

"And by the 1870s, Pryce Jones was supplying clothes of most of the crown heads of Europe - and shipping flannel to as far afield as the USA and Australia.

Image source, Newtown Textile Museum
Image caption,
Pryce Jones put a picture of his new Royal Welsh Warehouse on tins of Welsh Cream Toffees

"All from a place many think is in the middle of nowhere! It's an extraordinary story."

Jones' journey to global businessman, the House of Commons and ultimately a knighthood from one of his satisfied customers, started as a 12-year-old when he left school for an apprenticeship with Newtown draper John Davies.

Rural Powys was the heart of the 19th Century Welsh textile industry - and pioneering Pryce Jones reinvented selling clothes and took Welsh flannel to wardrobes all over the world.

He took over Mr Davies' business while still in his early 20s before setting up a new drapery shop, the Royal Welsh Warehouse in 1859, the year Newtown was connected to the world via the ever-expanding railway network.

Image source, Geograph/PennyMayes | Getty Images
Image caption,
Different centuries but the same idea... both Pryce Jones and Amazon warehouses were built close to transport links
Image source, Penny Mayes/Geograph
Image caption,
The Royal Welsh Warehouse has detail commemorating Queen Victoria and Pryce Jones' success at exhibitions

Jones started off by sending price lists to local customers so they weren't restricted on only buying goods when they could get into town - which, back then, was easier said than done.

But he set his sights on world domination when his town was linked by train to London six years after the railways arrived in mid Wales.

"He was already sending out swatches of his Welsh flannel to his best customers and saw an opportunity to send parcels by rail when the parcel post arrived - and business boomed," said Mr Evans, curator of Newtown Textile Museum.

Image source, Newtown Textile Museum
Image caption,
Pryce Jones took part in exhibitions all over the world, winning several medals like this at the 1873 Vienna Trade Fair
Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
High Street mainstays like Argos are now competing with Amazon in the home delivery market

"In fact, he had his own livery on his rail coaches - even before Royal Mail."

The ground-breaking businessman didn't stop there - his ever-expanding wool company invented what many credit as the world's first sleeping bag, the so-called Euklisia rug in 1876.

He relocated to the state-of-the-art red brick warehouse, now Grade II listed, which was geared to getting goods out "as fast as possible".

"It was an equivalent of an Amazon warehouse today," added Mr Evans.

"It was deliberately sited next to the train station, with its own siding, its own post office and even had its own electrical generating machine to power the factory.

"He was technology mad. He is credited for being the first person in Wales to have a telephone connected to his house and his factory had a sprinkler system.

"He was a pioneering entrepreneur, a marketing genius and an innovator but his incredible story is not widely known. And although the Pryce Jones building still dominates Newtown today, the story is not very well known in the town."

Image source, Jeremy Bolwell/Geograph
Image caption,
Pryce Jones' Royal Welsh Warehouse still dominates the skyline of Newtown today
Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Amazon ships 228 million parcels a year in the UK from their 17 distribution centres, like this one near Swansea

He was knighted in 1887 at the golden jubilee of Queen Victoria, when Pryce Jones became Sir Pryce Pryce-Jones, and spent two stints as Member of Parliament for Montgomery.

Jones' two sons played international football for Wales and he died aged 85 in 1920. He is buried at the All Saints Church at Llanllwchaiarn, just outside Newtown, a church he had paid to build in 1890.

Subsequently, his company was badly affected by the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s and was taken over just before World War Two.

So when you log on for your January sales bargain, remember how the Pryce was right.

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