Susan Coney brings us the history of N Gill and Son, arguably, the leading retailer and manufacturer of drapery, ladies and gentlemen’s attire and house furnishing in Truro for 120 years, from 1833 to 1953. The owners, especially William Nicholas Gill and his son Arthur William Gill, were prominent and philanthropic members of the Truro community in their day.
In his book ‘The book of Truro: a portrait of the town’, Mr H L Douch states that N Gill and Son was the largest employer of labour in Truro in the 1890s.
The business was founded by Nicholas Gill, the third son of a farmer Nicholas Gill of St Allen near Truro and his wife Mary Lanyon. Nicholas the son, married Philippa Bassett of Pencorse Manor at St Enoder, in 1801.
The first draper’s shop of N Gill and Son was at 1 Boscawen Street Truro, the former Town House of the Paul family (Mr Paul was a solicitor in Truro in the late 1700s and early 1800s), an old mansion (over 200 years old in 1941) with a walled garden running down to Back Quay.
An illustration from a local newspaper.
Nicholas Gill and his family and some of his shop assistants, lived over the shop from 1833 until about 1869. However, Nicholas did purchase a ‘holiday home’ for the family, probably in the 1860s, Ponsmere House Perranporth, which remained in the family’s ownership until soon after the end of the First World War, when it was sold and became a hotel.
Ponsmere House on the ‘green splat’ at Perranporth
In 1870 Nicholas purchased Comprigney House Kenwyn and moved there with his three unmarried daughters. Nicholas’s wife, Philippa, had not lived with the family since about 1844. Records show that she had been admitted to the asylum at Bodmin in 1865 and died there in 1888. However, she is buried in the family plot at Kenwyn Church. At that time, his son, William Nicholas, who was in the business with his father, was living in Upper Lemon Villas with his wife and young son Arthur William.
Nicholas died in 1875 and William Nicholas inherited the business and both the family homes: Comprigney House and Ponsmere House. William Nicholas had married Ada Branwell of Penzance in 1866, the daughter of Robert Branwell the owner of a successful grain business and a Mayor of Penzance. Ada’s eldest brother, John Richards Branwell, also Mayor of Penzance on several occasions, had Penlee House, Penzance, built around 1864. The Branwells of Penzance were the same direct line family of Maria Carne Branwell, the mother of the Bronte sisters and their brother, Branwell.
Nicholas expanded his business and opened a Lady’s Tailoring and Gentlemen’s Outfitters at 29 Boscawen Street, but it was William Nicholas who expanded the N Gill & Son business considerably.
29 Boscawen Street
William extended 1 Boscawen Street store into Osborne’s tailor’s shop next door (15, Princes Street) in 1899 then into the premises of Mr Knuckley’s and the International Stores (13-14 Princes Street) in 1912 when the whole premises were totally refurbished. Alfred Cornelius, who had worked with Silvanus Trevail, managed and designed the interior for the refurbishment of the Boscawen Street/ Princes Street store with the lavish new frontage.
William expanded into furniture making, soft furnishings and a carpet warehouse with a factory in New Bridge Street. This factory was replaced in 1890 with a new factory at the rear of the Boscawen Street store facing onto Back Quay (Market Strand). This building was designed by Silvanus Trevail.
There was a store selling Gill’s furniture and soft furnishing, initially at 17, Boscawen Street which moved to 13, Boscawen Street. These premises also offered the services of an undertaker.
17, Boscawen Street on the left
13 Boscawen Street can be seen in the background – date probably 1903.
In 1887, N Gill and Son were awarded an order for 1,000 chairs and kneelers for the new Cathedral which William Gill provided ‘at cost’.
The chairs were still in situ and used until very recently (2019).
It appears that William Nicolas had business partnerships with other notable companies in Truro including Webb & Co. and John Julian.
A map of the Boscawen Street area showing the location of shops referred to in the article
N Gill and Son were prolific advertisers in the local press for their goods and services. This advertisement, from 1907, is my favourite.
It seems that both Nicholas and William were good employers. Even in Nicholas’s time, in 1874, he reduced the working hours for his staff closing the stores at 3 o’clock on a Friday ‘to give the assistants an opportunity for open air recreation’. The hours of closure for other days were Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays 6 o’clock, Wednesdays (Market Day) and Saturdays 9 o’clock.
In 1880 N Gill and Son decided to close an hour earlier on a Wednesday (8 o’clock rather that 9 o’clock) due to the ‘exceedingly long time that their assistants have to stand and work on Wednesdays’ but only during the winter!
To work for a company like Gill’s was a ‘job for life’ in those days so long as you ‘kept your nose clean’. The Gill’s drapery and outfitter assistants were considered the crème de la crème of shop assistants in the town throughout the existence of the business.
At least during William Nicholas’s time, each assistant had a formal contract of employment. An example of such a contract is one between William Nicholas Gill and Emily Hosking, an assistant in the drapery store dated 27th April 1896. In summary the agreement, signed by both William Nicholas Gill and Emily Hosking and witnessed by F Woolf says: Emily, as an assistant, would be paid £55 per annum paid quarterly with a discretionary bonus paid one month after 1 years’ service and every successive year after that. Emily had to agree to exclusive rights to William Nicholas Gill in her capacity as a drapery assistant and any breech of this agreement by Emily would result in a ‘fine of £500 by way of liquidation and is not by way of a penalty’.
William Nicholas died in 1916 and his funeral in Kenwyn Church was attended by all the local dignitaries.
William Nicholas Gill and his wife Ada (nee Branwell) at the front of Comprigney House just before the First World War.
From the left: Ada Gill, Ellen Gill (William Nicholas’s spinster sister) and Emma Clinton nee Gill (widowed sister of William Nicholas, whose husband Charles Clinton, died in Feb 1907).
Both photographs above are from Arthur Gill’s collection held by the Royal Cornwall Museum, Truro. A notable academic, Dr Rachel Moseley of the University of Warwick who specializes in early photography, thinks that these photos are examples of very early colour film.
William Nicholas’s elder son Arthur William had worked with his father in the business until the outbreak of the First World War when Arthur was appointed the Captain, (later Major) of the Royal Garrison Artillery (Territorials) at St Anthony Head.
Who has not heard of the 1st Relief
with Sergeant Manuel as their chief
and Dandy Willcocks Bombardier
for we’ve got all the swanks down here
There’s old Dick Harding on the breech
because of his tremendous reach
Gunner Pearce can sling in shell
as fast as snowballs melt in hell
and Darby Brewer our number four
can ram them down the blasted bore
Sheddy Buzza’s our auto sight
you should hear him shriek “twenty right”
Whilst Hawkey B who fires by night
would put the German Fleet to flight
Jimmy Greenwood is our setter
in all the camp there is none better
These are the men, the pick of the Fort
specially selected to defend the Port
With Captain Gill at the B C Post
it’s the smartest squad along the coast
Arthur inherited the N Gill & Son business and the family homes: Comprigney House and Ponsmere, Perranporth, from his father. During the early 1920s, Arthur gradually sold off parts of the business and the family homes.
In 1923, he sold the business at 29 Boscawen Street to Mr Percy Dower (the manager) and the house furniture business at 13 Boscawen Street to John Julian. Major Gill continued the business at the Boscawen Street store until 1929 when he sold all his shares but it is said that he continued his interest in the store until his death in 1941.
Arthur Gill sold the family holiday home Ponsmere House which became a hotel. He had married (Henrietta) Mabel Dobell who lived at Carvedras House, Truro in 1897. Arthur and Mabel never lived at Comprigney House and they did not have any children.
In 1919, Comprigney House was occupied by George Coulter Hancock (a prominent solicitor in Truro) and his wife Ada (nee Branwell – Ada Gill’s niece). They lived there until the mid-1930s.
Comprigney House 1932
In early 1938 the N Gill and Son furniture factory and warehouse deigned by Silvanus Trevail, was demolished and in 1939 the Boscawen Street store was extended with an entrance from Back Quay.
N Gill and Son entrance on Back Quay
In 1953 the whole site was sold to F W Woolworth Ltd ending 120 years of a successful family business.
There is so much more I could write about the Gill family as leading philanthropic members of the Truro community including Kenwyn Church, the Royal Institution of Cornwall, the Old Grammar School (and Cathedral School), St Mary’s School, Truro Cathedral, Cornwall Music Society – the list is ‘endless’. Major Arthur Gill was a very keen and skilful photographer and his photographic and cinematographic collection is held by the RIC at the Royal Cornwall Museum.
This summary is just a small fraction of the history of N Gill and Son. I have documented all my research in a book entitled ‘A History of N Gill and Son of Truro Cornwall 1833-1953’. This book is not ‘on sale’ but can be borrowed from the Truro Library and research copies are held at Kresen Kernow in Redruth, Penlee House, Penzance, and the Courtney Library at the Royal Cornwall Museum, Truro.
I became interested in N Gill and Son as my Grandfather was William Gill’s Coachman and my Mother was a shop assistant from aged 15 in 1926, eventually becoming ‘head of department’ then cashier at the Boscawen Street store, until she married in 1938. Mum always talked so fondly of the Gill family and working ‘in Gills’. My Grandmother often looked after William and Ada Gill’s second Son, Branwell, who was disabled, during ‘school’ holidays.
Gill’s ‘Girls’ 1930s – Mum on the left (she was permitted to wear patterned collar and cuffs being head of dept), and her two assistants.
Susan grew up near Truro and was educated at St Mary’s School and the County Grammar School. She followed a career in computer science providing and supporting systems for scientific research. Following retirement, she became interested in the history of the people and places of Cornwall.
Susan has written a book about the history of N Gill and Son of Truro and assisted others in their research. She has given presentations to local groups on various subjects of Cornish interest. She was a volunteer at the Royal Cornwall Museum for some years and her history of the Royal Institution of Cornwall Museum buildings in River Street was published in the RIC Journal of 2019.