Sir John Moores - 20th Century Entrepreneur Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Sir John Moores - 20th Century Entrepreneur

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Sir John Moores was born in Manchester, but spent most of his working life in the city of Liverpool. He is perhaps most well known as the founder of the Littlewoods catalogue and chain stores, but also established the Littlewoods Football Pools and various other enterprises.

His biography1 was published shortly after his death in 1993. It was researched and written by his great niece Barbara Clegg, who was an actress and scriptwriter (most notably she appeared in medical drama Emergency Ward 10 and penned a number of episodes for Doctor Who and Coronation Street).

A Businessman is Born

John Moores was born on 25 January, 1896, in Eccles, Manchester - he was the eldest son and second eldest of eight children. His mother and father both worked hard but were not well off, so they instilled the value of money in their children - if John wanted something that cost more than his pocket money (a penny a week) such as a cricket bat, his parents would offer to pay half the amount but he had to save up to pay the rest.

He was 12 when he got his first job, helping with the milk round before school started. After he left school at 13, he was employed as a Post Office Messenger Boy for six shillings a week. However, he was not satisfied with that - his hobby was reading biographies of successful businessmen, and he had learned that a high proportion of millionaires had started their careers as telegraphists, so he went to night school to study the craft.

After getting fired from the Post Office for talking back to his superior, his studies paid off as he became a trainee telegraphist on 18 shillings a week for the Commercial Cable Company. During World War I telegraphy was a reserved occupation so he didn't need to enlist in the armed forces but he volunteered to serve as a telegraphist for the Royal Navy in Aberdeen. After the war, and after his father died in 1919, he was sent for training in Liverpool, where he learned touch typing, as well as how to read cable slips so that he could receive telegrams as well as send them. He was then sent to Ireland to work for the Waterville Cable Company which received telegrams from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean and sent them on to Liverpool or London.

Again not afraid to speak out, he complained about the food that was served at the Waterville Cable Company Station and so was elected to run the Mess Committee. He established the Waterville Supply Company to order food from a variety of suppliers instead of just one, so was able to reduce costs and raise the quality of meals. Between his telegraphist salary and the profits he made from the Waterville Supply Company (helped by his status of Mess President which meant that he didn't have to pay for his own meals) he made £1,000 in 18 months.


The Cable Company sent him back to England, but his eagerness to make money was not reduced. He and two friends, Colin Askham and Bill Hughes, had heard of the pari-mutuel system being used to take bets on outcomes of football matches and as they were football fans themselves they spotted a potential moneymaking opportunity.

Unlike fixed-odds betting, where the odds of, say, 10 to 1 are stated before the event, so that punters know that they will gain £10 if they bet £1 and pick a winner, in pari-mutuel betting the winning payout varies depending on how much money is bet on the event. The bets are pooled, a percentage is deducted for expenses and then the remaining money is divided equally between all those who placed winning bets.

As the three friends were working for the Cable Company and employees were not allowed to engage in outside employment, they worked in secret. They needed a brand name for their enterprise and chose Colin Askham's original surname (his parents had died when he was a baby so he had been adopted by his aunt). Thus Littlewoods Football Pools was born. John, Colin and Bill each invested £50 and decided that they would deduct 10% of the takings for expenses. They hired an office, employed a typist and arranged for 4,000 coupons to be printed. Gambling was viewed with distaste by many people, so they couldn't find a company willing to distribute the coupons. Instead John took them to Manchester and paid boys to distribute the coupons to the crowd at a Manchester United game. Only 34 coupons were returned so 10% of the amount taken was far from the amount needed to cover the expenses.

They kept trying each week, and kept making a loss, until they had each invested £200. Colin and Bill gave up hope of success, but John bought them out and carried on trying - he reduced the expenses by handling the coupons at home rather than in an office and using his family's help rather than an employee. Even that was not enough. The breakthrough came when the owner of the coupon printing company suggested that he took his exact expenses out (plus a bit extra) before calculating the winning payout. Thus he learned a hard business lesson that stood him in good stead for his later work.

John had to be vigilant against fraud - there were various systems of checks set up so that any coupons that had been submitted after the results had been revealed would be caught. This scrupulousness was advantageous when it happened that John was prosecuted under the Ready Money Betting Act. Following a court appearance, he was convicted. However, as his company never accepted cash, only postal orders that were cashed after the football results and the winning payout had been confirmed, his appeal was upheld. Soon the business turned a profit and John was again able to employ people in an office.

A New Challenge

The Littlewoods Football Pools became such a success that John was a millionaire by the age of 35. To test himself and his business acumen, he decided to branch out into a new industry to see if he could be successful there too and make another million pounds.

Littlewoods Mail Order Stores was founded on 23 January, 1932. Unlike the competitor Great Universal Stores (GUS) that sold items for cash or on credit, John carried out market research and decided on a club system. Club members placed an order from the Littlewoods Catalogue then drew lots to decide who would get their order each week. Every week they paid in a shilling or so and after 20 weeks everyone had the items they wanted. This was good for the company as there was no debt involved, and it was good for the customers as they could spread the cost of expensive items over several weeks. John made his second million in 1936. His next challenge was to expand into chain stores alongside competitors Marks and Spencer and Woolworths. The first four stores opened in 1937 and by 1939 he had 25 sites.


John took an interest in politics in 1933 - he was elected as a Liverpool City Councillor and held his seat until 1940. He tried for a seat as an MP in 1933 and 1935 but was not successful. When war was declared in 1939, several Littlewoods' buildings were taken over by Government departments, a number of staff were called up and many of the Mail Order stock items such as blankets were sent for the war effort.

The company then turned to war work - warehouses were equipped and staff were retrained so that the company could make parachutes. From 1940 they also made barrage balloons and in 1941 dinghies and munitions were added to the manufacturing portfolio. 1942 saw aircraft parts and bridge pieces being manufactured and from 1943 the firm built storm-boats that could cross water and land on beaches. They also became experts at 'boxing' - making compact transportable kits containing dismantled vehicles that could be reassembled at their destination overseas. The boxing division also made Pacific Packs containing rations for soldiers in the Far East.


The Football Pools had continued during World War II but the Mail Order and chain store business had struggled because of warehouses being reappropriated, offices being bombed and difficulties in obtaining supplies. After the war had ended, the surviving male employees returned home and were slotted back into jobs, as John had promised they would be2 and the businesses slowly expanded again.

In 1947, John contracted meningitis - he survived but it took him a month to recover, so he became concerned about how his family would manage if he wasn't there to oversee his businesses. He decided to delegate more and put his financial affairs in order. He took out a five-year £1 million life insurance policy and put some of his shares in trust for his children (with various conditions - they were not allowed to sell the shares, his daughters received half as many as his sons in case they married as he didn't want any men who were not family having influence over his business, and no child would have any shareholder power until they were 30 years old).

The businesses continued to expand, and his sons were given roles in the chain stores and at director level to give them the experience they would need when John decided it was time for him to hand over the reins. The company branched out into manufacturing and testing of garments as a natural progression from the manufacturing work that had been carried out during World War II. John also ensured the company looked to the future - in 1957 the company installed its first computer to help with stock control.

John's 70th birthday year (1966) saw the building of a new headquarters for Littlewoods in Liverpool - the JM Centre. Four non-family directors were also added to the company board. In 1968 Littlewoods became an international company with the acquisition of the mail order company Medallion Mode which had been owned by the company Spiegel in the USA and operated in Germany.

Following a fall in 1965, John had osteopath treatments and began to take more care of what he ate. He had a check-up every week with Dr Robert Irving, the company doctor, who advised him to take more holidays as well as rest every day3. The holidays didn't always do him good - in 1969 he contracted dysentery in Naples and Dr Irving was flown in to provide treatment. While convalescing, it was decided that he needed a hip replacement to fix the damage done by the fall four years earlier. The new hip gave him a new lease of life, enabling him to continue to work 14-hour days but without the pain he had experienced since his accident.

John was awarded the CBE in 1971. He resigned as Chairman of the Littlewoods Board in 1977 at the age of 81 and his younger son Peter was installed as his successor. In 1980 he was awarded a knighthood in honour of his war work and charitable efforts. In the same year, he found himself again Chairman of the Board - Peter had not had his chairmanship renewed because of his other commitments as a director of a merchant bank. He arranged for more non-family directors4 including a new chairman to be installed alongside him, his children and his brother Cecil.

At the age of 90 he had an operation on his ankle, but his health was slow to recover afterwards. He attended his last Annual General Meeting in 1988 and was then cared for at home until he died aged 97 in 1993. He had built up an empire, but had to leave it to his children to carry on his work as best they could.

Leisure Time

Family matters for John often went hand in hand with business matters - he married Ruby Knowles on 19 September, 19235, just before establishing the Football Pools and, when he was trying to make a success of the business, in 1925 his first child Betty was born. His son John Junior was born in 1928 as the Football Pools were becoming successful. Littlewoods Mail Order was established three months before Peter was born in 1932 and Janatha was born in 1937 as John branched out into chain stores.

John had a variety of hobbies as well as working hard - he took up golf when he was stationed in Ireland as the Waterville Cable Company Station was adjacent to a golf course. John was an ardent supporter of Everton Football Club and attended matches whenever he could, even when he was in a wheelchair and had to be lifted down to the Director's Box - always wearing the personalised knitted scarf that a fan's wife made for him in the 1960s. He sat on the Club Board and was Chairman for a time from 1960 - he gave the club money to buy players but also ensured they weren't wasting money. John took up painting in 1953.

John often went on holiday even before he was under doctor's orders, and enjoyed learning languages too. He particularly liked Bermuda, where he bought a hotel. He took up swimming in 1969 and had a pool built at Fairways, his home in Formby6 that was near the red squirrel reserve and the golf course.


John Moores' philosophy is a strong legacy - his attitude was that he wouldn't ask anybody to do something he wasn't willing to do himself. He could often be found on the shop floor in his stores and in the offices so that he could be approachable to his staff, from the managers to the typists7. He was open to new ideas, such as Time and Motion Study, which helped his businesses to be as efficient and effective as possible. Staff had regular appraisals, plus there was a training scheme to help people to progress in their careers. Working conditions were good, and the workplaces had canteens and social clubs. By having a range of businesses in his portfolio, they were able to support each other, enabling the company as a whole to maintain its strength even in difficult times.

In 1955 John had entered the open class in the Liverpool Academy's Annual Exhibition, but his painting was not selected for inclusion in the exhibition. To give more artists an opportunity outside London, the John Moores Painting Prize was instituted in the Walker Art Gallery in 1957 and it has taken place every two years since then. The Prize is a good springboard for artists' careers - David Hockney won in 1967, and Stuart Sutcliffe of Beatles fame didn't win but his painting was bought by John after the 1959 exhibition for £65. Another honour John received was the renaming of Liverpool Polytechnic to Liverpool John Moores University in 1992.

Without Sir John's control in the 1990s, the company began to fragment. Littlewoods Football Pools was bought by Sportech PLC in 2000 for £161 million. Sportech also bought the rival firms of Vernons Pools and Zetters at the same time and set up

The Barclay Brothers bought the Littlewoods brand from the Moores family for £750 million in 2002. The Index Catalogue was discontinued in 2005 as it had not made a profit for 18 out of the 20 years it existed - 33 of the 66 Index Catalogue stores were sold to GUS (the owner of similar firm Argos) for £44 million. 2005 also saw the sale of 119 Littlewoods high street stores to Associated British Foods (the owner of the budget fashion brand Primark) for £409 million. The Barclay Brothers retained the online website and the Littlewoods Catalogue, as they were the most profitable parts of the business raising £2 billion in sales each year.

Now the Littlewoods Shop Direct Group also includes the Kays Catalogue and K&Co brands plus Shoppers at Littlewoods can still enjoy the option to pay for items in instalments, just as Sir John offered in the 1930s.

1Barbara Clegg, The man who made Littlewoods - the story of John Moores, Hodder and Stoughton Ltd, 1993.2To the detriment of the women who had taken the roles while the men were away.3He had a bedroom and bathroom installed next to his office in JM Centre to ensure he could rest properly.4Including this Researcher's father.5And they were together for 42 years until she died in 1965.6A town on the outskirts of Liverpool.7Including this Researcher's mother.

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