A FAMILY business built by a travelling pedlar from Italy became one of the city’s biggest retail success stories of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Bradford-born Martin Greenwood’s new book Every Day Bradford provides a memorable story for each day in the year about people, places and events from the district’s rich history. In the latest of a series of features by Martin, highlighting some of the stories he uncovered, he looks at one of Bradford’s most famous retailing families. For five generations theirs was a highly successful business with a distinctive name - they were the Fattorini family.

Writes MARTIN GREENWOOD: Around 1820 Antonio Fattorini arrived in Dewsbury from Bellagio on Lake Como in Northern Italy as a trader at rural fairs and street markets. After making a living for several years as an itinerant salesman, in 1827 Antonio moved into the new Central Market in Leeds, selling cheap jewellery and fancy goods. Four years later he bought his first lock-up shop on the balcony of the bazaar in Briggate Market, selling ‘real’ jewellery, plate and glassware.

In 1841 he opened a shop in fashionable Harrogate and in 1846 a larger one in booming Bradford, then rapidly growing with new rail links. This became the base of Fattorini & Sons. He had seven sons, all involved in the family business, with one soon moving into a shop in Skipton.

The Bradford shop became well known for jewellery, regalia, clocks, watches, musical instruments and luxury goods. Soon two outlets were opened on the corner of Cheapside/ Kirkgate, and Westgate. Antonio’s youngest son John developed an interest in horology and the growing trade in pocket watches and domestic clocks, which took over a floor of the Kirkgate shop. John also stimulated the idea of Fattorini establishing purchasing clubs for watches and other luxury goods, which allowed members each week to save together. Up to 1,000 such clubs existed at their height.

Tony Fattorini, Antonio’s grandson, also developed a reputation with specialist clocks. He designed the first chess clocks and was a sports timekeeper for the Olympic Games. He was involved in local sports, becoming a respected athletics administrator at national level, and he represented Manningham FC when it broke away from rugby union to league in 1895, and in 1903 when it switched to soccer. Later, Fattorinis were to win a design competition from 250 entries for the FA Cup to replace one that was stolen on display from a Birmingham shop. The first team to win the new trophy was, unbelievably, Bradford City in 1911.

Meanwhile, the shop was developing a mail order business based on a much wider range of goods. This retail business model made goods available to working people at a low profit but maintaining a high turnover. Customers ordered from twice-yearly catalogues, with goods of every description, and received their orders by parcel, rail or road. Goods were sent ‘on approval’ and a system of extended credit. Some customers acted as local agents for family and friends.

In June 1910 the Fattorinis went one step further to separate the developing mail order business as a limited company. Empire Stores became the first large mail order company in the country. It moved into Canal Road headquarters, employing about 2,000 people. In 1961 it was listed on the Stock Exchange. In a twist of fate, its main competitor was also from Bradford and also created by a Fattorini. Grattan Warehouses Ltd (later Grattan) was set up by John Enrico Fattorini who had fallen out with his cousin Herbert running Empire Stores over a clash of management styles.

Successful for most of the 20th century, with the arrival of the internet both mail order businesses were eventually bought out by larger European corporations. Empire Stores lost its Bradford base in 2008. Shortly after, Grattan retained its Bradford head office only, in Little Germany, appropriately for a now German-owned company. Today the Fattorini name survives as long-established jewellers in only two places; Harrogate and Birmingham. The company thrived for much of two centuries, adapting to changing shopping patterns from pedlars, market traders, specialist jewellers to mail order. In the next phase of retail evolution the name largely disappeared, as the company was bought out.

Joseph Fattorini wrote in 1981: “For Empire Stores 1981 is the end of an era, but the next 50 years hold out challenges with computers, micro-chip technology and other scientific advances which will in every way equal changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution. I am too old to lead the revolution, but not too old to see its possibilities.”

Fortunately, perhaps, he did not live to see the gradual death of the distinctive company name of his remarkable family.

* Every Day Bradford is available online and from bookshops including Salts Mill and Waterstones.