The D.E. Williams branch shops in the midlands, 1884–1921: A revolution in retailing. By Michael Byrne

There are only a few studies available on the development of retailing in Ireland, either of a general nature or in connection with particular firms. It is well known that in the first half of the nineteenth century and up to the Famine years retail outlets were not widely available and many in the smaller towns were no better than huxter shops. There were exceptions and that is clear from the photographs of c. 1900 of shops such as Williams. Egan, Goodbody and Lumley (in Tullamore); O’Brien in Edenderry and O’Meara and Fayles in Birr. In looking at the revolutionary period from 1912 to 1921 to mark the decade of centenaries it is also worth looking at revolutions in other areas such as transport, energy and shopping. Like the political revolution retailing exhibited signs of stress after 1921 and did not recover until the coming of the supermarkets to the provincial towns in the 1960s.

The Williams head office with the Barrack Patrick Street shop to the right before more intensive motorised transport from 1915. Branch house managers were appointed of which the last under the old system (before the switch to supermarkets) was T.V. Costello.

The trade directories, and from the 1840s the valuation records, will facilitate investigation of retail outlets. By the 1860s living standards had improved and this is reflected in the increasing number of shops; per capita tobacco consumption rose to English standards about 1870 and per capita consumption of tea was not far off the English level by the end of the 1870s. The considerable economic progress of the early 1870s, began to slow down by the end of that decade. The 1880s is looked on as a period of industrial crisis with industries closing down in all the principal towns, or destroyed by fire as with the Goodbody tobacco factory in Tullamore and the Birr distillery in 1889.The railways and the canals (especially in the midlands) facilitated the easy removal of heavy goods and livestock from towns all over Ireland, but it also left it easier to import foods easily and cheaply. As a result, the Irish industrial base (such as it was, especially in southern Ireland) receded while the retail and services sector began to grow albeit slowly.

The Period of Growth 1890-1920

The first Williams’ shop in Barrack/Patrick Street, Tullamore c. 1900. The shop was purchased by Williams in 1884 and modernised in the mid 1890s.

Documentation for the years of growth from 1890 is scarce, both at a national level and for D.E. Williams Limited (DEW Ltd), the Tullamore based firm founded by Daniel E. Williams (1848–1921) when he opened his first shop in Tullamore in 1884.

Daniel E. Williams, 1848-1921

This thirty-year period may be said to have been one of slow, but rising, prosperity but, nevertheless, the vast majority of the people were poor. The few studies available deal, for the most part, with the cooperative movement on the one hand and “gombeenism” on the other (the latter defined as credit retailing and money lending at exorbitant rates of interest with debt-bondage in some cases). Retailing, especially in the West and in rural areas, has been considered generally inefficient at the turn of the nineteenth century, not in terms of prices charged for goods (generally monopolistic practices did not exist) but in terms of performance. Retailing did not require expensive premises or in another way barriers to entry were slight. Horace Plunkett describes the typical village shop catering for poorer customers:

The houses, often, more correctly, hovels, have no additional accommodation for the business being carried on. If it were not for the few clay pipes lolling their heads against the window sashes as a sign that even luxuries are supplied, you would pass many a roadside house without knowing that you were leaving behind the emporium of a universal provider. If you go in, you may not be able to see for a while, but on the threshold another sense reminds you that there is more than meets the eye. A delicate nose will at once detect the presence of tea, sugar, and tobacco in the turf-laden atmosphere……If you note dirty meal moulding in rotten bins, a few loaves for those whose style of living demands scientifically whitened bread, a few jars of peppermint or sugar-stick, and a heap somewhere of rapidly fermenting dried fruit, and then make an entry of sundries, you have made a fairly correct inventory in the market for the poor.

The Graham store in Church Street Tullamore was acquired by Williams c 1900 and was sold out to the Wyer family in the 1960s.

Population exhibited a steady downward trend from the Famine. Towns, although growing relative to the countryside also exhibited an absolute decline. The population of Tullamore, for example fell from c. 6,300 in 1841 to under 5,000 in 1891 but thereafter began to rise. The thirty-year period 1890 to 1920 was relatively prosperous for Ireland. By 1914 almost a third of the population was living in towns whereas it had been only a sixth in 1841. Louis Cullen cited the opening by Findlaters of ten branches of their grocery, wine and spirit business as an example of the impressive growth in Dublin’s retail trade in the latter nineteenth century.   The same can be said of the Williams branch houses and to a lesser extent that of Egans in the period from the mid-1890s to the War of Independence. It is the Daniel E. Williams (D.E.W.) branch houses that we are looking at in this overview.

The Williams branch shops

The D.E.W. branch houses were almost all located in four counties – Offaly, Laois, Westmeath and Kildare with the greatest concentration in the principal towns of Tullamore, Birr, Mountmellick, Portarlington and Athlone – all towns within a twenty-five mile radius of Tullamore. The exact number owned by D.E.W. and later by DEW Ltd varied often but it never exceeded thirty. Even simple enumeration is difficult in the pre-1903 period because the business was a completely private one owned by D.E.W. When DEW Ltd was set up in 1903 it was really to handle the Tullamore wholesale wine and spirit business only. But there were no clear guidelines and we find DEW Ltd the owners of licensed premises at Kilbeggan in 1905 and later at Brownstown, the Curragh (no. 2). The company also owned the Patrick Street shop (later Five Star), which may have been for physical if not administrative convenience. It was only in 1917 that the branch houses were transferred to the company by D.E.W. and by Daniel W.

The new shop at Mountbolus of c. 1904 replaced the thatched Beehive pub.

Estimate of the total number of branch houses owned by DEW Ltd

and by D.E.W., 1884 to 1925

1884                1894                1899                1914                1917                1925

   1                     4?                    18                    25                    25                    29

The branch houses total includes hotels (three at most) at Clara, Kilcormac and Skerries. The word owned is used loosely and includes year to year tenancies, lease-holdings etc.

In December 1911 the Tullamore and King’s County Independent commented: ‘Everywhere one goes through the Midlands the name Daniel E. Williams is as familiar as that of Liptons in the North.’ There were no retail chains of similar dimensions to D.E.W. in the midlands. Liptons had shops at Mullingar and Athlone while P. & H. Egan had branches at Ballycommon (near Tullamore) and at Moyvore and Killare in County Westmeath. In later decades the Egan firm were to acquire between 10 and 20 branch houses. The firm and the family have been the subject of a new study available from Offaly History (Maurice Egan and David Egan, The Egans of Moate and Tullamore: business and politics (Tullamore, 2020).

The Kilcormac Store. c. 1910. Williams used the Lawrence studio for the some of the branch photographs.

The early D.E.W. branch houses were located at Harbour St. Tullamore, Stradbally and Portarlington and are mentioned in the surviving 1893 final accounts. The rate of acquisition thereafter was much accelerated up to c. 1910 and then remained fairly steady. The principal shops, for example, the Meara and Fitzpatrick trading and licensed businesses at Birr were acquired at auction.  Others, especially the smaller ones in Tullamore and the rural districts were acquired in satisfaction of mortgage charges held by D.E.W. From the many mortgages registered in favour of D.E.W. at the Registry of Deeds and subsequent releases it would seem that D.E.W. frequently joined with the mortgagor in disposing of the premises to a third party rather than taking over himself. Retail credit was at that time on a vast scale with the retailer operating as a kind of banker. From the material surviving on the acquisition of the branch houses there is no discernable pattern or trend. Purchase of long and short leases, yearly tenancies and simply direct management by the company or rather D.E.W.’s own staff all prevailed. Some shops were directly managed while others, usually the smaller ones, were sub-let to tenants possibly with some kind of proviso that the tenants in the sub-let houses would buy their stocks at one of the wholesale premises at Birr, Portarlington or Tullamore. It was only in the 1950s and 1960s that most of the branch houses were sold but in the early decades of the century sales did occur and, of course, yearly tenancies were taken out and given up.

The Ballycumber store. c. 1900

What is clear is that the new stores made for a revolution in retailing as is clear from the surviving photographs. The first motor car in the King’s County was purchased by D.E. Williams in July 1898 to transport goods from Tullamore to Birr and other midland towns. The shops all had similar timbered fronts in black with the name Daniel E. Williams painted in gilt.

Synergy with a wholesale behind the Patrick Street shop of which Mr Woods was manager (first from left) and had a poster to remind customers.

The sale of the branch houses to the company by Daniel E. Williams was formally put through at the meeting of the DEW Ltd board on 23 August 1917 when the following prices were agreed on (exclusive of plant and stock). Alas the minute books are now lost and were last seen with Greencore in Athy post the takeover in 1996).

Now where was this shop in Tullamore?

Business houses


Clara                                                                                       3,500

Mountmellick                                                                         1,479. 1s. 2d.

Portarlington shops                                                                    415

Portarlington wholesale                                                          1,000

Kilcormac                                                                               1,260

Mountbolus                                                                             1,000

Birr                                                                                          1,037. 13s. 4d.

Belmont                                                                                  1,075

Rahan                                                                                      1,000

Brownstown                                                                            2,235

Kilcormac hotel                                                                         100

Geashill                                                                                         5

Sub-let houses


Tullamore – Mrs. O’Neill’s                                                    277.14s.4d.

Kilcormac – Daly’s                                                                 206.18s.2d.

Banagher – J. Conway                                                            156. 7s.7d.

Tullamore – Barrack St., Walsh and others                         1,147. 0s.8d.

Tullamore – Harbour St., Mrs. Egan                                      525

Clonaslee – Conroy’s                                                             442.12s.7d.

Tullamore – Hughes                                                               154.6s.2d.

Tullamore – Barrack street, Dooley                                       129.5s.10d.

Spollanstown – P. Connell                                                       57.15s.

Portarlington – P. Roche                                                          193.1s.7d.

Cloghan – Mrs. Whealan?                                                        431.0s.7d.

Daniel Williams’ houses

Athlone                                                                                   2,300

Athy                                                                                           100

When viewed against the background of poverty-stricken consumers and under-capitalised retailers, the improvements made by D.E.W. to his shops in the 1890s seem all the more striking. The favourable notices in the local newspapers given to D.E.W. when he installed electric light and cash registers at Patrick Street, or served Bovril free for a week in order to promote the product, were at first looked upon as puffs but, on reflection, they seem to have been genuine expressions of something approaching awe The number of branch houses grew from c.4 in 1894 to 18 in 1899 and 25 in 1914. It was noted that in regard to the means of acquisition of branch houses, there was no discernible pattern or trend. Freehold was unusual because of the then prevailing system of land tenure, but long and short leases were purchased along with yearly tenancies, and in some cases simply direct management by DEW Ltd staff. The charge sometimes made that the branch houses were acquired as satisfaction for mortgage debts in a system where D.E.W. lent freely to reckless borrowers cannot be substantiated. There is satisfactory evidence to show the large cash sums were paid for houses (see below the list of branch houses with details of acquisition and disposal). Nor is there any evidence of “gombeenism” in the branch houses. So far as can be established, no charge was made for retail credit. However, a charge was made for agricultural credit, not on farm implements etc., but in the seeds and fertilizers areas.

The Clara store on the right with the hotel to the east side.

In regard to the Tullamore-based firm of P. & H. Egan Limited, it is beyond doubt that their branch house operation was a great deal smaller than that of DEW Ltd – possibly one-third or less in turnover than DEW Ltd. The Dublin based firm of Alex Findlater & Co., established in 1823, operated as a food and wine multiple with about ten branches in the Dublin area in 1900 and fifteen when it was taken over in 1968. Perhaps the multiple affording the most comparison with DEW Ltd was that of Liptons, which operated grocery shops mostly in Northern Ireland, but also in the South, including the towns of Mullingar and Athlone. Thomas Lipton, born at Glasgow in 1850 (two years after D.E.W.) was of protestant Irish stock, whose parents operated a small shop in Glasgow. Having served in his father’s shop, he opened his own in 1871, and when he had £100 saved his immediate instinct was to open another shop and expand the business. Father and Son parted company in 1874 over the issue of a second shop. The secret of Lipton’s success was his decision to trade in only a few lines, mainly in the provision trade where he imported a substantial amount of Irish produce. He sought to encourage a large and rapid turnover, advertised extensively, had his shops decorated in a distinctive style and, at the same time, waged a ruthless war on costs. An even greater contrast with the older forms of retailing was that Lipton never sold on credit, except to the ‘institutional’ trade, and had no order trade or delivery trade.

Some of the Williams’ shops in Birr, Castle Street branch, c. 1910

The absence of credit was important because, as a result, only a very small amount of capital was needed to set up in the retail trade. Where credit was available, expansion meant greatly increased capital in order to cover credit trading. When sales were for cash only, the retailer had himself a period of credit and, therefore, had the use of short-term capital – there was no trade with greater financial liquidity save that of a publican.

The Williams store in Geashill. c. 1910.