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James Spence and Company

James Spence & Co of Reform Street, Dundee were wholesale & retail drapers & warehousemen, also known as 'City Warehouse'. Bought internationally and advertised constantly, becoming a household name in the town.

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Details and history

Name of company:

James Spence and Company

Company address:

14 Reform Street, Dundee- from 1846[1]
22 Reform Street- from 2nd April 1847[2]
20,22,24 Reform Street- 1858[3]
20, 22, 24, 26, 28,30 Reform Street-1876-1877[4]

Number of employees:


Nature of business:

Drapers and warehousemen.


Circa £100,000 per annum[5]

Date ceased trading:



The beginnings.

James Spence was the son of  Balkello schoolteacher, Alexander Spence, and his wife, Jean or Jane Bogg, and was born there in 1822[7]. He started work at Charles Irvine, drapers in nearby Coupar Angus, before working in Glasgow, Berwick and for T and J Russell, Reform Street drapers, in Dundee, beginning his own business at number 14 Reform Street[1] in April 1846[8], then moving to number 22 in 1847[2]. By the census of 1851,  his brother, John Spence worked with him and he “employed 17 assistants”[9]. Considering that in the previous census of 1841, he had been a boarding shopman living in the same street[10], he had already come a remarkably long way and seemed to continue to prosper.

Spence married Anne Davie Robertson, daughter of an Errol farmer[11],  on the 15th of December 1846[12].

Partners and expansion.

Shortly after starting the business, in 1847, Spence employed John Earl Robertson and his father, John Robertson[13]. John Earl had worked for another draper’s business in the Murraygate[13].

In 1858, John Robertson and his son John Earl Robertson, became partners in the firm. John Earl Robertson was a man who paid great attention to his appearance and “wore notable button-hole flowers” and “carried stores of flowers for the presentation to friends”[14]. This was a trio of men conscious of image, of making an impression, with strong ambition and aware of the need to constantly keep abreast of changing fashion and remain one step ahead of their competitors. All three were hard working modernisors, but it was James Spence and John Earl who were the public face of the business. In 1927, long after the firm’s demise, the Evening Telegraph remembered the firm thus:

“In Reform Street, the Spence establishment held leading place. Messrs. James Spence, John Earl Robertson and John Robertson were enterprising traders catering for the West End folks and for the working folks. Mr. Spence and John Earl sped about within the store and on the pavement. Ladies arriving in carriages were courteously welcomed and immediately there after the same courtesy was shown a working woman in a shawl”[15].

By 1858 the business had expanded to numbers 20, 22 and 24[3] and by 1876 the firm ran a long way up Reform Street- 20, 22, 24, 26,28 and 30[4].

The street was described in the Ordnance Survey Name book as:

A straight, broad and handsome Street extending Northwards from High Street to Meadowside Road. The National Bank of Scotland stands at the North east Corner and the Bank of Scotland also has a branch about midway along the west side. It is well lighted, paved and clean and is considered to be one of the best Streets in the Town.[16]

James Spence’s brother had married and left the firm by this time. In 1873 Charles Irvine Spence, son of James and named after his father’s first employer, became a partner in the firm[17] but he “withdrew” from the firm in 1878[18]. It has not been possible to ascertain why this might have been, but undoubtedly, his father would have been a hard role model to live up to.

Whilst Spence had taken partners in the firm, he had not shared the ownership of the buildings. He slowly bought up whole buildings in Reform Street, renting out those parts not of use to the firm and so gaining additional income from them[19]. Long time tenants of James Spence included a Music School[19]. In addition to this, he rented back the buildings he owned to the firm of James Spence and Co,  which benefited him personally rather than his partners[19]. James Spence was a canny businessman.

Retiral and returns.

James Spence left the firm in 1868, although he continued to own the buildings, but returned to the business ten years later[8], John Earl Robertson having retired in 1879[8] and John Robertson in 1881[20] and Spence remained in charge of the firm until his death[21] after which the firm was continued by Joseph Wilson Gillies from 1882[21]-1894[3], Alex. Adamson 1882[8]-1891[22] and Thomas Young-1892[23]-1894[7].

Grand houses.

James Spence built and lived at Fernbrae, Perth Road, now a private hospital, and then an even larger home called Coventry Bank (now demolished)[8]. John Earl Robertson lived at Invercarse, further up the Perth Road, which is, today, a hotel[8].

Annual Excursions and Employee’s Rights

Annual workers excursions sometimes took place at Coventry Bank, with musical interludes, as well as to further afield[24]. “Draper’s holidays are like angel’s visits, few and far between[25] declared the Courier after one excursion to Drummond Castle, for which the firm hired a train to take them to Crieff[25]. The firm took every one of their employees on such trips, which took place on Queen Victoria’s official birthday and were annually commended for their encouragement of temperance on the outings[25].

In addition to the advantages of a holiday, the firm associated with a movement for worker’s rights, the Early Closing Movement of 1864[26]. Shocking though it may sound to the modern mind, this meant they allowed their doors to be closed at 7pm, rather than later[26]. They did not, however, observe the Wednesday afternoon closing that was pushed for the same year and gave their assistants only a half day on Saturdays, along with many other prominent firms such as Moon and Langlands[27]. Somewhat extraordinarily, the following advert, signed by employee’s of all the firms mentioned, appeared in the Dundee’s People’s Journal:

“WE, the Undersigned, in the employment of Messrs Watson & Henderson, Moon & Co., James Spence & Co, Alexander M‘Walter, and Henderson Brothers, beg to express our entire satisfaction with your decision to continue to SHUT at SEVEN O’CLOCK, in preference to the proposed Half-holiday. Adopting this course you afford us time which can be more usefully employed, and enable to enjoy many privileges which later hour for Shutting and a Half-holiday would have put beyond our reach. Your kindness in thus acting is fully appreciated by us. We would also respectfully appeal to the Public to support you in the carrying out of your praiseworthy arrangement”[28]

One is slightly left wondering who was made to pay for the advert, which appears directly below one advertising which local firms will adhere to the new times. The terms on which the workers were paid is less clear. However, John Earl Robertson’s obituary discusses his terms of employment:

“It is interesting to note that Mr Robertson received only £8 during the first year he was engaged as a salesman; for the second year, £12; and for the third, £20. When Mr Robertson was admitted a partner the arrangement was that should receive the salary of £100 per annum and one-fifth part of the profits. Mr Robertson was wont to say that for the first year the fifth share represented £360 and that six years it had risen to five figures. A rearrangement of the firm .was subsequently made, but the business gradually developed to what was then considered an enormous extent, the overturn one year being close upon £100,000. [13]

Death of the original partners.

James Spence died in 1881, in the midst of a total revamp of his shop premises[8]. It is no doubt fitting and as he would have wanted, that in the editions of newspapers carrying news of his death, were adverts for James Spence and Co..

The firm was described as the “foremost business of its kind in the North East of Scotland[6]. Adverts of the time make it sound closer in keeping to a modern department store than the humble draper’s shop from which it had started.  The business continued after Spence’s death, but a major flood in 1893[29] caused the business to be broken up, the remaining contents being purchased by Pettigrew and Stephens, a Glasgow drapers[30]. The adverts for the closing sale give an idea of the standing of the business within the town-

“This day week and Dundee will know the name of James Spence & Co. no more”

“During the intervening short period the city should be stirred to its deepest depth. There is probably not a man or woman past middle life within the county who cannot connect a ‘visit to Spence’s’ with their earliest and most sacred recollections[30].

“Visits paid to it during the coming week will be ‘farewell visits’ and it is hoped every man, woman, and child within a radius of 10 miles, at least, will come and secure something as a memento of the place where their grandmothers bought their marriage linen or their mother bought their first silk dress[30].

James Spence and Co. and the Albert Institute.

James Spence, was described in an obituary as “Quick in discernment, bold in enterprise, resolute and persevering”[31], so it is not perhaps surprising that his firm was involved in the beginnings of the Albert Institute, which was situated close to the emporium and no doubt he would have imagined could only benefit his business. The Courier states:

“Whatever may be made of the ground of the Meadows- however much it may be subdivided and however far the original idea of forming a public square (which caused the subscriptions to flow in so freely) may be departed from…”[32]

Spence himself had heavily campaigned for the closure of the Howff burial ground, which is adjacent to Reform Street and situated next the boggy Meadows, where the Albert Institute was built.

 “Dundee, 30th Sept., 1853. c, the undersigned proprietors and residenters in Bank and Reform Streets, and inhabitants of the burgh, take leave to represent to the honourable the Provost, Magistrates, and Town Council, that, from present appearances, there is every probability that this place may be visited by the epidemic now racing so dreadfully and fatally in Newcastle and other places England. That the fatal effects of this epidemic are much increased by malaria, and the undersigned are convinced that, from continuing to use of the Houff as a burial-place, not only the inhabitants of the town generally, but the residenters in Bank and Reform Streets, and the other adjacent streets, particularly, are exposed to great danger from its continuance as a burial-ground” [33].

In his years of ‘retirement’ during the 1870s, played an integral part of the founding of the new Dundee Infirmary. In the midst of the clamour for donations for the Albert Institute, a public outcry began for the money raised for the library and gallery “subscribed apparently with little heart” to be donated to the founding of a proper free hospital, not a free library and picture gallery and instead the Meadows to become “the spacious Rialto of Dundee, and a noble drill-ground for our volunteers”[34]. Equally, it was commented that Mr Lamb of Lamb’s Hotel donation, which was being rebuilt at the top of Reform Street during the same period was not without advantage to his business –

“These (windows) look directly down upon the Albert Institute ; and the view which will therefore be obtained from then and the other windows beside them show that Lamb’s subscription to the Albert Institute, handsome though it was, will not be wholly lost money.”[35]

No doubt comments made publicly, such as these, stirred companies such as James Spence and Co, who were such near neighbours to Lamb’s Hotel, into both realising the advantages to themselves of the project, but a need to be seen to be a part of it from a business perspective.

Not long after the subscriptions to the Albert Institute Public Limited Company had been obtained, it was realised that money would need to continue to be raised for the general upkeep of the building. The two ground floor rooms were handed over to the council for the Free Library, in exchange they were to pay for the ongoing maintenance of the structure and its running costs[36] and the original company was formally liquidated in 1879[37]. Perhaps, if this had been the case from the beginning, donations rather than subscriptions would have been more easily forthcoming from the more ordinary businesses and individuals of the town. But, equally, men with grand ideas like Spence and the Robertsons, might not have felt it would have been of such benefit to their businesses if they did not continue to be a part of the company.

There is no doubt that philanthropy was advantageous to the giver and to be seen to be giving was a means of both conversation with clients and free advertising for a business, but more importantly, to avoid the many subscriptions and donations requested would not endear oneself to potential customers. For a firm like James Spence and Co not to have taken a subscription to the Albert Institute would have had a diverse effect on their standing in the town of Dundee.


  1. Northern Warder and General Advertiser for the Counties of Fife, Perth and Forfar, Thursday, 12 March 1846, p.1. British Newspaper Archive website.
  2. Dundee, Perth, and Cupar Advertiser, Friday, 29 January 1847, p.4. British Newspaper Archive website.
  3. Dundee Directory, 1858/59, p.215. Internet Archive website.
  4. Dundee Directory, 1876-77, p445. Local History Centre, Dundee Central Library.
  5. Dundee Courier, Thursday, 26 May 1864, p.2. British Newspaper Archive website.
  6. Dundee Evening Telegraph, Saturday, 12 May 1894, p.4. British Newspaper Archive website.
  7. Old Parish Records. Tealing. Birth. 1 July 1822. 322/50 7. Scotlandspeople website.
  8. Dundee Courier, Thursday, 6 March 1873, p.4. British Newspaper Archive website.
  9. 1851 Census Scotland. Dundee. 282 ED40 p.16. Ancestry website.
  10. 1841 Census Scotland. Dundee. 282 ED103 p.15. Ancestry website.
  11. Statutory Registers. St Peter, Dundee. Death. 1891. 282/1 508. Scotlandspeople website.
  12. Old Parish Records. Dundee. Marriage. 15 December 1846. 282/230 209. Scotlandspeople website.
  13. Dundee Courier, Monday, 13 January 1919, p.3. British Newspaper Archive website.
  14. Dundee Evening Telegraph,Wednesday, 10 January 1923, p.2. British Newspaper Archive website.
  15. Dundee Evening Telegraph, Monday, 14 March 1927. British Newspaper Archive website.
  16. Ordnance Survey Name Books Forfarshire (Angus) OS Name Books, 1857-1861 Forfar (Angus) volume 27 OS1/14/27/75 from Scotlandsplaces website.
  17. Dundee Courier, Thursday, 30 January 1873, p.4. British Newspaper Archive website.
  18. Dundee Courier, Tuesday, 27 December 1881, p.2. British Newspaper Archive website.
  19. Valuation Rolls, Dundee Burgh, 1855-1885. Scotlandspeople website.
  20. Dundee Courier, Wednesday, 3 March 1858, p.1. British Newspaper Archive website.
  21. Dundee Evening Telegraph, Friday, 20 January 1882, p.1. British Newspaper Archive website.
  22. Dundee Courier, Tuesday, 29 September 1891, p.1. British Newspaper Archive website.
  23. Dundee Evening Telegraph, Tuesday, 22 March 1892, p.1. British Newspaper Archive website.
  24. Dundee Courier, Thursday, 26 May 1864, p.2. British Newspaper Archive website.
  25. Dundee, Perth, and Cupar Advertiser, Friday, 27 May 1864, p.4. British Newspaper Archive website.
  26. Dundee People's Journal, Saturday, 20 August 1864, p.3. British Newspaper Archive website.
  27. Dundee People's Journal, Saturday, 27 August 1864, p.1. British Newspaper Archive website.
  28. Dundee People's Journal, Saturday, 3 September 1864, p.3. British Newspaper Archive website.
  29. Dundee Courier, Thursday, 27 July 1893. p.4. British Newspaper Archive website.
  30. Dundee Courier, Saturday, 19 May 1894, p.2. British Newspaper Archive website.
  31. Dundee Advertiser, Wednesday, 28 December 1881, p.5. British Newspaper Archive website.
  32. Dundee, Perth, and Cupar Advertiser, Friday, 8 January 1864, p.5. British Newspaper Archive website.
  33. Dundee, Perth, and Cupar Advertiser, Tuesday, 11 October 1853, p.3. British Newspaper Archive website.
  34. Dundee Courier, Thursday, 25 February 1864, p.2. British Newspaper Archive website.
  35. Dundee Advertiser, Thursday, 2 March 1865, p.2. British Newspaper Archive website.
  36. Dundee Courier, Tuesday, 28 January 1868, p.2. British Newspaper Archive website.
  37. Dundee Evening Telegraph, Wednesday, 24 September 1879, p.4. British Newspaper Archive website.


My thanks go to Lily Barnes, Graduate Intern at the McManus, for research into whether any donations of artefacts were made by the owner's of the firm of James Spence and Co.

The information above about has been collated from a range of digital and hard copy sources. To the best of our knowledge it is correct but if you are relying on any information from our website for the purpose of your own research we would advise you to follow up the sources to your own satisfaction. If you are aware of an inaccuracy in our text please do not hesitate to notify us through our Contact page.