The story of Shaw’s Department Stores has its beginning in the quaker town of Mountmellick. It was largely through the industry of the local quaker families that Mountmellick was known in the early part of the 19th Century as the “Manchester of Ireland”. Upwards of 2,000 men, women and children worked in the local cotton industry in the mid 1830’s while another major employer was the brass and iron foundries of which there were once several in Mountmellick.
The County Laois town was also home to a vibrant Methodist Community and it was one of his members, Henry Shaw, who opened the first small Shaw’s store in 1864. However, it was the drive and acumen of his wife, the former Annie Smith of Enniscorthy, following the death of her husband who developed the business with quite remarkable success.
In 1887 Henry and Annie Shaw purchased a small store known as the Boot Store in the adjoining town of Portlaoise. Five years later Henry Shaw died leaving his widow and nine children. Undaunted, the Enniscorthy born Annie Shaw continued to manage the two stores. She proved so successful that in 1902 following the completion of her eldest son’s apprenticeship as a drapery assistant, she acquired a further premises in Portlaoise from which Shaw’s would carry on their drapery and footwear business for over 110 years.
Her son, William Henry Shaw, managed the Portlaoise business while his mother oversaw the original Mountmellick store. Annie’s son Samuel who was born in 1888 was apprenticed at 14 years of age to Duncan’s of Duke Street, Athy. After finishing his apprenticeship, Samuel Shaw, who would in time become the most important figure in the Shaw business empire, spent six years learning the tailoring trade in London. He returned to Ireland to rejoin his mother and brother William Henry and when Duncan’s, the largest store in Athy, went into receivership in 1914. Annie Shaw acquired the business.
In 1929, William Henry Shaw who had charge of the Athy store died unexpectedly and his brother Sam took over management of the store which for several decades would serve as the flagship of the Shaw’s family enterprise. Waterford City was the location of the first Shaw’s store outside the Irish midlands. Purchased from Robertson, Leslie and Ferguson in 1941, it was followed 8 years later by the acquisitions of Brown’s drapery store in Carlow.
The 1950’s was a period of retrenchment and it was not until 1964 that further businesses and premises were acquired by Shaw’s. Roscrea and Ballymun were in quick succession chosen as the location of Shaw’s newest outlets. Seven years later saw the start of an acquisition surge by Shaw’s which commenced with the purchase of premises in Fermoy, soon followed by the opening of shops in Limerick, Dungarvan, Wexford and a second premises in Carlow. Today Shaw’s trade in 17 different towns in Ireland with the latest store opened in Longford in 2013.
The business started by Henry and Annie Shaw 150 years ago is still very much a family firm with several members of the extended Shaw families sitting on the Board of Directors. Other Shaw family members are part of the large working force employed in the countrywide stores.
To Annie Shaw, the hardworking co-founder 150 years ago of the first Shaw’s shop, must be attributed a large measure of the Company’s initial success. A skilled dressmaker, Annie had two sewing machines which she employed in making up ladies coats, dresses and skirt. Astute in purchasing material which she imported from Manchester, Annie developed the business while at the same time creating job opportunities for women at the turn of the century in millinery and drapery retail sales. This was at a time when employment of women outside the home was largely confined to domestic services.
When Annie Shaw died in 1933 the management and control of the Shaw retailing business passed to her son Samuel who was then living in Athy. He it was who expanded the business beyond the three midland locations of Mountmellick, Portlaoise and Athy. By the time of his death in 1980, Shaw’s had added ten further locations to its business with a geographical spread which extended to Limerick, Waterford, Wexford, Dublin and several towns in between.
Today the family run business has a fourth generation Shaw as Managing Director and the slogan (no longer in use of “Shaws Almost Nationwide” is a perfect indication of the geographical spread of the retailing giant which had its origins in Mountmellick in 1864.