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Six family firms that have gone on to make history

Running any business is challenging, but family firms (which account for about 66% of the UK’s SMEs) can be especially awkward - discussions around a boardroom table are a lot more difficult when you know you’ll be seeing each other around the dinner table. If you doubt this just watch a rerun of “Dallas”, or listen to a few episodes of The Archers! And the statistics bear this out - only around a third of family firms tend to be passed onto the second generation and one tenth reach the third generation, the rest being either sold or closed down.

Despite this some family businesses manage to defy the discord and go on for generations. In this post we salute six that have continued to keep things going for hundreds and hundreds of years.

RJ Balson & Son - Butcher - Established 1515
Records show Robert Balson rented a market stall in 1515 in Bridport’s "Shambles" (an open-air abattoir and meat market) while Henry VIII was still married to his first wife.

Robert’s descendants continued to rent the stall, even surviving an outbreak of bubonic plague that swept through the town in the 17th century. In straight laced Victorian times the butcher Robert Balson caused a scandal by living with a married woman and her son Tom, tragically coming to a sticky end when the boy pretended to shoot him with a gun they both thought was unloaded.

The business is now run from a small shop by Richard's great-great-grandson Richard Balson. Richard’s son works as an accountant so is Britain’s oldest family business nearing its end?

R Durtnell & Sons - Construction - Established 1591
In the reign of Elizabeth I the Durtnell's were carpenter builders. In the early 1800’s Richard Durtnell made a crucial decision to bring together all the craftspeople he needed in one yard to become one of the first general builders.

It has now been handed down from father to son as a private company for 13 generations making it by far the oldest building contractor in Britain.

C Hoare & Co - Bank - Established 1672
Founder Sir Richard Hoare began trading as a goldsmith and banker in the reign of Charles II. His clients included diarist Samuel Pepys and the king’s widow, Catherine of Braganza.

The bank's headquarters in Fleet Street were built in 1829, where they issued cheque books and "washing books" or early bank statements. During the blitz staff had to use water from the bank's well to extinguish the flames of the fire.

The tenth and eleventh generations of the Hoare family run the bank today and introducing online banking in 2008. 

Mornflake - Miller - Established 1675
William Lea started milling oats at Swettenham Mill in 1675 in Cheshire and 15 generations later the company is still trading. During the rationing of World War II then-owner Philip Lea was ordered by the Ministry of Food to leave the RAF and return home to Britain to "feed the nation". To cope with rising demand a new mill and factory was built - one of the few construction projects not involving munitions to get the go-ahead during World War II.

James Lock & Co - Hatters - Established 1676
Following the great plague of 1665 and the great fire of 1666, wealthy residents from the City of London moved to the west of the city in search of clean air and Mr Lock was quick to spot an opportunity, opening a shop close to St James Palace. Customers included Admiral Lord Nelson, Sir Winston Churchill and Charlie Chaplin, but its most famous product was the very first bowler hat in 1850.

As well as holding Royal warrants to supply hats to the Duke of Edinburgh and the Prince of Wales, its hats have also been worn by Hollywood film stars and rappers.

Toye, Kenning & Spencer - Medals and regalia – Established 1685
Using traditional techniques, the company makes insignia and regalia, such as the ribbons and medals presented to OBEs and CBEs, and have even helped renovate state chairs for the Kremlin.

In the 1850s they made uniforms for troops serving in the Crimea - bright red coats with detailed trimmings so they could be seen by their battalions amidst the smoke of battle.

By the 1860s the company had also spotted opportunities for making silk trimming for working men's groups like friendly societies and the Freemasons. The company also embroidered four ornate banners for Queen Elizabeth's coronation in 1953.

Your legacy – will it make history?

So if you have a business you are intending to keep in the family, with the idea of creating a dynasty that will last for hundreds of years, you have a few generations to go before you’ll be setting any records!

I realised that to drive there and back and do a full day’s work, was exhausting, using Sybaris made my life much simpler.

David Lamb

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