A FAMOUS family furniture firm, which has reflected Birmingham’s economic fortunes for more than a century, is celebrating its 110th anniversary.
Since it was founded, Lee Longlands has laid claim to a number of firsts, including what is thought to be the first motorised delivery van in 1912, the installation of after hours window display lighting in 1907, and pioneering the use of television advertising in the early 1970s.
The firm has also survived two world wars and countless crises in consumer spending to remain a dominant retailer of luxury furniture in the city and beyond.
Robert Lee, a fourth generation family member and current director, said: “The sector has changed beyond all recognition over the years, but what has continually differentiated us from the competition is our consistent eye for style and quality.”
Lee Longlands will mark the anniversary with a series of events across its five stores in Birmingham, Cheltenham, Leamington Spa and Abingdon this month.
George Longland and Robert Lee – the great grandfather of the current director – established Lee Longlands in 1902 after serving their apprenticeships at Chamberlain King and Jones.
The duo opened their first store at 304 Broad Street, initially selling antiques before turning to manufacturing their own cabinet ranges.
The location was by the canal network so timber could be brought in by barge, before the end product was transported to customers by horse-drawn carriage.
In 1912, the company hit the headlines when it bought the first-ever motorised delivery vehicle – with solid tyres.
A few years later, many of its cabinet-makers were called up to serve in the First World War, and sadly, most of them did not return. This forced the management to look at boosting its product range by sourcing furniture and accessories from manufacturers in exotic destinations around the world.
“It was once rumoured that Broad Street would be developed to rival the Champs Elysees in France, with five storey buildings and a tree-lined boulevard,” explained Margaret Lee, who is the granddaughter of co-founder Robert Lee and spent more than 50 years working in the business.
In 1932 the founders had the vision to build a brand new brick and Portland stone Art Deco building in Broad Street, the only store outside London to have curved glass windows. Some 80 years later, the building still stands and remains an important part of Birmingham’s history.
“The Second World War was another eventful period for Lee Longlands, with part of our building used to store rations like dried fish and eggs before later becoming a public air raid shelter,” Ms Lee added.
“In the war there was poor demand for furniture, so we turned to retailing blackout fabric – we cornered the market and sold thousands of miles of it.
“Members of the family used to take it in turns to watch over the building to prevent looting if it was hit. Luckily it came out unscathed – the closest it came to being hit was during one air raid when a bomb whistled past their heads and landed on a bus outside.”
The firm, which employs 120 people, has celebrated its anniversary with the launch of exclusive new ranges and plans to roll out a new e-commerce facility which will launch on Boxing Day.
110 years of Lee Longlands
* 1903: Lee Longlands opens at 304 Broad Street, selling antiques and furniture, after being founded by Robert Lee and George Longland
* 1930: The second generation of the two families take over, with Robert Lee and Gilbert Longland at the helm
* 1932: The art deco-style store is built on Broad Street
* 1942: The company supplies thousands of miles of fabric to black out buildings in the region
* 1945: Peter Longland, the grandson of the founder, joins the company, followed by Michael Lee in 1953 and Margaret Lee in 1958
* 1950: Lee Longlands develops an accessory department selling china, glassware and linens
* 1962: The Broad Street store is expanded and launches a baby department and children’s play area.
* 1965: The company moves again in Broad Street, to the corner with Granville Street
* 1970: The now famous “Leave it, Leave it to Lee, Leave it to Lee Longlands” jingle is created and used extensively over TV and radio
* 1972: A satellite store opens in Cheltenham
* 1998: Lee Longlands opens store in Leamington
* 2002: Lee Longlands acquires two stores in Oxfordshire, with one being Vineys of Abingdon