Robert Sayle: The Man, His Life And The Shop


Talk by Christine Shaw, 13 December 2016

This month’s talk had a paternalistic flavour as we learnt about Robert Sayle, his shop and his benevolent care for his workers and the town.

Robert Sayle was born in 1816 in Southery in Norfolk. The family were well off farmers and Robert was sent to Kings School, Ely but as he didn’t wish to work on the family farm he went to London to train as a draper. In 1840 , with the help of his father, he bought no. 12 St. Andrew’s St., Cambridge, a run-down drapers. It was re-furbished with the first plate glass windows in the town and sold a wide range of drapery, hosiery and fancy goods. The business prospered and he started to take over the adjoining shops. In 1849 he married Priscilla Ginger and they had 10 children all of whom reached adulthood. Initially, they lived over the shop but in the 1860s he bought land in Trumpington and built Leighton House. In 1954 this became the Perse Prep School and the letters RS are still carved over the door but the down stroke of the R has been chiseled off.

In 1882 Fellows were allowed to marry so this led to an expansion in women’s clothing and household goods. A complete funeral service was also offered until the 1960s.

Young employees lived in dormitories above the shop with a strict curfew: 9.30 for the girls and 10pm for the men, lights out at 11.00 and the door between the dormitories was securely locked!

As well as being a man of substantial means Robert Sayle was also a man of morals and religious tolerance. He subscribed to the Royal Albert Almshouses built at the junction of Hills Road and
Brooklands Avenue and in 1872 bought a house and its extensive grounds in Trumpington Road and sold it on to the Methodist Conference, who developed it as The Leys school. Among other charitable donations he was a prime mover in setting up town scholarships for the Perse School and supported the opening of the Perse Girls School and he was a guarantor of the first YMCA building.

He died in 1888 when thousands of people turned out for the funeral and he is buried in Mill Rd. cemetery.

Three partners took over the shop and expanded it further. Horses for the funeral business and carting were kept at the rear of the shops but these were requisitioned in 1914 and never returned. Also at the back were workshops which could be hired. Horace Darwin, son of Charles, began the Cambridge Instrument Company and William Pye started the famous Pye electrical business in these workshops.

In 1934 the business was bought by Selfridges but just six years later they sold their provincial shops which were bought by John Lewis.

Keith Dixon