by David Clare

The origins of the Maypole Dairy chain are in a family provision business. Their specialism was in dairy produce such as butter and lard and, importantly, in the development of the use of margarine, which was going to be called butterine before a legal action prevented it in 1887.

The Watson family owned a provision business in Birmingham in the early 1800s. George Jackson took over this business in 1859, trading as Medova Dairies. Three Watson brothers were apprenticed to him. However they split up because George Jackson did not want to threaten his butter trade by introducing competition from sales of margarine, which was looked upon with suspicion at the time as an inferior product for the lower classes.

George Watson decided to set up his own business in 1887 and opened the first shop of the Maypole Dairy Company at 67 Queen Street, Wolverhampton.

In this postcard (postmarked 1908) Maypole Dairies' original branch can be seen at the right hand edge, almost on the corner with Dudley Street.

His brother Charles opened a Danish dairy in Wednesbury at about the same time, eventually setting up headquarters in Manchester in 1889.

The brothers, plus Alfred Watson, combined forces with George Jackson and Medova in 1898. Their shops specialised in butter and margarine, not milk. There was an agreement between Maypole and Medova not to compete in the same towns.

In this detail from a postcard of about 1950 the shop is still in Queen Street, with the two globe lamps, marked "Maypole", and the shop front unaltered. 

Alfred opened the shops in the midlands, and Charles did likewise in the north. The Medova chain run by Jackson concentrated in the south and east.

Maypole quickly became a household word in the country for dairy produce. There were soon 105 Maypole shops to 80 Medova ones. Large cities such as Manchester, Glasgow and Edinburgh had multiple branches.

The Watsons had strong links with Danish dairy suppliers, who had a rapidly growing share of the UK market in butter. They set up their own food transit depots in Denmark.

The Queen Square branch, shown in a detail from a postcard postmarked 1910.

Presumably Maypole moved into these buildings as soon as they were built.

The number of Maypole branches had reached 985 by 1915. The 1000th shop opened in 1926. The success was due in large part to the growing popularity of margarine and their insistence on high quality despite all their products being mass trade. The Watsons supplied one third of the UK margarine market by 1914. Cheese was dropped early on and the main trade was in five products: eggs, tea, condensed milk, butter and margarine.

The blind of the Queen Square branch can just be seen on the right hand edge of this undated postcard.

This branch and the original one in Queen Street seem to b the only two branches Maypole ever had in their home town, Wolverhampton.

A battle for the UK margarine industry had taken place between Maypole and two Dutch firms, Jurgens and van den Berghs. Home and Colonial, supplied by Jurgens, and Lipton, supplied by Van den Bergh, who introduced Blue Band, became the main rivals to Maypole in the margarine trade. A price war developed between them.

On top of this the margarine bubble was deflating by the 1920s when it became cheaper to import foreign margarine than to make it. Investments by Maypole in groundnut oil from Africa had turned sour and profits were falling. By 1924 Maypole gave in and ownership of the share capital moved from the Watson family to Home and Colonial Stores.

The chain continued to trade under the same name however and started to diversify its products. After many more years of trading, in 1964 Pearks, Maypole, Home and Colonial and Liptons, who were all trading as branches of Allied Suppliers, came together to share the same headquarters in London, and most functions of the group were centralised, bringing to an end the separate management structures of each of the companies.

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