Frank Woolworth first trip to
Europe was in 1890. The transatlantic crossing took almost three months.
It was sheer torture for Frank, who was very sea sick. The liner finally docked in Liverpool. From there he
travelled by train to Stoke on Trent, buying china and glasswares in large
quantities for the Woolworths American five and ten stores, before moving to London and thence to
Germany and Switzerland.
The Willow pattern china
sourced from Stoke-on-Trent on the original buying trip remained a firm favourite with
Woolworths customers for over half a century, only finally discontinued
after World War 2.
In 1904 a chance encounter on
one of Frank Woolworth's European visits was to have a profound impact on
the future of the British company. On a visit to a North Staffordshire
pottery he came across a young freight clerk by the name of William
Lawrence Stephenson. Frank was impressed by Stephenson's can-do attitude -
nothing was too much trouble for him.
Several years later (in
1909) when planning the launch of the British company, Frank sent a
carriage to Stoke-on-Trent with an invitation to join him at his hotel in
London for dinner and a chat. Intrigued Stephenson travelled to London -
where he was invited to become a Director of the new company - the only
Briton on the team. He accepted.
The premature death of Fred Woolworth in
1923 left Stephenson, who had been Woolworth's understudy, in charge of
the organization's British venture.
Over the next forty years he
was to build F. W. Woolworth & Co. Ltd. into a substantially larger and
more successful business than its American parent. Stephenson became the
Managing Director and then Chairman, he retired in 1948 one of the richest
men in Europe and left Woolworths at the very top of the stock market.