Knees department store in Trowbridge celebrates its 130th birthday this year (2009), and as well as being one of the longest established businesses in Wiltshire, it is also one of the most-loved.
Since 1879 it has grown and flourished under the energy and determination of its founder Henry John Knee (the ‘Governor’, 1854-1935) and his family after him.
In 1879 Henry took over his former employer’s premises, Chapman’s, and opened his first shop, Complete Furnishers and General Dealers, on the corner of Fore Street and Church Walk (now the site of Game).
This shop continued trading, latterly as the Ironmongery Department, until 1934 when it was demolished and rebuilt as Burtons.
In 1884 Henry opened another shop selling curtains and fabrics on Fore Street (now Priceless Shoes). This closed auspiciously in 1887, when Henry built his new shop named Knees Emporium on the corner of 21 Fore Street now Thomas Cook Travel on the ground floor) and newly widened Castle Street.
By about 1894 he had taken over the 1888 building next door in 22 Fore Street (now Adams on the ground floor) which had traded as Burgess for a few brief years.
The date is still just discernible on the capital of the right side pilaster on the 1st floor.
Much later, in 1935, Knees acquired the grand block with arched and columned windows which had been designed and built by William Smith in about 1864 for Beaven (no. 23, now Costa Coffee at street level). ‘Knees’ can still just be made out on the painted sign on the gable.
All these properties plus the Castle Factory in Court Street as well as premises in Bradford on Avon and Melksham, appear on the old billheads that the company used at that time.
In the 1920’s a lift was installed by H.O. Strong of Bristol in the 1887 building, one of the first in the town.
In 1940 a devastating fire destroyed much of Henry’s 1887 building, particularly the two bay three-storey piece across Red Hat Lane. Long before then however many of the remaining sites on the other side of Red Hat Lane and along Castle Street were acquired and eventually redeveloped.
A major rebuild in 1956 by Knees Building Department was finally completed in the 1980’s by Holdaways of Westbury. One significant event was the demolition of the Gaumont Cinema in 1972, which was replaced by a building housing the Richway Supermarket. This building was taken over by Knees in 1976, where we now find the main entrance to the store, next to Boots Opticians on Fore Street.
Prior to all that it is remembered that you had to descend wooden steps to a basement to buy items such as nails, wire netting, linseed oil and turpentine. This was in the vicinity of the present lift.
Somewhere beyond the Gardening Department were some low buildings displaying agricultural goods; milking machines and poultry drinking fountains.
This would have been the area containing the Town Pound which was bought by Henry in 1909. Further up Castle Street a three-storey late 18th century building housed Knee’s dairy goods and their gentlemen’s hairdressers, separated from the Penguin fish and chip shop by an archway, originally a rear access to the old Woolpack Hotel.
In 1902 Henry purchased the Castle Factory (now called Andil House) and Brick Factory (known to some as Pike’s but officially called Block 10) in Court Street which was used as furniture display rooms, offices, upholstery, soft furnishing and cabinet making and French polishing shops with much of the rest, and virtually all the upper floors of Number 10, being used for the Removals and Storage Department.
Some lots in the furniture depository were so long in store that at intervals the stacks were dismantled, checked against the inventory, the carpets and rugs were brushed and strewn with naphtha crystals and the lot restacked.
Other premises used to store furniture and effects were in; The Halve, Ashton Mill, The Malting at Westbury and at the old brickworks site in Canal Road.
At 5 The Halve the large warehouse (originally a wool store) was accessed by a shallow flight of wide wooden steps to a large elevated door. The warehouse is long gone but number 5 will be familiar as the former Cousins and Wright’s camera and optical workshops, now being restored as a family home.
Following on from Henry Knee came the redoubtable Hebden (1886-1955), who with Dorothy (unofficially ‘Dolly’ to the staff, 1891-1971) lived at Westwood and then later at Red Gables on Hilperton Road.
Hebden began to take a major role in Knees from 1908 when it became a limited company. His children were Mr Noel (1913-2005), Mr John (1924-1992) and Miss Joy (1929-1990). The latter married Gerald Holbrow of Bradford on Avon and their son Marcus is now Managing Director of H.J.Knee Ltd.
Mr John’s children Henry and Peter are also Directors of the company and his grandson Jonathan is now the General Manager.
One of Hebden’s major developments was to enter the motor trade in 1929 with the Fore Street Garage (now Boots) which ran through to emerge in Market Place, as does Boots now.
Knees were agents for Humber, Hillman and Commer. Knees also took over the Central Garage across the road in 1939 (the gap between HSBC and W.H. Smith) and again this ran all the way back to emerge in Church Street.
This was requisitioned from 1940 to 1946 for making parts for Spitfires. Later there were car showrooms in Castle Street (now the Toy Shop) and petrol pumps. Hebden Knee Motors also opened businesses in Calne and Chippenham, but his name was not used in this context until after his death.
For a time, behind and on the ground floor block 10 in Court Street, John Knee ran a commercial vehicle workshop which of course serviced all the Knees vehicles, including the big articulated lorry needed to transport large items for John’s burgeoning agricultural machinery business, KAM, still in existence, as metal fabricators, at the Ashton Mill site just off the Tesco roundabout.
In about 1960, KAM linked up with a Bristol company to form Braby Knee Ltd of Trowbridge to further extend the range of machinery offered, particularly silo towers.
One of Noel’s groundbreaking moves in 1958-1959 was the acquisition of the Court HSLL Cafe, from the-then owner of St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall.
This was reincarnated as the Woolpack and eventually transformed into Berni Inn (now Mastershoe).
The original Woolpack Hotel in Fore Street was demolished in 1914 and replaced by the Palace Cinema, itself replaced by the Gaumont in 1937. From 1965 to 1970 Knees Discount Corner (KDC) took over ‘Parris’s’ corner (at the junction of Silver and Church Streets) to be followed, until 1973, by Farmer Knee Agricultural and Garden Centre (now Sport Shoe).
For a while the retail arm of the business owned and ran Shirley Knee Fashions from Bristol which eventually transferred to the main Trowbridge store.
Another connection with Bristol was a lucrative trade at Avonmouth docks refurbishing ships’ furnishings and fittings.
Outside Trowbridge, shops were opened in 1908 at Bradford on Avon (closed in the 1980’s), around the same time in Melksham (closed during the First World War), Warminster High Street (1950’s to 2004, now the Factory Shop) and Malmesbury, also 1950’s, which is still in existence.
In about 1940 Knees took control of Hooper and Dark in Southgate Street, Bath, this disappeared with the 1960’s redevelopment.
H.J.Knee Ltd has played a major role in the business landscape of the South West since those early years; with business interests in many towns and cities and cities in the West – Malmesbury, Devizes, Warminster, Westbury, Calne, Chippenham, Bristol and Bath.
Over the years there has been a great variety of different business activities – everything from a fashion label to a building company and a motor company to funeral directors!
It is part of the local heritage and has a special place in so many people’s hearts and lives.
Today the business is focused on retail, at two branches – Trowbridge and Malmesbury, and the steel fabrication company KAM, also in Trowbridge.
The current directors of the company are all great grandsons of H.J.Knee – Marcus Holbrow (Managing Director), Peter Knee and Henry Knee (Directors) who all share many years of retail and engineering experience.
Knees website has now given H.J.Knee Ltd a worldwide audience, which no doubt would have been an impossible dream of Henry John Knee’s at the birth of his business in 1879.
Thanks to Trowbridge Civic Society for their help in researching this article.
kneetodaywebTrowbridge’s HJ Knee to move out of town centre to retail park
6:00am Friday 13th December 2013 in Trowbridge
Marcus Holbrow pictured outside the Fore Street store today
Wiltshire Times: Marcus Holbrow pictured outside the Fore Street store today
Wiltshire Times: The Gaumont Cinema in Fore Street, Trowbridge in the 1960s that is now Knees
Trowbridge’s longest established department and electrical retailer HJ Knee is to relocate to a retail park in the town in the New Year.
The store, which has been an integral part of the town centre since it was established in 1879, will be located at the Spitfire Retail Park from March, a move to improve its retailing business and parking provision for customers.
The move will see the store trading alongside neighbours including Currys/PC World, Pets at Home and Carpetright, with free parking spaces and access to the adjoining Trowbridge Retail Park.
Marcus Holbrow, managing director of HJ Knee, said: “Knees are a family business that has operated for many years as a traditional town centre department store.
“The world of retail has changed significantly and we are embracing those changes. We also have an online retail presence, which is being continually developed, to show visitors to our website the comprehensive range of products we offer.