The Company's History
The trunk and military outfitters J.W. Allen were one of the longest standing barrack and camp equipage makers in British history. We know that they were established in 1798 as they advertised their longevity on their catalogues and invoices at the turn of 1900. The company prospered for over a century and their last known entry in the London Trade Directories is for 1913. Little is known of their early existence and the range of items they produced but by the 1820s they start to appear in the Trade Directories under Trunk Makers and listed as 'Allen, John 22 Strand'. It was common practice to list campaign furniture makers under Trunk Makers as opposed to cabinet makers. It is probable that Allen, like a lot of other makers, started off life as a trunk maker and grew to include camp equipage amongst his stock. The two areas went hand in hand and it would have been a natural progression. Allen conducted their business mostly from different shops on the Strand, as the timeline shows, with the two major addresses in their history being Nos. 22 and 37. The company was also at 18 and 31. For a period in the 1830s and 40s Allen also advertised on his labels the address 'Hungerford House Corner of Hungerford Street' which is in Whitechapel. It's possible that was the address of his workshops and when he expanded his business to include 18 Strand he gave over Hungerford House purely to manufacture. If this was the case, and it should be noted that we have no documentary evidence of it, there would be no point in advertising an address that did not offer retail. It can be guessed, that given the size of Allen's business by the 1860s, that he had a separate factory. Although different addresses are used at different periods in advertising, giving a timeline, reference is still made to their address of 18 and 22 in their catalogue of 1878. It is found on two drawings of portmanteaus, so possibly they were simply old drawings re-used and so are a red herring as an indicator to their premises at that date. Certainly by the time of the 1880 Postal Directory the buildings between 16 and 32 Strand are no longer listed. This would suggest that they were either re-numbered or demolished which might also account for Allen moving to 37 Strand.
The name of the business changed over the years, dependent on the family member's involved. It started as John Allen but changed to J.W. & T. Allen in the early 1840s. It is probable that John William and Thomas Allen were John's sons with the father's namesake using the addition of his second name to distinguish himself from his parent. An advert of 1857 uses both the names W & T Allen and in smaller print J.W. & T. Allen. By 1861 the company's name appears simply as J.W. Allen with Thomas removed. Thomas does not seem to be used in advertising until Allen's final year when the company is described as 'Late J.W. & T. Allen'. By 1865 JW Allen had opened very large, smart premises at 37 Strand. It is probable that this address also included No. 38 and was on the corner with Buckingham Street. The illustrations they used on catalogues show a building with six floors and large windows stacked high with cases etc. Their signage advertises that they are Military Outfitters and sell portmanteau. The Royal Coat of Arms stands proudly over their door indicating that they enjoyed the patronage of The Prince of Wales. From this period on the company name themselves as both JW Allen and simply Allen. Presumably they were so well known by this time that to many they were recognised by their abbreviated name.
By 1912 Allen were operating from smaller premises with several other companies also working from 37 Strand. The reason for their decline is unknown. It can't be purely because campaign furniture was no longer in such high demand by the early 1900s because the luggage was an equally, if not more, important part of their business. They were also very good at adapting their materials to meet changing demands and new innovations, so the popularity of lighter cases for quicker travel should not have affected them. Perhaps the last family member died around this date and so also the business. Maybe they simply over stretched; at this point we do not know. By 1914 the company are no longer listed in the London Directories. However, as an aside, it is known that in the 19th century a G.E. Allen set up in Bristol as a Travelling Equipage Manufacturer. As one of their labels notes G.E. Allen was from London originally and so there is a good chance he was a member of the same family who branched out.
Reasons for their success
As a company, Allen were commercially very astute. They were aggressive advertisers and clever in the range of publications they featured in. Aside from regularly advertising in the Army Lists they also sought out periodicals likely to be of interest to the travel minded such as The Royal Geographical Society Magazine, Murray's Travel Guides and Black's Guide to London & Its Environs. They also sought to appeal to those interested in discovery and innovation with adverts and listings in The Year Book of Facts in Science & Art and The Mechanics Magazine, a journal given over to discoveries in science and manufacturing. They registered many of their designs and made a point of ensuring it was known. A number of their Secretaire Campaign Chests were marked with the design number and date of registration. They also took care to use the word 'patent' in the title of any of their products that it applied to such as 'Allen's Patent Quadruple Portmanteau'. They issued separate yearly catalogues for both Barrack Furniture & Camp Equipage and their Portmanteaus, Trunks, Dressing cases etc. They actively sought and proudly displayed images of their prize medals on their adverts, giving the date of the most recently received. In all, they made a great effort to receive recognition and inform the public of it. This is perhaps well illustrated by their 'Testimonials of Barrack Furniture' which is item 83. This gilt tooled, red leather folio contains 39 letters from officers in a wide range of British regiments. Most of these letters were solicited from the soldiers over a five year period from 1868. Most reply that they are pleased to state that JW Allen's Barrack Furniture gives every satisfaction but from some it is obvious that Allen have written to the Adjutant of the regiment to enquire if its officers were happy with their products. A few replies such as Lt. Poole's, Adjutant to the 67th Regiment, indicate this. He wrote to Allen's in September 1868 stating 'Gentlemen, Never having had any experience of your Barrack Furniture I am unable to offer any opinion reflecting it.' Not only did this approach furnish Allen with letters of recommendation but it meant that the Adjutant was likely to talk with his brother officers about the letter he received, so ensuring that their company was discussed in messes up and down the country. It is probable that Allen also wrote to customers of their other goods in order to make a testimonial book on say portmanteaus or dressing cases to show prospective clients.
When it came to making sales they also practised good business sense. For the young officer starting out they offered a package of items and they were competitive. Their price for a Barrack Outfit cost £26 10s in 1862 which was £2 cheaper than a similar outfit by Hill & Millard of a comparable date. Allen's price rose to £27 6s 6d for the same outfit in 1878 and they kept this price until 1885 when they dropped it to £25. For those looking to add to their barrack furniture they carried a wide range of stock. Indeed, an advert of 1885 boasted that they had 'Upwards of 100 Chests of Drawers to Select From'. It was not uncommon for goods to be bought on account at this period and, if by a young officer, for it to be settled by the father. Allen's advertised discounted prices of 10 % to cash buyers and in some instances listed both the standard price and the cash price side by side. This encouragement to pay on purchase was clearly good for the business in that it helped the cash flow and saved time in chasing debts. Occasionally they also advertised that they supplied merchants so they were probably making goods for other retailer's.
Range of items
J.W. Allen had a huge range of leather goods aside from their barrack furniture with 'over 500 articles for home or continental travelling'. They manufactured goods in leather hide, sailcloth, wicker, carpet, velvet and silk. There was also a choice of the smarter leathers such as crocodile, Russia leather in brown, red or green and Morocco in dark blue, green or maroon. For those with an eye on price many items were made in versions using either common or best mock Russia leather. The known timbers used by J.W. Allen include Spanish mahogany, rosewood, walnut, oak, coromandel and painted deal. Various materials were used for the fittings, dependant on the item, from electro plated to solid silver, japanned tin to enamelled iron and buffalo horn to ivory. Allen are known to have used Bramah locks and Berry's Patent Inkwells. Both indicators of the quality of their goods. Other locks noted on their furniture have been by Hobbs & Co., who were also highly respected makers.