Robert Sayle (1816-1883) was an enterprising retailer who developed a successful drapery and haberdashery shop in St Andrew’s Street. He took a lively interest in the civic development of Cambridge and the religious and educational wellbeing of its less privileged inhabitants.
Robert Sayle, the eldest son of John Sayle, a farmer, was born in the Norfolk village of Southery in 1816. Instead of following in his father’s professional footsteps, he set off to work in London and by the age of 24 had gained ‘considerable experience in some of the best retail houses’, including the well-known drapery firm of Hitchcock, Williams & Co near St Paul’s Cathedral.
Supported by his father, he returned to Cambridge to set up a small drapery business in Victoria House, a prime retail location in St Andrew’s Street. In March 1840, the shop opened for business selling a range of ‘sterling fabrics’ including Irish linens, sheetings, hosiery, haberdashery, furs, shawls, fancy goods, ribbons and handkerchiefs. Robert Sayle aimed to attract ‘the patronage of the Nobility, Gentry, and Inhabitants of the Town, County and University of Cambridge’, assuring them of his personal expertise in selecting the best fabrics and goods.
Many of Robert Sayle’s retail ideas were cutting edge for the time. Shop windows were originally intended only to admit light but following the London fashion, he installed large plate glass windows and displayed his goods prominently in them. He even marked the prices on items, a popular move which meant people knew exactly what they had to pay and could avoid haggling.
Robert initially lived in a flat over the shop. In 1849, he married Priscilla Caroline Ginger of Eddlesborough, Bucks, and after 11 years and six children (one daughter died when she was three), the family moved to a larger house at No 10 St Andrew’s Street. In 1868 or 1869, they and their now nine children moved to Leighton House, a large family home that Robert Sayle built on Trumpington Road (today Perse Preparatory School). He travelled to Cambridge each day in a horse-drawn carriage that was stabled at the back of the shop.
Robert Sayle’s innovation and energy created what is still a thriving chain of shops, taken over recently by the John Lewis Partnership and trading in the same St Andrew’s Street area. As well as his business interests, he was a Justice of the Peace, committed to improving educational opportunities for women and the underprivileged, and developing civic amenities in Cambridge.
In 1883 at the age of 67, Robert Sayle suffered a fatal heart attack. His sudden death shocked the town. ‘The regret that was felt extended to all classes and to many members of the University,’ wrote the Independent Cambridge News. ‘Most men who build up large commercial concerns… have devoted themselves exclusively to this work; but Mr Sayle took the liveliest interest in local matters… and some of the best public improvements that have taken place recently owed their inception and execution to his judgement and enterprise.’
The funeral ceremony took place at the church of St Andrew the Great, where Robert Sayle had worshipped for years. The cortège formed outside his house in Trumpington. The hearse was laden with flowers and accompanied by six mourning coaches carrying members of his family. It was joined in Cambridge by a contingent of young men employed at the shop walking four abreast. Large crowds lined the route to Mill Road Cemetery, where he was laid to rest.
Parish : St Andrew the Great