St Leonardgate: Waring and Gillow

The founding father of Waring and Gillow was Robert Gillow, who came to Lancaster to start a career as a cabinet maker. His father was allegedly imprisoned in Lancaster Castle for his part in the Jacobite rebellion, and Robert Gillow may have remained in Lancaster in order to be close to him during his detention.

Robert Gillow’s fascination for carpentry began during a stint as a ship’s carpenter. He travelled to the West Indies and brought back one of the first recorded shipments of mahogany into the UK. Supplies of mahogany (supplemented with copious amounts of rum) soon began to flow between Gillow and his West Indian suppliers and in return, Gillow exported some of the finest furniture ever crafted. He was later joined by his three sons and the business expanded rapidly. In 1881, the Gillow’s moved to North Road and developed a factory in the St Leonardgate area. They were previously based at Castle Hill.

In addition to furniture, the Gillow’s were praised in opera and fiction and they are also accorded with the invention of the billiards table. They produced a substantial amount of furniture for museums, presidents and luxury ocean liners. Queen Victoria also commissioned a number of pieces from the company. During the First World War, they fashioned Navy munitions boxes from teak and DH9 aeroplane wings and propellers. Mosquito wooded aeroplanes followed in the Second World War. Unfortunately in 1961, the firm was taken over and closed down, although Gillow’s lives on today as part of Maples Stores plc.

The factory at St Leonardgate was later bought by John Peter Ltd of Leeds and then purchased by the university in 1964 for £90,000 as temporary means of accommodation until 1966. Two hundred thousand pounds was spent converting, equipping and furnishing the building although the plans were nearly ruined when an explosion ripped through the ground floor of the old factory in 1964.