Robert Gillow, the founder of Gillows, trained as a joiner, builder, house carpenter, furniture maker and overseas merchant, becoming a Freeman of Lancaster in 1728. In 1731, he started a partnership with a fellow catholic George Haresnape, lasting till 1735, and began cabinetmaking and finishing furniture. The family’s Catholic history was instrumental in growing a customer base within Lancashire’s gentry, and their purchase of the historical Leighton Hall, Lancashire from a cousin in 1822, still owned by the family.
Robert’s two sons, Richard and Robert joined the firm and in 1757 Richard became an equal partner, with the company known as Robert Gillow & Son. Robert was also an architect for several buildings in Lancaster and financed the building of the catholic church in Dalton Square. Together with the help of their cousin Thomas, the Gillow sons expanded the business into London, opening a branch in Oxford Road. The firm attracted the capital’s wealthiest buyers and became widely recognised as the best cabinetmaker of the time.
The Gillows owned a twelfth share of the ship Briget which they used to import the finest slow-grown solid mahogany wood from the West Indies to make their excellent quality furniture. In addition to mahogany, they used unusual veneers and japanning.
Having excelled at cabinet making, the Gillow brothers diversified the business into making beautifully upholstered chairs. In addition to producing their own designs, they made Chippendale, Sheraton and Hepplewhite pieces. The Gillows invented unique furniture items such as the extending telescopic dining table, secretaire drawers, the revolving top library table and the trou-madame, a ladies’ billiards table. One of their best-known inventions was the Davenport desk, a compact ladies’ desk the Gillows made for Captain Davenport. They also manufactured chests of drawers, small occasional tables and linen presses.
By 1824, Leonard Redmayne, the Mayor of Lancaster, Whiteside and Ferguson took over the firm as partners, still using the Gillows name. Under their direction the firm started offering complete interior design while still maintaining its reputation for superb quality. The company won commissions to supply furniture and decorate public buildings in France, Germany, Russia, South Africa, Australia and the U.S. Gillows also furnished the spectacular Tatton Hall, with over 150 pieces complementing the work of the architect Lewis William Wyatt.
Gillows continued to grow until the early 1900s. The financial difficulties of the late Victorian era and the shift towards mass-produced furniture forced the firm to join forces with Waring of Liverpool. Following complete takeover in 1903, the company became known as Waring & Gillow. It took on a new direction of fitting out luxury liners and then making Art Deco furniture. Unfortunately, the firm’s reputation for quality was lost in the merger and its success was not to last. The renowned cabinet maker’s glorious time spanned from the 18th till the end of the 19th century.
A large collection of Gillows furniture is displayed at the Judges’ Lodgings in Lancaster. Original Gillows pieces can also be seen in Tatton Hall and museums in London as well as Melbourne, Auckland and Adelaide in Australia.
Gillows Furniture Marks
A large portion of Gillows furniture is unstamped and the association can be established by studying the design and the production technique. The Gillows stamp can be found on tops of drawer edges, under the table tops and on the back legs of chairs. The firm’s cabinet makers also pencilled their signatures under the drawer linings. These can be referenced in the comprehensive Gillows archives. The printed label ‘Gillow & Taylor’ was the earliest mark. ‘Gillows Lancaster’ stamp was used from 1780s to around 1850s/60s, when it was changed to ‘Gillow’. After the 1860s the mark was made up of a capital L and a serial number. Late Victorian items had the ‘Gillow & Co’ stamp, later changed to ‘Waring & Gillow’ on a small brass plate.
Browse our Gillows furniture pieces online or see them in person at our Brighton’s antique warehouse.