The Lancaster cabinet making firm, Gillow, was founded by Robert Gillow. He came from Singleton, on the Fylde, moving to Lancaster in 1720 to begin his apprenticeship as a joiner. He may also have served as an apprentice ship's carpenter, during which time he came to know the Satterthwaite family, who sailed ships to the West Indies. It was from this point that he began working with mahogany and is believed to be the first person to import mahogany into Britain. Benjamin Satterthwaite (1718-1792) was later to become Robert Gillow's agent in Barbados.
Robert Gillow began his career in partnership with a fellow apprentice, George Haresnape, in 1827-28, but this partnership only lasted for 3 years. The next time we hear about George Haresnape he is registered as a slave trader in Liverpool. Robert Gillow went on to open his own cabinet making firm in Lancaster on Castle Hill, near to the Judges' Lodgings. The building is still standing and you can see GILLOWS incised in the stone lintel above the door.
During the 1730s Robert Gillow began to expand his own interests abroad, mainly in Barbados and Antigua, in the export of furniture made by his firm and the import of mahogany, rum and sugar. He was one of the first cabinet-makers to work with exotic woods, brought into Britain from the West Indies after they had been used as ballast for the ships. He also developed links with the Baltic ports which supplied him with oak, pine and other European woods for use in furniture manufacture. A good example of the extent of the Gillow firms connections can be seen in the Lady's Workbox on display at the Judges' Lodgings. It was commissioned by Miss Gifford of Nercwys in 1808 and features 72 different types of wood from all over the world. Each piece of wood is numbered and listed, one is from the gate to Lancaster Castle, but most are from as far away as Australia, the Middle East and Sri Lanka.
Robert Gillow (Snr) continued to expand his business interests in the West Indies through a network of agents based there, until his death in 1772.
Two of Robert's sons, Richard Gillow (1734-1811) and Robert Gillow (1745-1795) became involved with the Gillow firm. Before joining the Gillow firm, Richard was sent to London to study architecture under William Jones. On his return in 1757 Richard became a partner with a half share in the company and was based in Lancaster. At this time the firm were architects as well as cabinet makers. Richard designed the Lancaster Custom House on Lancaster Quay, which is currently the Maritime Museum.
The Gillow company's role in the Slave Trade is well concealed. However, it is known that in 1756 they bought a slaving vessel, The Africa, formerly called The Jolly Bachelor, and sent it with its same captain, William Saul, to Antigua. In addition, most of the vessels named in the account books of Gillows in the 1750s and 60s are now known specifically to have been those used by slave traders. In the 1750s, furniture could account for only 40% of the income of Gillows.
On his retirement in 1769 Robert Gillow (Snr) passed his half share in the business to Robert (Jnr) who became a partner and managed the London branch of the firm. This was situated at 176 Oxford Road, now Oxford Street, a site that the firm was to occupy until 1906. Expanding the business to London was an important step for the Gillow company. It was essential that they kept up to date with the latest trends which would have been difficult if they hadn't had somebody in fashionable 18th century London.
The firm helped to put Lancaster and the North of England prominently into the minds of the wealthy and successful people of Britain. In 1807 Lancaster was once described as having "been long famous for the great quantities of mahogany furniture which have been made in it for home use and exportation".
The success of the Gillow firm coincided with the growth of trade to the West Indies and a flourishing Lancaster sea trade. As the port of Lancaster grew so did their ability to import more products and raw materials from abroad. By encouraging other firms to set up business in thriving Lancaster Robert Gillow helped to transform the industrial base of the city.
From Robert Gillow, who founded the company, to the business acumen of Richard Gillow and the strategic oversight of the London branch of the company, the Gillow family developed a hugely successful and popular business putting Lancaster firmly on the map. The Gillow name became that of one of the best known makers of English furniture.
In 1881 the firm left the Castle Hill site, moving elsewhere in Lancaster. Then in 1897, the Gillow firm merged with the Liverpool firm Waring, to form Waring & Gillow. The latter firm continued to make furniture in Lancaster, including much of the fittings for Lancaster's new Town Hall, opened in 1909.
The firm was taken over in 1961, and all production in Lancaster ceased.