Who was J.D. Wetherspoon?

The curious stories behind Britain's business names

Who was J.D. Wetherspoon, the founder of the pub chain? Or the Mr Dixon of electronics store fame? Or the Mr Bailey who invented the Irish whiskey liqeur? The answer is that none of them ever existed.

Who was J.D. Wetherspoon?

The names were all created because they sounded right for the business in question. One of the joys of researching my new book was continually discovering the myths behind Britain's favourite shops and products. We do, it seems, like a bit of creativity in the naming department:

- Wetherspoon's was actually founded by someone called Tim Martin in 1979. He took the surname from a teacher at school who had told him he would never amount to anything. The initials, meanwhile, were taken from J.D. ‘Boss' Hogg in The Dukes of Hazzard.

- Dixons was started in 1937 as a photographic shop in Southend, by Charles Kalms and Michael Mindel. There was only room on their store front for a 6-letter name. They flicked through the phone book, saw the name ‘Dixon', added the ‘s' and never looked back.

- Look at a bottle of Baileys and you'll see the label bears the signature ‘R.A. Bailey'. That has to be real, right? Wrong. It was created in 1974 by a drinks firm whose London office overlooked a hotel called Bailey's. They invented the initials to add authenticity. The hotel's still there, by the way, opposite Gloucester Road Tube station. Next time you're passing you could pop into Bailey's for a Baileys. (Don't worry - I've checked the apostrophes. The hotel uses it, the drink doesn't.)

It's not just outright invention, though - there are other types of moniker malarkey:

- The disappearing name. Waitrose was started as an Acton grocery store in 1904 by a Mr Waite and a Mr Rose. Oh - and a Mr Taylor, too. But he left the business two years later, at which point the other two partners combined their surnames. Over in America, meanwhile, the Dow Jones company was started by Mr Dow, Mr Jones and Mr Bergstresser. But Bergstresser didn't leave - it was just that they couldn't find a way of incorporating his three syllables into a snappy business name. So he remained a silent partner.

- The name that sounds British but isn't. ‘Woolies' is such a quintessentially British word (probably because of our weather) that many people assume the much-missed high-street store was a home-grown business. When he moved over here the American writer Bill Bryson was amazed at how many people made the mistake. He had to gently break it to them that F.W. Woolworth had opened his first store in Utica, New York in 1878. The ‘W' stood for Winfield - which is why the US Ambassador's residence in London is called Winfield House.

- The name that pretends to be an acronym but isn't. The Odeon chain of cinemas was founded in the 1920s by Oscar Deutsch, a Brummie lad who was the son of a Hungarian Jewish immigrant. His PR people later claimed the name stood for ‘Oscar Deutsch Entertains Our Nation' - but Deutsch actually took it from a common name for cinemas and theatres used in France and Italy. Originally an odeon was an ampitheatre in ancient Greece. 

My favourite story, though, concerns Aston Martin. The firm was started in 1913 by Lionel Martin (together with the engineer Robert Bamford). He used to test his cars on a hill outside the village of Aston Clinton in Buckinghamshire. His wife suggested adding ‘Aston' to their surname ... because it would put the company at the top of alphabetical listings.


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Big Ben

On a visit to Big Ben, I was told that if you stand at the bottom of the tower with a portable radio and listen to the chimes on Radio 4 (they still transmit them live), you hear them on the radio before you hear them ‘for real’. I couldn’t believe it – but was intrigued enough to try it for myself. And you know what? It’s absolutely true. The bongs come out of the radio a fraction of a second before they reach your ears from the top of the tower. It’s something so silly, so counter-intuitive, that you have to tell people. (Well, I did.) Researching the explanation, I found that it’s because radio waves travel at the speed of light (186,000 miles per second) rather than the 700 or so miles per hour at which sound waves travel. The signal travelling down the wire from the microphone to the BBC goes at the speed of light too. Hence the radio version overtaking the real one.

I realised that this would be the perfect way to teach the principle in school physics lessons. Instead of a boring teacher droning on that ‘radio waves travel at the speed of light’, illustrate it with this beautiful and quirky little fact. The kids will remember it then. I certainly would have done if my physics teacher had taken this approach. As it was I had to wait until I heard a piece of so-called ‘trivia’ in my thirties.