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.


London Bus

A London double decker bus can lean further from the vertical without falling over than a human can. What a great way of learning about centres of gravity. The reason a Routemaster can lean so far is that there's a great long strip of pig-iron welded to its base, keeping you top-deckers safe as you go round corners. If you want reassuring photographic evidence, click here