Cater Brothers - Story of a Supermarket
By David Waters
As genealogists, it is always exciting to find that we are linked to someone famous or 'interesting'. As the search goes onwards (and backwards) certain of our ancestors get their 15 minutes of fame, albeit in our eyes only, as the spotlight of our family tree falls upon them.
With my wife Debbie and myself, the initial exciting search came with my Great Grandfather Edward Cater (30.4.1865 - 25.2.1938) and his wife Mary Ann Ferdinando (1867 - 1951). The Ferdinando link was to be most exciting, transporting us back to 1679 at the drop of a hat, but that story is for another time.
My mother was Jean Cater, and I recall that she had told me of a supposed link to Cater Brothers, a chain of shops and subsequently supermarkets in East and North London. Mother did not know of the definite link, but as her Grandfather Edward (mentioned above) was a grocer, it seemed to be appropriate. As Debbie and I researched further, this became the link we were most anxious to find.
We joined the Cater Family History Society, which has helped us with many things, but regretfully has not helped with this particular link despite a research question in the November newsletter. At this time we also e-mailed the Institute of Grocers, Tesco and Sainsburys…but this also brought us no joy.
By now, we were used to posting on Genforum at http://genforum.genealogy.com so we added posts to the forums in the names linked to the Cater family we had discovered…and BINGO, along came Christopher Cater.
Chris Cater is my 3rd Cousin, and a grandson of one of the 'Cater Brothers'. I thank him for contacting us. It has been great speaking to him, and all the information that follows is gleaned from conversations with him, and details from his (continuing) research.
Henry Charles Cater 1818 - 1868 was a Pork Merchant and latterly a Pork Butcher. He was the second husband of Sarah Wilkinson, whose previous marriage was to a Sylvester Retzbach. There were three Retzbach children, two male and one female. Both boys became Pork Butchers, and her daughter Elizabeth married a butcher !
Henry and Sarah had six children. Of the five that survived infancy, four were male and one female. Three of the boys Henry John, Frank, and Edward entered similar trades with Cheesemonger, Grocer and Provisions Merchants being mentioned at various times. Charles was the black sheep of the family! He became a teacher tut tut!
I am descended from Edward (thus the Ferdinando connection) and I know that his Grocery business, and that of his son was successful, but it is Henry John and his sons that I wish to speak about in this article.
Henry John is to be found in the 1881 census as a Grocer in Bridge Street, Mile End. His business grew early in the 20th Century, with presumably the adult sons working with and for father.
With the death of Henry John in 1919, everything passed to his wife Clara Sanders. She agreed that the five sons should carry on the business, and that she and her daughter Clara Violet would each receive an annual income. The exact amount of the income for each is unknown.
The brothers formed a private limited company with Erastus as Chairman.
Success came and the business (empire) grew, with shops throughout East London, and forays into both North and South London.
Smoking their own bacon and curing their own ham was all part of keeping the growing number of shops stocked from the warehouse, offices AND stables of course, in Treby Street, Bow. There was also a strong wholesale trade supplying other businesses with provisions.
By the Second World War there were at least 30 shops.
Erastus died in 1950, with brother Sidney taking over the chairmanship until his death in approx.1956. The next stage of development was about to commence, as in the late 1950's the face of the high street was beginning to change.
The son of Erastus, Leslie Erastus, now took over as chairman. Leslie Erastus was to embrace the new ideas, and Cater Brothers was to lead the way into the supermarket age in this country. Beginning with the first supermarket in Bromley, Kent in 1958 and growing at roughly one per year until 1972, Cater Brothers expanded at a pace, closing some stores or converting them to off licenses as the impetus into supermarkets continued.
The East London roots were kept healthy with stores in Bow and Canning Town, whilst the company spread north to Edmonton and south to Greenwich and Putney. Supermarkets were opened much further afield also with Watford, Colchester, Southend and latterly Reading joining the list. Perhaps someone out there is researching Sainsburys and a comparison can be made as to the speed of progression during this period, but undoubtedly growth of this magnitude would have meant ploughing profits back into the business. This would have restricted the dividend to the shareholders (remember, all family), and it is perhaps this point that finally brought Cater Brothers to its untimely end.
In 1972 whilst flying to France to play tennis, Leslie died in a plane crash. Although his four sons all worked for the business, with the three eldest being Directors, the majority of the shareholders did not have hands on contact with the daily workings of the business, and an approach by Debenhams to purchase the entire business was accepted.
Now under the control of Debenhams, the Company took over the management and modernisation of 40 Food halls within the Debenham department stores throughout the country, and operated the food business in 2 new superstores. Within the year however, Debenhams had replaced the family management with their own executives and the business rapidly sank into decline. The business was subsequently sold to Allied Suppliers in December 1979 to be absorbed into their Presto supermarket division, and the Cater Brothers name finally disappeared from our high streets.