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Out of Time: The Philanthropic Legacy of Florence Boot

26 May 20

Florence Boot is fondly remembered for her numerous charitable acts that helped transform the lives of countless local workers, as well as the landscape of the city itself, during the early 20th century. In terms of a legacy, she’s been considered  one of the most valuable assets in the history of Boots. What many don’t know, however, is that her position of equal partner in the family business was earned due to her relentless efforts to champion workers’ rights…

Born in 1863 in St. Helier, Jersey, Florence Ann Rowe grew up as the daughter of local bookseller William Rowe. As the family lived in the small space above the store, Florence spent her childhood assisting her parents on the shop floor, flogging books, stationery, art equipment, gifts and other luxury goods. Known as somewhat of a master of customer service, it was here that she fostered the ability to entice punters, honing her sales skills and proving herself to be an invaluable asset. 

In the summer of 1885, at the age of 22, Florence met and fell in love with a young man who had taken a leave of absence from his career in Nottingham to holiday in her hometown. The man, who was 35-years-old, had been working since the age of thirteen to expand his late father’s business, and was encouraged to take some time off after his own health took a turn for the worse. That man was Jesse Boot. The pair were besotted and married a mere twelve months later – much to the objection of Florence’s mother, who refused to attend the wedding as a protest to their short engagement. Their happiness served as a great medicine to Jesse, whose health saw a drastic improvement, and encouraged the couple to move back to Nottingham to regain control of the business. 

Boots was already seeing success by this point; known for their affordable medicine and healthcare, there were multiple stores in Nottingham, including the flagship Goose Gate residence, and subsequent shops in Lincoln and Sheffield. Florence quickly developed an interest in her husband's work and wasted no time putting her own stamp on the business. Utilising the experience nurtured at her father’s store, Boots introduced the sale of stationery, books, artist materials and other gifts to the Goose Gate residence, and Florence persuaded Jesse to introduce perfumery and cosmetic counters and expand product lines further to cover the sale of silverware and picture framing.

The famed Pelham Street store – now Zara – was acquired in 1881, and Florence was tasked with designing the interior – the elegant furnishings gave the shop an air more similar to a department store, and was used as a model for future Boots locations. Determined to drive the business forward in several directions, Florence didn’t stop here; by the end of the 19th century, she had established paid lending libraries and cafes in Boots stores, to much success. She had her wits about her during the designing process – they were created to attract middle-class customers, and each library was located at the back of the first floor of the store in an attempt to boost sales by tempting customers with all the other merchandise. Stocked with second-hand books sourced by Florence herself, users could pay 2d (around 70p in today’s money) to borrow the literature. At its peak, Boots were lending out 35 million books per year. 

It is not the accolades of her husband that define Florence’s life – it’s the countless employees and students whom she inspired, supported and provided a better life

While Florence had quickly established herself as an integral part of the business side of the company, her real passion lay in the development of welfare initiatives for the Boots employees, especially women. By 1914, Boots had expanded from just a handful of stores in the East Midlands to over 500 stores across the UK, taking over the entire manufacturing site on Island Street – the derelict land now sitting between Manvers Street and London Road – in the process. Florence and Jesse were now responsible for hundreds of staff nationwide. Among the first welfare measures she introduced were social outings, along with the Boots Athletic Club, which promoted sports and exercise to all employees, and she oversaw the employment of welfare officers and factory surgeries. 

After discovering that some of the poorer employees were showing up at work without having eaten, she implemented a free-for-all breakfast scheme serving hot cocoa to start the day, and rewarded every employee at Christmas with a silk scroll inscribed with a Bible verse. However, following the 1918 Education Act, Florence became particularly concerned with furthering the education of early school leavers who had joined the company to be trained up to work. In February 1920, she established the Boots Day Continuation School on their Station Street premises to provide part-time classes, which was eventually available to all staff. After moving to the Beeston site, the school became known as Boots College and continued to provide a broad and varied secondary-level curriculum until 1969 when school leaving age was raised to sixteen.

After Jesse relinquished control of Boots in 1920, he and Florence became philanthropists, investing much of their wealth back into Nottingham and donating over seventy acres of land to the city, including the Highfields Estate to the University of Nottingham. Florence then founded the first female-only hall of residence on the site, named in her honour. The couple retired to a villa in Jersey, where they continued their philanthropic work, which included the providing of outdoor space for locals to exercise and paid for the building of a school in St. Helier. 

Known as Lady Boot after her husband's knighthood in 1909, this title was elevated to Lady Trent in 1929 after Jesse received a peerage and became 1st Baron Trent. But it is not the accolades of her husband that define Florence’s life – it’s the countless employees and students whom she inspired, supported and provided a better life who speak more to her success. 

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