Many people in Wiltshire, especially in the towns of Trowbridge and Malmesbury, know we are a family business with a long history as an independent retailer. What people often don’t realise is just how far back our roots stretch – this year, we will celebrate our 137th anniversary! Here’s how it all began…
The early days: 1879 to 1935
Knees started life in 1879 when Henry John Knee (1854-1935) took over his former employer’s premises, Chapman’s, on the corner of Fore Street and Church Walk in Trowbridge. Henry’s first shop was called Knee’s Ironmongers & Manufacturers and sold a wide selection of things for the house including paints, varnishes, mantel pieces, tile hearths, fenders, fire irons, kitchen ranges, stoves and lamps.
Henry was by all accounts an energetic and determined man who became known by the family as ‘The Governor’. In 1902 he purchased the Castle Factory (now called Andil House) and Brick Factory in Court Street which were used as furniture display rooms and for upholstery, soft furnishings, cabinetry and French polishing services, with much of the rest of the premises being used for the removals and storage side of the business.
By the time he died in 1935, Henry had established several stores, mainly around the Fore Street area, and had acquired a substantial property portfolio which included several shop sites as well as premises in Bradford on Avon and Melksham. This was quite an achievement against a historical backdrop which included the death of two monarchs and the social, economic and political upheaval of World War One.
Developing and diversifying: 1940s and 50s
The 1940s and 50s saw a period of acquisition and redevelopment for Knees, initially prompted by a devastating fire at one of the stores. Henry’s son, the redoubtable Hebden Knee (1886-1955), was now in charge of the family business which became a limited company in 1908.
One of Hebden’s major initiatives was to diversify the business into the motor trade in 1929. This involved the acquisition of more property and further development for garages, workshops and showrooms, including in Calne and Chippenham as well as the centre of Trowbridge.
Hebden’s son, John, developed this side of the business further. Recognising both the challenges and opportunities in engineering following World War Two, he laid the foundations for KAM (or Knees Agricultural Machinery) which still exists today as a thriving steel fabrication business, alongside its Westbury-based sister company MAB.
Regional commitment and expansion: the 1960s to 1980s
A strong entrepreneurial streak runs through the Knee family and, over the years, family members have developed various ventures and played a major role in the business landscape of the South West with business interests in many of the region’s towns and cities. Malmesbury, Devizes, Warminster, Westbury, Calne, Chippenham, Bristol and Bath have all benefitted from investment and development related to Knee enterprises. Business activity during the 60s to the 80s ranged from fashion and food to a motor company and funeral services.
Towards the end of the 1980s, the family interests settled on the three sides of the business which remain today: retail; property, from land and buildings acquisitions over the years; and engineering, which grew under Hebden’s son, John’s efforts.
In addition to John, Hebden and his wife Dorothy had two other children: Noel and Joy. Joy married Gerald Holbrow and their son, Marcus, is now Managing Director of HJ Knee Ltd, the parent company of the Knee family businesses. John’s son, Henry, along with his grandson Richard Knee, are also directors of HJ Knee Ltd. The family is supported by fellow directors Ian Vidler and Andy Pickford.
Just as the generations before them, the Knee family today continue to invest in the Wiltshire region and, in particular, the communities surrounding Trowbridge and Malmesbury. The family businesses employ over 70 people, many of whom have been with Knees for many years.
On the retail side, the focus is on our busy Malmesbury store (a family favourite on Malmesbury High Street since the 1950s) and our new, modern flagship store at Spitfire Retail Park in Trowbridge. Knees moved from the town centre to Spitfire Retail Park in 2014 as part of a response to changes in the retail landscape. This also included a review of the product range so Knees has now moved from being a store known to ‘sell everything’ to specialising in a simplified range of premium products for the home. Our key product ranges are now large and small kitchen appliances and home furniture. The other major shift has, of course, been to introduce online purchasing.