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Getting to the heart of the family business

Updated Thursday, 19th December 2013

Meet John and Elizabeth Shaw. For them, their 19th Century firm was all about the family.

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Pinkerton Map of Northern England from 1818 Copyright free  image Icon Copyright free: John Pinkerton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons Pinkerton's 1818 map of the northern part of England It seems too simple and obvious to be worth stating, but at the heart of every family business is a family. Yet scholars of family business tend to show little interest in families as most of us experience them on a day-to-day basis; as loving, or antagonistic, as messy and chaotic, or calming and supportive, sometimes infuriating and sometimes funny, sources of happiness and grief, but also, ultimately, as the most important thing in our lives, the thing that gives life meaning. Above all families are about emotions – emotions such as love.

Academics studying family businesses tend to steer clear of this difficult emotional ‘stuff,’ preferring to see the ‘family’ part of the family business as a useful set of ‘resources’ the firm can call on. That is understandable, talk about emotions can be hard to control, but the most important lesson I have learnt from my historical studies of family business is that if we want to understand family firms then first we have to really understand the families involved. Families are the foundation, they come first. I have also learnt that we cannot simply assume that we are all talking about the same thing when we talk about family – families vary enormously from one place to another and from one time to another.

In the late 1990s a series of chance encounters and circumstances led me to the letters of the Shaw family, partly located in the local record office in Wolverhampton and partly in the library of the University of Birmingham. Soon I found myself drawn deeply into a study of the Shaws, their family and their firm. John Shaw was born in rural South Staffordshire in 1782 (1). At some point in the first decade of the 19th Century he started in business as a ‘factor’ or merchant, trading in all the multitudinous metal and hardware products of the Black Country region. John undertook long and arduous selling journeys around Northern England, drumming up orders for his business. In 1810 or 1811, entering the premises of one of his customers, Thomas Wilkinson, a shopkeeper in the Lancashire town of Colne, John encountered the proprietor’s daughter, Elizabeth. A sometimes fraught courtship ensued but in 1813 John won his bride. When Elizabeth married she joined John not only in matrimony but also in business. The firm they ran together (from 1815 as Shaw and Crane and subsequently, from 1848, as John Shaw and Sons) was in some respects typical of most family firms; it did not do anything remarkably revolutionary, it did not set the world alight, but it was successful. Beginning in relatively humble circumstances John died a wealthy man in 1858 (Elizabeth survived him for another 11 years). But in other ways the firm was very exceptional, especially for its longevity, remaining an independent family firm until 1970.

John and Elizabeth’s marriage was at the heart of this firm. Because John and Elizabeth were frequently separated (either by his selling journeys or her visits to her family in Lancashire) they were devoted letter-writers. The chance survival of much of their correspondence is a rare privilege for the historian, opening as it does an invaluable and very intimate window on the inner life of an ‘ordinary’ early 19th Century marriage. Particularly revealing are the letters the couple exchanged over two years of courtship. Here we can watch in fascination as they come to an understanding of each other, their values and principles, their desires and ambitions, their respective characters, expectations and roles. The portrait of Elizabeth that emerges from the correspondence is particularly interesting, revealing and perhaps surprising to modern readers. In her own quiet, undemonstrative way Elizabeth was clearly a very strong personality; she knew herself, she knew what she wanted, what she felt was right, and what was important. Elizabeth and John came to love each other very deeply, so much is obvious from letters throughout their marriage, but this was no impetuous infatuation, at least not on Elizabeth’s part. Her care and determination ensured that the couple understood each other perfectly by the time they actually wed in the Spring of 1813. It was these early years that built an incredibly strong foundation for the marriage and – I believe – the firm.

Probably like every member of any family firm John and Elizabeth faced challenges in both their professional and private lives; money could be short, the hours long and hard, the long months of separation wearisome and lonely, the future and the rewards uncertain. Tragically their eldest son John died in India in 1839, working for the branch of the business that had been established in Calcutta in 1834. But throughout, no matter what trials they faced, John and Elizabeth stood firm together, for they shared the same beliefs and goals and they found joy and pleasure together and in the same things. For both of them the firm was all about the family.

We always need to be careful when we try and derive lessons from the past. It is easy to read Elizabeth as a sort of proto-feminist, for example; but it is always important to also remember the differences. The very intense religious belief John and Elizabeth shared is something many of us find difficult to access or understand today. Still, I am convinced that the lesson Elizabeth and John taught me, that I need to get to the heart of the family first, before I can even begin to think about the firm, stands every bit as true today as it ever did.


  • (1) Andrew Popp (2012) Entrepreneurial Families: Business, Marriage and Life in the Early Nineteenth-Century. London: Pickering & Chatto.




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