Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: February 18, 2019
Webpage updated: February 19, 2019




Thomas Willcocks Popham was one of the founders of what became The House of Pophams, regarded by many in the pre-war City as Plymouth's most up-market drapery and house furnishing store.

But the story of the business is a little more complicated and involved several members of the Radford family, which is why the business was initially known as Messrs Popham, Radford and Company.

Thomas was the eldest son of Mr Thomas Popham, victualler, and his wife Elizabeth.  He was born on October 10th 1819 and baptised at the Ancient Parish Church of Saint Andrew the Apostle on April 24th 1820.  In 1844 young Thomas married a Miss Hannah Radford, who was the eldest daughter of the late Mr Daniel Radford, baker, and his wife Elizabeth, formerly Lock.  Hannah was also born in 1819.

Hannah's father, who was made a Freeman of the Borough of Plymouth on June 24th  1831, died on December 12th 1832 at the very young age of 49 years, leaving her widowed mother to look after seven children.  One of them, Elizabeth Radford, died in July 1834 at the age of 4, but the remainder, Hannah (born 1819), Jemima (1821), George David (1823), Lydia (1825), Mary Ann (1826) and Daniel (1828), survived into adulthood.  They were baptised at Charles' Church in two batches of three on January 14th 1824 and November 17th 1829.  That was a lot of hungry mouths to feed.  But Mrs Elizabeth Radford was a resourceful woman.

Her youngest son, Daniel Radford, was an invalid and in order to provide a future for him, she apprenticed him to Messrs Radford and Stather, drapers, in Bedford Street, Plymouth.  When that was completed she sent him off to London to learn his chosen trade.  In the meantime, she purchased two run-down properties in Bedford Street, a fruit shop and a wool shop, and had them demolished to make way for a brand new shop for her son.  But the new premises were right next door to another draper, Mr Parkhouse, and he objected to having competition quite so close.  However, there being no planning regulations in those days, the only way he could object was to argue that the new building would obstruct light through a tiny, insignificant window on the top floor of his premises.  Unsurprisingly, Mrs Radford was having none of that nonsense and arranged for the new shop to be set back a little to allow the light to reach the window.

Meanwhile, Mr Thomas Willcocks Popham had also been apprenticed to a local draper, Messrs Adams and Company, and after meeting and marrying Miss Hannah Radford, he joined with Mr Daniel Radford to form a partnership that was to have its name, Messrs Popham, Radford and Company, over the door for many years to come. 

Mrs Hannah Popham became the dutiful wife, of course, and Mrs Elizabeth Radford retired from the bakery business to live at number 12 Woodside, Greenbank, Plymouth, so by 1851 the Radford's interest was vested in her eldest son, Mr George David Radford.  He and his Cornish-born wife, Catherine, and their two young daughters, Kate and Phoebe, lived at 7 Saint Michael's Terrace, Saltash Road, Plymouth.  Mrs Elizabeth Radford died on May 1st 1852 and Mrs Hannah Popham died of heart disease on March 10th 1868.  She was just 48-years-old.

Mr Thomas Willcocks Popham married again at the end of 1870, his bride being Miss Dorothy Ellen Balkwill, daughter of Mr Richard Balkwill of Yarde, Kingsbridge, Devon.

Messrs Popham, Radford & Company continued to prosper.  Some major redevelopment work was undertaken in 1865/66.  To the rear of the store, at the back of the Plough Inn in East Street, was an old slaughterhouse that had become a public nuisance.  This was demolished and replaced with two buildings, a Brussels Carpet room and a warehouse for storing summer goods.

In addition, a handsome and capacious six-storey building had been erected fronting East Street on the ground floor of which was the general clothing department, accessible from the main premises through folding doors.  There was access from East Street to the cellar area, in to which goods would be received.  The cellar was taller than usual, 9 feet 6 inches, which had been achieved by lowering the sewerage system beneath it, at considerable expense.  From the cellar inward bound goods were raised by means of a hoist to the "marking" room on the first floor, where they were priced and then distributed to their respective departments.

Over the "marking" room, again fronting east Street, was a room 20 feet square that was to be fitted out as a library for the use of 'the young people': it is not clear if this referred to the staff or customers.  On that floor was also to be a separate sitting room for females, again presumably female staff.  The remaining floors comprised twelve lofty bedrooms for thirty young male staff.

In the front shop a large number of improvements had been made, including gas lighting and new means of ventilation, 'the most improved process being brought into requisition'.  Offices had been erected for clerks, 'who have each appointed to them their respective duties, and the system adopted is so simple that the customer will find an entire absence of that confusion which too often bewilders a purchaser at large establishments'.

The back portion of the shop was divided into three compartments, with the silk and fancy dress department in the centre and rooms for Kidderminster and Brussels carpets on either side.  A large staircase, accessible from front and back, took customers up to the shawl and mantle, mourning, millinery, baby linen and bedstead and upholstery departments.

Mr Ambrose was the architect of the new buildings and Mr Finch the contractor.  Messrs Plimsaul Brothers supplied the gas fittings and a stove for heating the building.  The entire premises measured 163 feet from front to back and 80 feet in width, all being six storeys high.

During the afternoon of Friday January 25th 1878 Mr Thomas Wilcocks Popham was about to take tea at his shop when he was suddenly seized with severe pain, which continued through the night at his home, Burleigh House, Pennycross.  Despite the attention of no fewer than three eminent gentlemen, Doctors Hingston and Prance and Mr Square, surgeon, the pain caused by an obscure intestinal stoppage failed to cease and he died shortly after 6pm on Sunday January 27th 1878.  He was only 58 years of age.

The business then came into the hands of Thomas's only son, Mr Arthur Frederick Popham, of number 6 Woodside, Plymouth, while the Radford family were represented by Mr George David Radford, Mrs Elizabeth Radford's eldest son.  However, Mr George David Radford died in July 1879 and was buried at the Plymouth, Devonport and Stonehouse Cemetery on the 30th of that month.  He was only 56 years of age. 

In 1890 the Company occupied numbers 36, 37, 38, 39 and 40 Bedford Street.  They also had cabinet showrooms at the Victoria Buildings in Notte Street and a tailoring department at 14, 15 and 16 East Street.

Mr Daniel Radford (1828-1900) seems to have forsaken the business for a political life in Lydford and Tavistock.  He died at Mount Tavy House, Tavistock, on January 3rd 1900 and there was no mention in his obituary of any connection with the family business in Plymouth.  Given his supposedly poor start in life, he lived until he was 72 years of age.  He was buried at Lydford Parish Church on January 5th 1900.

Mrs Dorothy Ellen Popham, the widow of Mr Thomas Willcocks Popham, died at her home, Rowden House, Hartley, on April 9th 1905.  Being a Popham by marriage only, she lived until the great age of 84 years.  With the death in 1906 of Mr Arthur Frederick Popham at the very young age of 46 years, control rested with Mr John Heynes Radford and Mr Charles Horace Radford, the middle and youngest sons of Mr George David Radford, and Mr John Popplestone, who had been taken as a partner after many years service with the Company. Unfortunately the Radford family suffered from the same early death problem that dogged the Pophams.  Mr John Heynes Radford died in Italy in 1908, the same year that his brother, by now Sir Charles Radford, decided to retire both from the business and from civic life.  He had twice been Mayor of Plymouth.  When he died at Mullion, in Cornwall, on Saturday February 19th 1916, he seems to have been the last member of either of the Popham or Radford families to be involved in the management of the business.

Following the demise of the Radford connection, the business became simply Messrs Popham's by 1920.

Then on Wednesday August 19th 1931 a new company was registered, Messrs Popham's Limited, and a new era began.