History of William Cato & Sons Limited

W H Cato opened a hardware store in Bolton Gardens (now Duke’s Road) in West London at the beginning of the 20th century. The earliest existing photograph is from 1902. Cato’s developed into a chain of hardware stores, later ‘Homecentres’ spread over the West London environment. The chain finally closed in 1991.


The Cato Family History
William Cato & Sons Limited

Written & Compiled by:

Frank Thomas Cato

February 1993


Little has been researched into the history of the Cato name prior to William James Cato 1852-1912.

Cato is an ancient name and is prominent in the recorded history of the Roman Empire in the 3rd and 1st centuries before Christ. They were trained in agriculture, politics and military service. The Romans invaded and then occupied Britain for about 400 years. Over the generations many became farmers and landowners. At the time of the Roman withdrawal from Britain many of them decided to stay here where they were firmly established in estates.

Wallingford and Nettlebed areas in Oxfordshire were among the district of Roman occupation. It is from this part, that it is believed, the Cato family in Middlesex originates. Catos certainly lived in this area. In pre-war years Mr W H Cato took his sons to visit ‘Uncle’ Billy, also named W H Cato, of Winterbrook Nurseries, Wallingford who, at that time, specialised in growing flowers and pot plants. Mrs W J Cato (mother of first mentioned W H Cato) had told the family about the Cato family traveling up from Oxfordshire by horse coach. She also reported having seen an old church register in Wallingford area whose record shows ‘William Cato’ marriages over a period of many years.

As far as the present generation is concerned, their known history commences with William James Cato (1852 – 1913) who traded as a corn, flour and seed merchant at 313 Chiswick High Road. His family home was in nearby Elliott Road.

He is reputed to have been an affable and generous man. He died of throat cancer. His son, William Henry Cato (1879 – 1972) was apprenticed to a London firm, Davies Evans Ltd, oil merchants and grocers. In 1899, at the age of twenty, he was appointed manager of his branch. His contract of employment shows his hours of work to have been daily 8 am to 10 pm except Saturday when the hours were 8 am to 12 pm (no half holiday). His weekly wage was 24 shillings (L1.20). He was required to live on the premises and not to leave his place of employment during these hours without permission.

On Sundays, William attended the Annadale Road Baptist Church, Chiswick, where he met and fell in love with Rose Eleanor Gould (1876- 1977).

In 1901 they were married (no honeymoon) and rented an empty shop in Bolton Gardens, Chiswick (now 46 Duke Road) which they opened as an Oil and Colour

Merchant. Shop signs outside the shops were in more common use in those days. Those, of this type of business, were two large earthenware urns (ancient oil containers) above the shop fascia board. William and Rose had very little money but managed to buy enough second-hand furniture to start their home together. William bought for cash what stock he could afford. Under the then conditions no supplier would grant any credit. When he was out delivering orders by hand cart, Rose attended to the shop. In 1902 the first child was born, also named William Henry (1902 – 1978). He was followed by Edward James (1904 – 1977) and Frank Thomas (1908). Rose, who still served in the shop told how, if while she was nursing one of the babies when the shop doorbell sounded, she would dip a dummy in some nestles milk to quieten the child, while she saw to the customer. William’s lack of money only allowed him to hold a minimum of stock, and, at times, he or Rose sold their own domestic china to fulfill a customer’s request. In 1911 a daughter was born and christened Rosalind. She grew into a fine healthy girl of 18 months when she contracted, and died of, meningitis.

They must have worked very long and hard for they prospered. Photos of Bolton Gardens show a well displayed, fully stocked, fore court outside the shop.

In 1905, William took his second shop at 406 High Road, Chiswick. This was next door to the then Chiswick Empire Variety Theatre, and was separated from it by a broad paved pathway. On this pathway along by the row of shops windows he displayed his goods for sale. On occupying these premises a well was found in the rear yard that had to be filled in. With his purchase of the shop was included a pony and trap for which he had no use. He arranged for the nearby butcher, Courts, to stable the pony. After a while he found this to be an unnecessary expense with the pony nibbling away at his profits. Accordingly he agreed with Courts that they keep the pony in lieu of the outstanding stabling charges.

His mother Mrs W J Cato (1866- 1938) moved into the rooms over the shop.

Again hard work and enterprise had their reward and he purchased his third shop at 2 South Ealing Road in 1912. This shop was an established grocers. William planned to convert it to hardware and started a hardware section. He soon found, however, that the public wanted it to continue selling grocery and thus it remained, until sold, 70 years later. He sold Bolton Gardens and moved his family into the living accommodation of the new premises.

In 1914 the fourth son, Percy Charles was born (1914 – 1942). Trading in those days was done in totally different conditions compared with today. Biscuits were sold loose from glass-topped display tins. The manufacturers also supplied broken biscuits in large boxes, which were sold by weight. Sugar was sold from hessian sacks standing in front of the counter. There were no refrigerators and it was difficult for a trader to keep the perishable goods in good condition, particularly in summer time. At South Ealing a cave-like underground store, in the rear yard, was used to keep the goods fresh. Milk was carried in a churn and delivered from the back of an open cart. The milk was ladled out, as required, straight into the customer’s jug. Bread was bought from the local baker who worked in the rear of his premises. No longer is there the marvellously appetizing smell of baking bread. Nowadays, even if bread is baked on the site, modern extractor fans prevent this delightful smell reaching the customer. Muffin men, ringing their bells and calling ‘Muffins’ walked the streets with the tray of their wares balanced on the head. It was common practice for the street vendors to parade the streets while crying aloud the particular call of the goods they had for sale.

Gas lighting in the streets and home were in common use. Electricity was in its infancy. William sold a lot of gas mantles. These were made of treated cotton in two normal sizes, Bijou and Universal. His sales were sufficient in volume to have them packed under his own label. Fish-tail burners gave gas light by a naked flame. Cars were very few. Traffic was horse-drawn.

William and Rose Cato

William and Rose Cato

In 1914, The First World War broke out and men were called to join the army. William, who suffered with varicose veins, was not called for medical reasons. He joined the Special Constabulary. His beat, while on duty, was to patrol the local reservoir on Hangar Hill to prevent enemy agents from polluting the water supply. His efficiency in this task must be open to question. He was not armed and, as this was in the days before radio communication, he had no means of contacting the Police Station had he seen a suspicious character.

Zeppelin airships flew over London and a bomb was dropped in Whitestile Road, near South Ealing Station, causing damage to two houses. When these attacks took place the guns, stationed in the park opposite ‘Craiglea’, opened fire. Rose would then go upstairs near the boys telling them not to be frightened and to put their head under the bedclothes to lessen the noise.

At the time of these night raids a siren sounded the warning. The ‘all clear’ was announced by a policeman pedalling along the road on a bicycle, while blowing blasts on his whistle.

The war ended in 1918 and William was joined by an ex-soldier, Mr Ernest Warner, who became his book-keeper and relieved him of clerical work. (Mr Warner stayed with the firm to become, in later years, Company Secretary to William Cato and Sons Ltd). He gave loyal service for about 30 years. He was a man of integrity who supported William as the number of shops increased. His honesty and reliability contributed to the continued success. A new shop was now added at 105 Midhurst Road, West Eating. Mr Warner recommended his friend, also an ex-soldier, as manager, Mr Frank Baxter. Mr Baxter spent his entire working life at this shop and, over the many years, became so established with his customers that many regarded him as Mr Cato.

In 1922 William moved his family to No 28 Woodville Road, Ealing. In the same year he opened another shop in Chiswick, 158 High Road. The accommodation above was used as the firm’s offices. William continued to prosper and, in the following years, added more shops until he owned Branch 1 406, Branch 2 158, Branch 3 South Eating, Branch 4 Midhurst Road, Branch 5 146 Eating Road Wembley, Branch 6 Broadhurst Gardens, Hampstead and Branch 7 102 East Hill, Wandsworth.

The years since Bolton Gardens had seen great changes. Victorian England had entered the 20th Century, but the shops had not yet greatly altered. They were still small and dark. Bundles of wood were stacked in front of the counters. The counter itself was piled high with tiers of goods. This left only small gaps for the assistants through which to see and serve the customers. The ceilings were of wood into which were screwed numerous hooks. From these hung, just above the customers’ head, bunches of tin kettles, new oil cans, broom heads, brushes, feather dusters and a multitude of other things. Saucepans made of tin were very cheap, better quality enamel. 2 pint and 4 pint kettles at 6d and 10d (2p and 4p) were also tin but better ones in block tin, copper bottom ones and all copper were available. For use on open fires one could buy steel and cast iron kettles.

The barbers were not yet hairdressers – they were barbers – cutters and trimmers of beards. On Saturdays they would not cut a boy’s hair. They were fully occupied in giving many men the weekly cut-throat-razor shave. These men, prior to being shaved, were lathered with warm water, brush and soap, by the lather boy to soften the beard.

The shop hours were very long 8.30 am to 7 pm Mondays to Thursdays (half day Wednesday or Thursday) Friday 8.30 am to 8 pm and on Saturdays 8.30 am to 9 pm. In the evening, after the shop door was closed, for up to the next hour was spent in pricing and marking up the intake of goods received from the suppliers during the day. In addition customers’ orders, taken during the day, were parcelled up for delivery the next day. In those days everything was delivered, even small articles. Boys of 14-15 years were employed for this purpose and they spent their day delivering all manner of goods in their box tricycles. In winter they were especially busy as they also took out oil, logs and bundles of wood to meet the customers’ demands.

Now was the beginning of the modern shop. William had arranged with Needhams (tobacconists) the occupiers of No 404 High Road for them to move next door into No 402. This was agreed and so gave him possession of Nos 406 and 404. On this joint site he decided to build one large shop. The single storey building was completed in 1923. It was a success and a second storey was added in 1926. The upper part was used as the firm’s main warehouses and offices.

Motor vans had been used over recent years. The first one, a Ford, was driven by Mr Turner, which was replaced by a Leyland Trojan. This vehicle le had solid tyres and one marked disadvantage. The wheelbase was precisely that of the trams, which ran along Chiswick High Road. If the Trojan’s wheels entered the groove of the tram rails it was only, to the driver’s embarrassment and with a wild swerve that he could get out of them again.

Certain trades still persisted. In the shops tins of paint were now available but many craftsmen still preferred to mix their own paint. For this purpose William’s shops still stocked colours, such as Venetian Red, Prussian Blue and Brunswick Green, in powder form and were sold from individual small drawers by weight. Linseed oil, turpentine, methylated spirits and different types of varnishes were sold loose and poured into the customer’s bottle or can. Size (for sealing plaster work) putty, dryers, white and red lead were all sold by weight (some painters preferred to mix their own paint even up to the thirties). Knobs of hearthstone and red ochre powder were sold for doorsteps and black lead for grates.

The completed shop at 404/406 was the forerunner of the larger shops to come in future years. 404/406 was hailed, by the trade, as an example “of what could be achieved”. It was the largest hardware shop in London. The warehouse, now completed, was fitted to supply all normal stock goods to the branches. Orders from individual branches were sent in weekly and delivered by the Bedford van. Mr Paver was installed as warehouse manager and had several young men on his staff. Goods were lowered, by crane, from the hatchway down to the waiting van in the broad passageway separating the shop from the Chiswick Empire. (Mr Pinner, who had joined the company as a young man in 1930 was later appointed warehouse manager of the hardware section).

In 1928 the business became a Limited Company. A Property Company was formulated in 1948 to hold freehold properties as they became available. The Directors of both companies were Mr W H Cato, Mr Will Cato, Mr Edward Cato and Mr Frank Cato each of whom had equal shares. Under the Articles of Association, share holding was limited to members of the family unless authorised by the Directors of the Company. They have been so held ever since.

Now the firm entered the thirties and in 1932 William, who had become less active in running the business, withdrew, and passed on the responsibility of the Company to his sons.

During the early thirties there was a rapid increase in the number of shops held starting with Branch 8 141 Pitshanger Lane, Ealing in 1932. At this time there was a national plan to demolish the slums in London. This was put into operation. A rapid house building development, particularly in the West of London (such as Greenford in Middlesex) took place. In a short while thousands of houses were built for sale at a modest price, around L850. To cater for the needs of this new population, rows of shops were built among them. This gave the three brothers the opportunity to increase the size of the firm. Throughout all the previous years capital for running the business had been very limited. A small overdraft, which had been approved by the Westminster Bank, was supplemented by the practice of ploughing back all profits into the Company funds. To this end the brothers lived frugally, drawing out from the firm only enough to maintain reasonable homes. As the number of shops increased further capital was required, and the Bank increased the size of the overdraft and held deeds of certain properties as collateral.

Mr Ted Lane joined the company as carpenter. He was a most excellent craftsman who occupied his working day in fitting out the new shop premises as they were acquired. He put up shelving, fitted window beds, and made display units and counters. Back at the warehouse Mr Pinner’s department were equally busy. As well as completing their normal work Mr Pinner and staff prepared a stock range of a selected section of goods for dispatch to the new shop.

After the close of their own branch shops at the normal time, the brothers, Will, Ted and Frank made their way to the warehouse where the loaded van would be waiting for them.

This they then drove to the new site. After unpacking the goods, they displayed them on some of the shelves Mr Lane had erected during the day. They then left the empty van outside the warehouse and returned to their homes, tired but satisfied. This procedure took place nightly until, in due course, the shelves were fully stocked. The windows dressed and the shop was ready to open for business.

By taking advantage of the house building explosion, and with the willing support of their loyal staff, in particular Mr Pinner, the brothers were able to open ten shops in the period 1932-1939.

England in the nineteen thirties suffered a period of severe general depression throughout the country and trading everywhere became extremely difficult. However, the brothers persevered and were encouraged in their desire, to develop the firm, by obtaining important concessions from the landlords’ agents. Such concessions consisted of a rent-free period for the first year of the lease, or perhaps a free shop front, or, even both. In this way, despite the prevailing adverse conditions, they opened shops at Branch 8 141 Pitshanger Lane, Branch 9 Northfields Avenue, Branch 10 Greenford, Branch 11 Rayners Lane, Branch 12 Eastcote, Branch 13 Kenton, Branch 14 Whit ton, Branch 15 Queensbury, Branch 16 Oldfields Circus and Branch 17 Hatch End.

In 1939 war broke out and all thoughts were concentrated on the uncertainty of the time to come.

Aluminium had by now become common in the manufacture of kitchenware though, at first, certain customers returned their pans for a refund as they declared the black stain, when water was boiled, would cause food poisoning.

The war became more violent and, in protecting Britain against attacks by enemy fighters and bombers, many of our own aircraft were destroyed. These losses caused an urgent demand for aluminium to help supply the material for the manufacture of replacement planes. The public was then asked to surrender aluminium ware for this purpose. Hardware traders co-operated in this by acting as collection points for the aluminium donated.

At Cato’s shops a window was emptied for this purpose and, as the heap of articles, therein increased in the public view, other persons were also encouraged to contribute. Goods so surrendered were holed so they could not be used again for their initial purposes. The demand for materials in the manufacture of munitions and armaments had priority. Iron was in short supply. Railings, gates and all such iron articles were commandeered for the war effort.

Mr William Cato came back from retirement and, with the aid of elderly staff, was able to maintain the business intact.

Will Cato joined the Auxiliary Fire Service for which he had trained, as a volunteer, during the previous year, Edward rejoined the Special Constabulary of which he had previously been a member, before being called up into the Royal Army Service Corps. Frank, who had also trained as a volunteer member of the AFS, worked with them for a period before being called into the Royal Artillery. A younger brother, Percy, who had, more recently joined the firm, volunteered for the RAF where he served as a bomber pilot. (He was killed over Germany in 1942).

The warehouse was closed when Mr Pinner joined the Royal Air Force. The premises were let to a firm for silkscreen printing.

After hostilities ended, the three brothers returned to their business. Will as the firm’s buyer, Ted as branch superintendent and Frank as company secretary. After all those years of faithful service, Mr Warner continued on a limited part-time basis in preference to full retirement. These positions limited the brothers’ ability to undertake the physical work in the launching of additional shops. Accordingly after having decided on a new site, and having agreed terms of occupation, the practical work was then undertaken by a group of selected staff. Basically the opening of the new shop followed the procedure employed in the pre-war years. The premises were fitted out by Mr Lane and his staff. Mr Pinner again installed in a warehouse, superintended the supply of the required stock either from the warehouse or through trade sources.

Mr Lane, who had returned after army service, now had with him Mr Benn (painter) and, later, Robin Buckland who had joined the company as a young man in 1959. When Mr Lane died of cancer Robin took over his position of shop fitter. He became very well experienced in property maintenance and management. The company grew to rely on him for advice before committing itself to new premises.

The first new premises acquired after the war was Branch 18 at Bedford Park, Chiswick. The shop had previously been a florist. The firms offices were installed above and the large building at the rear, previously greenhouses, was converted to a warehouse in which Mr Pinner, on his release from the RAF, took up his previous duties as warehouse manager. To one side of Branch 18 was a baker and on the other an estate agents. In order to increase the size of the new shop, the estate agents premises were bought and added to the shop space of Branch 18. The offices were extended over the bakers.

During the next thirty years the firm continued its expansion by the addition of the following branch shops. Branch 19, Lavender Hill, Branch 20 East Horsley, Branch 21 Twickenham, Branch 22 Richmond, Branch 23 Ruislip, Branch 24 East Sheen, Branch 25 East Horsley, Branch 26 Banstead, Branch 27 North Way, Branch 28 Teddington, Branch 29 Ealing Broadway, Branch 30 Chalfont, Branch 31 Gunnersbury, Branch 32 Chalfont, Branch 33 Hinckley Wood, Branch 34 Chalfont St Giles.

The firm continued to grow and was joined by the sons of Will, Henry and Michael, and the sons of Frank, Tom and Richard. As time went by the younger members gradually took over more responsibility in the day to day running of the firm and in the early seventies the three older members retired. At that time the firm’s branches totalled 34, mostly in Middlesex and Surrey.

These comments must not be concluded without paying a sincere tribute to many members of the staff who, over long years of service, had made important contributions to the growth of the Company. Mr Warner and Mr Baxter have been mentioned but there were many more to whom the firm is indebted. Special mention must be made of Mr Pinner who, for sixty years (excluding the war), worked conscientiously for the company. He became an anchorman and his energy and steadfastness greatly aided in the development of the Firm.


Written & Continued by:

Richard David Cato

February 2003


In the early seventies, the market place was changing dramatically. Decimal currency was introduced in 1971, together with electric cash registers. Value added Tax was introduced in 1973 and the old Purchase Tax system discontinued. There was industrial unrest during the Heath Government (Miners Strike) and shoppers were looking far more to the growing strength of the High Street and there were early signs of ‘Out of Town’ shopping. The Directors decided that the future lay in larger units in more prominent positions. To this end, the first ‘Homecentre’ in London was opened by the Company in Southall, Middlesex in 1973. This large retail unit was created out of a disused cinema and encompassed household goods (from dusters to vacuum cleaners), pet foods, DIY products, bathroom displays, and kitchen displays. The Company offered kitchen and bathroom planning and installation services together with credit facilities. The transformation of the building was interesting to follow as the floor had to be leveled and the exterior signed appropriately to encourage customers to enter the building.

A second ‘Homecentre’ in Chiswick High Road of some 5000 square feet (on two floors) was opened in 1976 and during the same year a shopping precinct unit of 3000 square feet was opened in Slough, Berkshire. In order to accommodate the stock investment and costs related to these new units, certain of the older and smaller branches were closed as trading was clearly moving from the suburban shopping parade to the High Street and ‘Out of Town’. A third ‘Homecentre’ was opened in Reading, Berkshire in 1978. Mechanical accounting was introduced into Head Office in 1975 and in 1980 an investment was made in the first computer. This machine nearly filled one of the offices and required non-static carpeting and air conditioning in order to operate satisfactorily.

In 1980, a very serious recession hit the Company’s turnover in the mid part of the year. In order to survive it was necessary to take some drastic business decisions.

It was decided to reduce the investment in stockholding and close the Central Warehouse and also close certain retail sites. Unfortunately, there was a difference of opinion within the Board and W. Henry Cato decided to leave the business. At this time, Mr Pinner (who has been mentioned earlier in this document) retired from full time employment, but continued to work on a part-time basis until 1991. The Southall and Reading ‘Homecentres’ together with some of the smaller stores were closed in early 1981 having assigned the leases to other retailers.

It took some five years to recover from this set back but in 1986 a new ‘Homecentre’ was opened in Putney High Street. In 1987 the Head Offices were moved from Chiswick to a freehold site in Aldershot, Hampshire and in 1988 a further ‘Homecentre’ was opened in Hounslow High Street.

In 1990, Robert Dyas Ltd made an offer for the majority on the branches. As trading potential appeared to be uncertain and Michael had expressed a wish (some years previously) to emigrate to the United States with his wife Helen and family, it was decided to accept the proposal. The major sites were sold to Robert Dyas in December 1990 and the remainder of the smaller branches closed during 1991. A number of these units were released to their existing managers and others sold to individual retailers.

It is regrettable that a fine family run business finally closed. Today, the National Multiple Companies have mastered the High Street and captured its customers. Household goods are sold in supermarkets and DIY, bathrooms and kitchens sold in many ‘Out of Town’ locations.

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