Emerson Muschamp Bainbridge, founder of Bainbridge’s department store, was youngest of seven children born to Cuthbert Bainbridge and Mary Muschamp (whose family has married into the Emerson’s at an earlier date). Born at Eastgate, Weardale, where his father was a yeoman farmer, he was apprenticed at 13 to a Newcastle draper for five years. During the seven days annual holiday young Emerson usually walked the 30 miles back home – an energy that characterised his life.
After two year’s London experience following the end of his apprenticeship, Emerson returned to Newcastle to partner a woollen and linen draper in the new and fashionable Market Street where they were among the very first traders to adopt fixed price labelling rather than the customary haggling. Later innovations included the sale of ready-made clothes and in 1849 departmentalisation – probably the first shop to introduce this. In 1855 Emerson became sole proprietor and from then on his Market Street premises expanded until 1952 the business was taken over by the John Lewis Partnership, though the name ‘Bainbridge’ was kept until recently. The premises are now in Eldon Square.
The family were staunch Methodists and always tried to deal fairly with both customer and employee. At a time when it was usual to work a 15-hour day, six days a week, with no half-day closing, Emerson allowed time off to staff as follows: ‘one evening a week for courting purposes and two if the go to prayer meetings regularly’.