Born at Richmond in Yorkshire and one of 11 children, this son of a grocer attended local schools before moving to Stockton at 14 to become an apprentice draper. Aged 22 he was advised to move to Newcastle for better opportunities and eventually found work at Charles Bragg & Co. of Pilgrim Street, a firm of exclusive silk mercers. Here he quickly rose to become manager at an annual income of £600 but, ambitious as ever, began a sideline business of selling insurance for which he was eventually dismissed. Fenwick took the case to court and was awarded £1,000 for wrongful dismissal - a sum which was to prove useful in opening his first shop at 5 Northumberland Street in 1882 as a 'mantle maker and furrier'. Northumberland Strret was, at the time, a largely residential street dominated by professional men. Ideally, the shop was close to the Brunswick Methodist Chapel, which was to play a significant part in John Fenwick's restricted leisure time.
In 1885, two doctors' houses became vacant at 37/39 Northumberland Street and Fenwick quickly moved to expand his business. Today, the site has expanded and become much more magnificent. With several branches nationwide, this family firm now emplys about 2,500 staff.
In 1891, Fenwick opened an exclusive shop in London (New Bond Street) and the venture was assisted a few years later by the publicity gained from the stage production of George Du Maurier's Trilby. In recognition of the heroin, Dorothea Baird (later Mrs Henry Irving), having been born on the site of the Newcastle shop, Fenwick made her a gown, costume and soft felt hat, complete with narrow brim and indented crown. The birth of the trilby hat was complete!