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BUSINESS HOUSES

Messrs UNDERHILL (PLYMOUTH) Ltd

Updated:  20 May 2011 

The Plymouth business house of Messrs Underhill (Plymouth) Ltd was situated at 14 Frankfort Street, Plymouth, before the Second World War and at 101 Tavistock Road (Drake Circus) thereafter.

Mr Frank Underhill, who founded the business, was born in 1867 to Mr William Thomas Underhill and his wife, Harriett  [1].  His father was a butcher at 71 Treville Street and although he and Harriett came from the Exeter area, all his children were born in Plymouth.  By 1891 Frank had four brothers and a sister.  [2]

It is claimed that the business was founded in 1889 at number 74 Old Town Street  [3].  Those premises were formerly occupied by Mr Reginald James Bazley, bookseller, and were on the southern corner of the junction with Ebrington Street  [4].

Mr Frank Underhill married Miss Harriet Gwendoline Avery on Tuesday October 2nd 1894 at Charles' Church, Plymouth.  [1a]

In 1902 Frank was joined by his younger brother, Mr Ernest Russell Underhill, who was already a stationer, and the business became Messrs Underhill & Company.  In that same year they purchased the printing, bookselling, bookbinding and stationery business belonging to Mr Walter Frank Westcott at 14 Frankfort Street.  [3]

That was followed in 1908 by the purchase of a similar business from Mr Charles Mansfield at 87 Treville Street.  The printing and manufacturing side was then moved to a site in Kinterbury Street.  [3]

Mr Frank Andrew Underhill, the eldest son of the founder, joined the business in 1913.  Initially he worked in the shop but later moved to the printing works.  The business was made into a private limited company in 1919.  [3]

In 1932 the Devnit Factory in Regent Street was acquired and the printing and manufacturing was moved there from Kinterbury Street.  [3]

The retail premises at 14 Frankfort Street were rebuilt in 1939 but were destroyed in the Blitz of March 1941.  They re-opened the next day at 101 Tavistock Road, next door to the Central Library.  [5]

In 1947 Mr Ernest Russell Underhill retired from the business.  [5a]

Mr Frank Underhill died at his home, "The Firs", Vicarage Road, Plympton St Mary, on Wednesday August 25th 1948.  During his life he had been chairman of the Plymouth Mercantile Association; president for two terms (1912 and 1913) of the National Chamber of Trade; and in 1923 was chairman of the Plymouth Chamber of Commerce.  He was a Local Commissioner for Taxes and was appointed a Justice of the Peace for the County in 1920.  For ten years he was a member of Devon County Council and became chairman of the committee appointed upon the adoption of the Libraries Act in 1924.  He was once described by Sir Francis D Acland MP as 'a father and mother of the library movement in Devon'.  [6]

Just three weeks after his wife Elizabeth Lillie Underhill died, Mr Ernest Russell Underhill passed away at his home on Monday November 13th 1967.  He was 91 and she 94 years of age.  They both had contracted salmonella when Elizabeth had been a patient at Devonport's Royal Albert Hospital.  During his lifetime he had been actively connected with the Plymouth Publicity Committee and this work led to the formation in 1934 of the South Devon Group Advertising Committee, the forerunner of the "Come to South Devon" movement.  He served the Three Towns Nursing Association in various capacities and was a freemason.  Mr Underhill had been a chairman of the South-Western branch of the Associated Booksellers of Great Britain and Ireland and was elected to the main Council in 1938.  He was survived by four married daughters: Mrs Gladys Turnbull, Mrs Joan Talbot, Mrs Gwen Pope and Mrs Margaret Brown.  [5a]

In 1973 Mr Frank Andrew Underhill, now aged 78, decided to retire and sell the business.  But he was looking for a new owner who he thought would continue with the traditions of service that Underhill's had achieved over the years.  The Terry Printing Group, of Fleet, in Hampshire, was looking to expand its business and liked the purpose-built three-storey printing works and the large retail shop.  They closed the shop for two weeks while they put in additional steel beams to strengthen the floors to take additional weight so that they could expend.  It re-opened on Monday September 10th 1973.  Mr Lionel Galer was in overall charge of the printing works and retail shop, with Miss Audrey Miller looking after the book department in the basement.  [5] 

Mr Frank Andrew Underhill died unexpectedly in his sleep at the South Devon Hotel, Torquay, Devon, on Thursday February 15th 1979.  He was cremated at Efford Crematorium, Plymouth, on Friday February 23rd 1979.  He was survived by a daughter, Jenifer.  [7]

When the business celebrated its centenary in 1989, it moved the printing works out of Regent Street to a 12,000 square foot factory on the Langage Industrial Estate, just outside the City.  The old works was bought by Plymouth City Council and the site redeveloped for housing.  [8]

The Terry Printing Group went into receivership in 1992 but the Underhill operation was purchased by Messrs Latimer, Trend & Company Ltd, an even older Plymouth printing business that already owned Messrs Hitchings & Mason Ltd and the Plymouth Reprographic Company.  The stationery side of the business, operated as Messrs W H Ham & Sewell, was not included in the purchase.  [9]


Sources:

[1]  Births, Marriages and Deaths records.

[1a]  Details courtesy of Mr John Martin, 2011.

[2]  1891 Census, RG12/1729/40/1.

[3]  Company advert of an unknown date, held by the Plymouth Local Studies Library.

[4]  White, William, "Plymouth 1890: History and Directory", Hindsight Publications, King's Lynn, Norfolk, 1989.

[5]  "New-look plan ended Plymouth stationers' "We never close" proud boast", Western Evening Herald, Plymouth, September 12th 1973.

[5a]  "Director of City Firm Dies Aged 91", Western Evening Herald, Plymouth, November 13th 1967.

[6]  "Long Services to Devon: Death of Mr F Underhill", Western Morning News, Plymouth, August 27th 1948.

[7]  Death Announcement, Western Morning News, Plymouth, February 19th 1979.

[8]  "Print firm has new factory", Western Morning News, Plymouth, April 11th 1989 and "Investment in the future", Western Evening Herald, Plymouth, May 9th 1989.

[9]  "Printers are saved from receivership", Western Morning News, Plymouth, February 18th 1992.

  Brian Moseley, Plymouth, UK

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