Printer's ink and paper - even with the introduction of numerous photographs - cannot reproduce to the full the many Departments and Services of the House of Benzie & Miller Ltd. In one important particular a Booklet fails entirely - it cannot convey the spirit of friendly courtesy that has characterised and helped to build the business from its inception. Yet, if it has proved of interest to the reader, and perhaps fostered a desire to utilise our many Services, the Booklet will have served its purpose, and the work involved will have proved worthwhile.
How it began -
In the year 1886, William Benzie, a young man of 21, came to Fraserburgh to take over the management of a drapery business then being carried on at 32 Mid Street. After holding this position for a year he decided to start on his own account and bought a business along the coast at Buckie. When he informed his employers of his decision they asked him to take over the Fraserburgh business, which he agreed to do. The shop in Buckie was disposed of shortly afterwards and he concentrated his energies on The Colosseum as it was grandiloquently styled. This was the foundation of the firm as it is known to-day.
After a few years the business had increased to such an extent that larger premises became imperative. In 1896 Mr. Benzie bought a fine old house on the other side of the street, and to the shocked surprise of the surrounding residents he had the building pulled down. On this site a more modern shop was built, part of which is incorporated in the present building.
Always a pioneer, Mr. Benzie early showed his love of modern methods by installing in the year 1898 a power plant for making electric light. This innovation was practically unheard of in the district and no doubt had a corresponding advertising value. On a winter's night the huge arc lamps outside the shop made Mid Street the only well lit part of the town. Many are the stories told of frequent breakdowns in the first primitive installation and the consequent wild rush of customers to the door in the darkness, fearful of a threatened explosion or similar disaster. So uncertain was the lighting in these early days that Mr. Benzie, who was his own electrician and engineer, would be at home for tea while a watch was anxiously kept at the window for the first signs of a "black-out.' Although at some distance from the shop, the glare of the lamps could be easily seen from the house and often a meal was hurriedly abandoned in a dash down town to put the plant in operation again.
During the next twenty years, as the scope of the business increased, extension after extension had to be made. New showrooms and stockrooms were added one after the other to the rear of the building until, in 1920, a momentous under-taking was begun and the first idea of a Departmental Store began to take shape.
In Mr. Benzie's first years of business there came to him for employment a young boy, by name James R. Miller. This was the beginning of a lifelong friendship, but they little thought in those days that their names would later be linked together in a business which has become a household word in the North East of Scotland.
James Miller became an apprentice to a cabinetmaker in the town and after serving his time he took a situation in the south. A year or two later, another furnishing business in Fraserburgh coming into the market, Mr. Benzie wrote to the young man, in whom he had always taken a friendly interest, advising him to come back and take it over. Some persuasion was required, but eventually Mr. Miller set up in business as a Cabinetmaker and Furnisher. After a number of years his former employer died. Mr. Miller bought over the business, occupying the shop and commodious workshops. There he conducted a successful business in all branches of the furniture trade until the War intervened. After spending two years in France on voluntary Y.M.C.A. work, Mr Miller went on active service and, in the uncertainty of the moment, he decided to dispose of his extensive plant. His modern machinery and stocks of seasoned woods were all sold and the business was carried on in a smaller fashion until the end of the War. From then until 1920 his energies were spent in bringing it back to its former status, and, although handicapped by lack of suitable plant, he was entirely successful.
At this time Mr. Benzie began to think of forming his business into a limited company and he discussed with Mr. Miller various alterations which he contemplated. These included rebuilding a neighbouring shop which was occupied by a branch of a Lerwick firm of bootmakers, Messrs. Goodlad and Coutts. The manager of this branch was Mr. Robert Henderson, a brother-in-law of Mr. Miller. Mr. Henderson had come to the town in the year 1901 at the age of 20, to open this shop for his firm, and in the 20 years of its existence had built up a very fine connection. He naturally was interested in the proposed alterations and took part in the discussions. One thing led to another until the idea of a combine was mooted. It was finally decided to amalgamate the businesses of Mr. Benzie and Mr. Miller and also to take over the shoemaking business, Mr. Henderson joining the firm. The trading style decided upon was Benzie & Miller Ltd., and the first Directors were Mr. Benzie as Chairman, Mr. Miller, Mr. Henderson and Mr. John Halkett, who was Mr. Benzie's manager.
The first step was to acquire an extensive property adjacent to Mr. Benzie's shop and also a large property in the rear, giving access right through to the next street. In Mid Street a handsome building was erected and the frontage now had a total of over 120 feet. Just then another bootmaking business came into the market. This was Abercromby Ltd., an old established firm with a good reputation. This firm was bought over and these two businesses became the nucleus of the Footwear Department, which has flourished under the capable management of Mr. Henderson. During the first years of the amalgamation Mr. Miller's cabinetmaking department was carried on at his former shop until the lease had expired, but eventually a modern workshop was built at the rear of the Mid Street property and the whole of the firm's activities were concentrated at the one address.
The next few years saw the addition of departments for Household Ironmongery, Hardware, China and Glassware, and these were developed under Mr Miller's care. Other departments were gradually modernised by the installation of up-to-date fixtures and quickserving fittings. A Tea Room was opened on the first floor and, although not of great size, has proved a useful adjunct to the firm's business. Catering for snack lunches as well as teas, it has become a necessary service to a growing clientele.
In the year 1923 Mr. Halkett retired from the firm and Mr. Benzie's son, Mr. Alexander Benzie, who at the time was gaining experience in the south, was appointed a Director in his place. The following year he returned to Fraserburgh to take charge of the Men's Wear department. A shop adjoining the Drapery Department was taken over and fitted up with the latest equipment, with a separate entrance from the street and also an entrance from the main shop. Two years later the Fashion Salon was also put under Mr. A. Benzie's control.
Apart from improvements in various sections, little change took place for a number of years. In the year 1927 Mr. Miller's son, Mr. John B. Miller, joined the firm and took a course of practical training in the furniture workshops. He then went south for further experience in the retail side and, in 1931, returned to assist his father in the Furnishing Departments. It was in 1931 that the firm suffered its first great loss, for in the month of April its founder, Mr. William Benzie, died after a very short illness. By his death was removed one of the leading figures of the Drapery Trade in the North of Scotland, whose sterling character was a byword among those with whom he had any business dealings. One of the happiest memories we have of his genial nature was his welcoming speech at the staff reunion that year, full of good humour and brimming over with friendship.
On Mr. Benzie's death Mr. Miller was appointed Chairman and Mr. John B. Miller was elected a Director. Mr. A. Benzie was appointed manager of the General Drapery, Ladies' Outfitting and Children's Departments. Later in that year an important reconstruction took place. The Entrance Hall was entirely remodelled and a handsome new stairway was built at the rear. All the offices were removed to the first floor and the amenities of the main entrance were thereby improved immensely. The following year the Hardware and China Departments were put under the charge of Mr. John Miller, but before he had time to develop his position the firm was dealt another blow. In July, Mr. Miller, Sen. became seriously ill and for six months was confined to bed. In January, 1934, he died, less than two years after his lifelong friend and partner. In Mr. Miller the firm lost one of its ablest members whose integrity and devotion to building up its resources has been one of the chief causes of its high standing to-day.
After the death of Mr. Miller, Mr. A. Benzie was appointed Chairman and Managing Director and several changes were made in the departmental managements. Mr. J. B. Miller returned to the Furnishing and Cabinetmaking Departments to take control and the China and Ironmongery Departments were put under the charge of Mr. Henderson. It was in this year that the greatest extension since the inception of the firm took place. Excavations were made in an open piece of ground lying between the main shop and the workshops, and a three-storey building was erected. Each floor of the new extension was about 3,500 square feet and, when completed, added tremendously to the facilities for a "walk-round" store. The lower floor has enjoyed a great success as a Bargain Basement and also houses the Toy Bazaar at Christmas. Spacious additions were made to the China and Hardware Departments on the ground floor and space was added to the sections for Wall-papers, Carpets and Rugs, and Linoleums. On the upper floor the Furniture Department was transferred to the new building and two attractive Furnished Rooms were opened. The former Furniture Showroom was fitted out with modern showcases and became the new Fashion Salon.
Consequent upon this big extension many improvements had to be made throughout the establishment. A new cash system of the latest Lamson pneumatic type was installed, with a central cash desk serving all departments, adjoining the Counting House. Another important development was the provision of adequate lighting. Since the first engine was installed in 1898 many additions had been made. This engine was replaced in 1900 by a gas engine which was still doing duty in 1924. By that time it had outlived its usefulness and a more powerful oil engine took its place. A year or two later this had to be scrapped and a still larger one put in its place. With the addition of more lights even this proved inadequate and a second engine of a similar type was installed. These two ran for a few years until the big extension took place, when it was realised that a great increase in consumption would have to be faced. At this time the Grid Scheme was approaching the town but it was just too late and, in the Autumn of 1934, the present plant was assembled in a commodious new engine room. This consists of an 80 H.P. Diesel oil engine and one of the smaller engines of 24 H.P. from the old plant as a stand-by. These drive two generators of 400 and 150 amperes respectively, which allows an ample margin for future improvements. Just as the new building was commencing, a neighbouring property came into the market and was bought with a view to the future. No extension in this direction was contemplated at the time, but as the plans for the new showrooms were examined it was seen that a large garden at the rear of this property could be used to advantage. Here was built a new workshop for the Cabinetmaking Department, where the whole of the work, both machining and handwork, could be carried out on one floor level. Some additions were made to the plant there bringing it up to most modern requirements. The former workshops were utilised for packing rooms, wood stores and stock rooms.
One improvement leads to another and it was seen that the older departments would have to be brought into line with the new showrooms. In the following year, therefore, a big reconstruction took place on the ground floor, the Footwear Department being entirely replanned, giving it much more floorspace and improved fitting rooms. The department for Cutlery and Crystal was also refurnished with attractive showcases, and a new department for Hosiery and Gloves was opened in the Entrance Hall. The Underwear and Children's Departments were then remodelled and the former Fashion Salon thrown open to the rest of the shop. In 1936 this was fitted out as a Wool and Art Needlework Department and, at the same time, the Linens and Fabrics sections were redesigned. This year a new Soft Furnishing Department has been added, and a section for Cosmetics and Beauty preparations which has already proved a decided success.
As a fitting celebration of the Jubilee the firm decided to further extend their window space this year by building a modern arcade. This occupies the ground floor of the property recently acquired at 15 Mid Street and extends 60 feet to the rear with an entrance to the Hardware Department. The arcade consists of deep furniture windows on the right, with fashions and soft goods windows on the left. Finished in bronze with a black base, terrazzo flooring, and attractive interior panelling, the whole scheme is very striking. Altogether it is a worthy effort to mark this great occasion in the history of the firm.
And so we come to the end of the chapter, but not of the story. With such a history behind it the firm will go on to greater heights. There are plans for the future which will take shape in due course, new services will be added and improvements will continue to he made to bring a shopping ideal to this corner of Scotland.
Benzie & Miller Limited
15-33 Mid Street, Fraserburgh
FASHIONS - FOOTWEAR - FURNISHINGS - TEA ROOM
Telephone - Fraserburgh No. 6