The ‘Norfolk Napoleon’ who founded Roys of Wroxham 125 years ago

PUBLISHED: 18:53 06 October 2020 | UPDATED: 18:59 06 October 2020

The first Roys store in Wroxham in 1899. Photo courtesy Roys of Wroxham

The first Roys store in Wroxham in 1899. Photo courtesy Roys of Wroxham


Arnold Roy was a man of vision whose Wroxham empire is still going strong

Arnold Roy, one of the founding brothers of Roys of Wroxham and the driving force behind the store. Photo courtesy Roys of WroxhamArnold Roy, one of the founding brothers of Roys of Wroxham and the driving force behind the store. Photo courtesy Roys of Wroxham

In the 1930s one Sunday newspaper coined this phrase to describe a great Norfolk man. It was perhaps unintentional, but the irony of attributing Napoleonic qualities to him was undeniable. Napoleon reputedly sneered that the English were ’a nation of shopkeepers’, so he probably rotated in his tomb at Les Invalides when the press thus compared him with one of the best of that breed.

For the character referred to was the remarkable Arnold Roy who, 125 years ago this year, with his brother Alfred, established one of the great Norfolk retail institutions, Roys of Wroxham. Arnold Roy was an extraordinary man, ambitious, energetic, imaginative and, as Sir Alf Ramsey once said of Martin Peters ‘years ahead of his time’, certainly in marketing matters.

Arnold’s ambition was clear from a young age. When he was given a donkey, he built a cart which he loaded with oranges and other perishables from his father’s village store in Reepham and trudged round the local villages, selling door to door. That didn’t satisfy him for long and he moved to London living precariously as a ‘warehouse boy’ on just a shilling a day, which he supplemented with the tips he got for opening the carriage doors of ladies arriving to shop at the fashionable stores. He was enthralled by these palaces – in later life he claimed his ambition had been ‘to bring Harrods to Wroxham’.

And the tips were not just financial – the main reward for his efforts was knowledge. He used the time carefully to observe how the stores displayed their wares, how they treated their customers, and which were their most popular lines. Soon he felt well enough informed to make plans for the future.

The Roys store in Wroxham in 1908. Photo courtesy Roys of WroxhamThe Roys store in Wroxham in 1908. Photo courtesy Roys of Wroxham

Back in Norfolk he identified a shop which he felt had potential in Coltishall, a thriving village famed for its wherry building and maltings. With his brother Alfred he persuaded their father to lend them the money to buy it and the shop proved an instant success. But Arnold was far too ambitious to settle for just one shop and the brothers soon opened a tiny store in neighbouring Wroxham.

Arnold had great acumen and he recognised that the railways had opened up the routes to the fashionable resorts of North Norfolk, meaning a succession of well-heeled potential customers were travelling through Wroxham. Increasingly Wroxham was itself becoming a favoured destination of the same customers who were happy to break their journey by hiring a wherry yacht with a professional crew to spend a week or two on the water.

As Wroxham grew, so did the scope for Arnold Roy’s store and soon he dispensed with the services of the manager he had appointed there and took over himself, leaving Alfred to run the Coltishall business.

Arnold’s dynamism knew no bounds, and he had a gift for self-promotion. From the start he described the firm as ‘Universal Providers’ a phrase possibly ‘lifted’ from Whiteley’s London store, and, indeed there was very little he didn’t sell. He claimed to supply ‘everything from a topsail to a tin opener, from a mainsail to a match’ and most famously, ‘anything from a pin to an elephant’ a claim he made when interviewed on the BBC programme In Town Tonight in the 1930s.

Alfred Roy, one of the founding brothers of Roys of Wroxham. Photo courtesy Roys of WroxhamAlfred Roy, one of the founding brothers of Roys of Wroxham. Photo courtesy Roys of Wroxham

And really it was the 1920s and 1930s that provided the stage for Arnold Roy’s most extravagant pieces of self-promotion. The business had grown steadily through the early years of the 20th century, but the Great War had an impact – Arnold was himself called up in 1916 at the age of 42, two smaller branches were closed down, and while Coltishall and Wroxham continued to grow modestly it was not really until the 1920s that Arnold’s flair and marketing nous stoked huge expansion.

Arnold’s love of a good slogan was never far below the surface – one of his favourites was ‘a wireless set for every cottage’ and his promotion of the wireless was typical of his style. On one occasion he arranged for giant speakers to be hoisted into the trees outside his shop and connected them to the wireless at exactly twelve noon before issuing a press release proclaiming ‘Big Ben heard in Wroxham’.

He planned his campaign to appeal to the widest possible constituency. To appeal to the sobersides he arranged, at election time, to have a broadcast of the party leaders relayed to a hall and issued an open invitation to the public. Over 300 attended and the event was widely reported together, of course, with details of the equipment used and its availability from Roy’s. For those with a taste for serious music he held concerts on Sunday evenings, using broadcast music, but he was careful not to offend local sensibilities by only holding them after Evensong.

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But perhaps his most original wheeze was his regular Saturday night use of his own store premises for dances – the floor would be cleared, and the music again provided by the wireless. Sometimes these events would be advertised as pyjama dances and crowds of up to a thousand would attend, the young flappers in bobs and shingles doing the Charleston and the Black Bottom where their mothers had been shopping earlier in the day. Such was the popularity of these events that Roy laid on special buses from Norwich and Yarmouth to bring dancers in.

And it wasn’t just the sale of wirelesses that sparked his originality - he engaged in outbound telemarketing decades before the term was invented, he purchased a fleet of cars to bring in to the store better-off customers from outlying districts, and he employed roundsmen – mainly based at the bakery he and Arnold had by then established at Coltishall – to deliver goods and sell, as he had in his childhood, door to door.

To attract the attention of such customers, many of whom would have had difficulty getting in to Wroxham, he made sure that the roundsmen had at least one special bargain to offer at each house. The roundsmen also promoted another of his ideas – a forerunner of the Christmas Clubs operated by supermarkets. But his version had a twist. The roundsmen would collect two shillings from the customer each week and Roys would add two old pence to every such contribution.

This was something like 8%. It sounds generous, but it made sense – the accumulated savings could only be spent at Roys so he was competitor-proof, and it provided him with an ongoing and predictable income stream with which to run the business.

Roys of Wroxham new half a million pound development in 1982. Picture: Archant LibraryRoys of Wroxham new half a million pound development in 1982. Picture: Archant Library

He was certainly an opportunist. Hearing that the Royal Mail was disposing of some of its vans he made a knockdown offer for the lot, painted out the letters ‘al Mail’ on the sides of the vans, added an ‘s’ and acquired a branded fleet of vans on the cheap.

‘Universal provider’ or not he certainly didn’t stock any bushels under which to hide his own light. The amount of publicity he generated was immense. He featured in the trade press, the local press, the national press and even the international press.

Usually the theme was the same - the story of the donkey cart and the oranges and a brief homily on the virtues of self-help in making a success. On one occasion a South African newspaper described his Wroxham store as being as ‘big as any three of the largest general stores in Johannesburg put together’.

Roys had benefited greatly from the huge expansion in boathire. At one time it was said that there was nothing in any of the boats of any of the fleets that had not been supplied by Roys and for more than 60 years the store issued a catalogue to those who had booked boats, offering to have delivered on board whatever they might need on their holiday.

Roys of Wroxham in 1981. Picture: Archant LibraryRoys of Wroxham in 1981. Picture: Archant Library

Mind you, the journalist writing in the South African press was more impressed with Roys than with its boating customers…’some of the most amazing freaks in England seem to find pleasure in boating’ he wrote, talking of men ‘in khaki shorts with beards like dyed vermicelli’ and women ‘abnormally broad in the beam’ who ‘carried walking-sticks and smoked at the slightest provocation’. Plus ca change!

By this time Roys was recognised as ‘The World’s Largest Village Store’ a title believed to have been won in a 1930s competition, and Arnold Roy continued his self-promotion, appearing on In Town Tonight, claiming on a national programme, to ‘have everything he wanted in life, except a wife’. The result was, of course, a flood of letters offering to remedy that deficiency, some of which are still in the Roys archive today.

What sort of man was Arnold Roy? Certainly a showman, a man to spot any opportunity and with the marketing brilliance to exploit it. He was shrewd, but not so good on detail. He was definitely a ‘big picture’ man and needed the balance provided by the Alfred’s more thoughtful style for the business to succeed.

He was a good citizen, generous to the village, donating both its street lights and its public lavatories. His qualities were widely recognised and he became a Councillor and a JP.

Roys of Wroxham in 1987. Picture: Archant LibraryRoys of Wroxham in 1987. Picture: Archant Library

He had a firm conviction that opportunities existed for all and that it was the responsibility of individuals to grasp them if they wanted to succeed. He would certainly have found himself in agreement with Samuel Smiles. He never married, the letters from those hopefuls who had heard him on the wireless were in vain, but he clearly was not indifferent to the charms of young ladies.

His monumental scrap-book, which mainly features press stories about himself was also home to a number of pin-ups! He was a man of vision, of ambition, of huge drive and total commitment to building a retail empire which remains, in the hands of descendants of his brother Alfred, a huge asset to the community.

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