The Achille Serre Story

1 October 2006

Janet Taylor reviews Roy’s Brazier’s well documented history of a drycleaning company that lasted 100 years

The Achille Serre Story is a book that can be read from several points of view, and could therefore interest anyone involved in drycleaning, even if they have no personal memories of the company.

It charts not just the company history, but that of drycleaning as an industry and including sections on solvents and methods, equipment, the market and trade associations.

It can also be read as a social history in its accounts of trade associations, the industry’s relationship with unions, the many fascinating social details throughout the book, such as the relationship between drycleaning clothes and prices, and the account of the industry’s ventures into the new medium of TV advertising and the charming historic illustrations, of machinery, people, and advertising.

Achille Serre, a Parisian ribbon dyer, came to England with his wife Eugenie in 1870 and started this business here. In 1876 it moved into garment dyeing and the new technology of cleaning with solvents and introduced the term “dry cleaning” to England.

Indeed he was a pioneer of this method in England, developing the the French idea of cleaning without water with the help of one of the early Parisian practitioners, his friend M. Berton who had developed the process with Benzine.

In 1882, Achille Serre’s son Eugene took over the business and was later joined by his wife’s two brothers. Like his father, Eugene was an innovator, and entrepreneur and took the company through many changes, including flotation on the Stock Exchange, the move to Hackney and steady enlargement there, then later to Walthamstow. He resigned in 1934 after a spectacular division in the board.

Though not always fortunate in the paths it took and the decisions, it made, the company’s innovatory spirit is apparent through much of its history. It helped to develop new solvents, faced up to radical changes in the ways of business, moving from a factory operation to unit shops, and at its peak had a presence in 400 high streets across England.

A leading spirit in its recovery after the mid 1930s crisis was Frank Fitzwilliams, who, appointed as receiver in 1940, managed the business so successfully that it was back in profit the following year and out of receivership by 1944. He was an influential businessman who not only led the company through the restraint of the war years but predicted the competition that would come with economic recovery, recognising the importance of the unit shop as early as 1947.

He was also clearly inspirational to his employees. He supported marketing with training for all staff, provided a pension scheme and for, senior management, profit sharing .

Relations with the trade press had not always been harmonious, but eventually calmed and in 1954, Ancliffe Prince, editor of LCN’s predecessor Power Laundry said “to work for Achille Serre was a privilege and an opportunity not to be lightly thrown away”. Author Roy Brazier, who worked with the company from 1940 - 43 and 1948 to 1966, endorses this comment wholeheartedly.

Sadly these successes were not to last and the author also charts the decline during the 1960s and the reasons for it.

In all, this is a fascinating read, delightfully illustrated.

Proceeds from the Achille Serre Story price £11 go to the Worshipful Company of Launderers Benevolent Fund. Order via LCN’s Website


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