Obituary: Lawrence Neal

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The Independent Online
For many people over the age of 40, the name "Daniel Neal and Sons Ltd" will conjure up memories of going to buy their school uniforms and, if they were very lucky, a fascinating look at the skeletons of their feet through the X-ray machine. In some ways, the then innocent use of the X-ray summed up Lawrence Neal's approach to managing the family business - for him it was not just about shopkeeping, but about improving his product for the benefit of the customer: using the latest technology to check that the shoes on the feet of his young customers were really well-fitting. As managing director and then chairman for over 30 years, Lawrence Neal took the firm into the 20th century, a century that his own life spanned.

The original Daniel Neal started his business in 1837 as a bespoke shoemaker, which it remained until Lawrence's grandmother, a doughty Scot, was widowed, leaving her with five sons. Appalled at the way that children's shoes were not made with lasts to fit chubby little feet, in about the 1870s she decided to develop a specialist children's shoe fitting service. Her zeal inspired Lawrence Neal and he continued her good work.

Brought up in south London, he went to Oxford University and obtained a First in Classical Moderations in 1916, but the prospect of an academic life was interrupted by the First World War. He joined the Army just in time for the Battle of the Somme, where he was wounded in the head by a sniper's bullet. Wounded a second time, he often said that his injuries had probably saved his life - out of an original group of 13 friends, only he and his lifelong friend the MP Kenneth Lindsay returned alive.

In 1918, on 1 May (chosen because it was Labour Day), Neal married his much-loved first wife, Jean Guthrie-Smith, a young poet from Glasgow. He joined Daniel Neal's the following year and, by the early 1930s, became managing director, and in 1939, chairman. It was largely due to his skills in business and in cost control that Daniel Neal's survived the Great Depression. He then engineered the main take-off of the company in the 1930s. Until then, there were just two London stores, in Portman Square and Kensington, retailing children's clothing, shoes and school uniforms. In addition, a substantial amount of business was conducted through the Post Order Business (today's mail order), which spread the firm's name throughout the country. Neal decided to expand into provincial towns, opening five further branches, in Bournemouth, Bristol, Cheltenham, Exeter and Birmingham. He also acquired another household name, "Treasure Cot", which dealt in babies' goods. This expansion was interrupted by the Second World War, but continued afterwards.

Between the wars, he had another professional life alongside the family firm, in the retailing world and in public service. He was active member of "Pep" (Political and Economic Planning), a think-tank under the chairmanship of Max Nicholson, then of Israel Sieff. This culminated in his becoming a member of the Sea Fish Commission for the UK from 1933-36. He was also a member of the Council of Retail Distributors' Association (RDA), becoming its Chairman in 1949.

During the Second World War, he was the first chairman of the employers' side of the Joint Industrial Council for the Drapery, Outfitting and Footwear group of the RDA. He was a member of the Retail Trade Committee of the Board of Trade, and at the same time he held the full-time post of Deputy Secretary of the newly established Ministry of Town and Country Planning - all this notwithstanding keeping Daniel Neal's going, and his night duty as a fire-fighter and warden on the roof-tops of Portman Square during the air-raids.

By the 1960s, Lawrence Neal had become concerned about the future of a specialist business. He had always had great admiration for the John Lewis Partnership so he approached them to see if they were interested in buying Daniel Neal's. It pleased him greatly that they enthusiastically accepted, and in 1963 a healthy business was sold to them.

Even then, at the age of 70, he was not ready for full retirement. He was the first Chairman of the Furniture and Timber Industry Training Board, then Chairman of the Trustees of the Industrial Training Board Pension Fund, and in recognition of his many years of public service he was awarded the Queen's Silver Jubilee Medal in 1977.

Lawrie Neal enormously enjoyed his family and its new generations of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He had a rare ability to span generations in the pursuit of friendship, although he was not always gentle in his relationships. He had, too, a remarkable capacity to overcome the vicissitudes of a sometimes turbulent life: the Great War, the tragic death of his eldest son in the next war, the death of his first wife, the death of his second wife years later; but he was always looking forward, always curious to find out more. This must have contributed to his longevity.

Lalage Percival

Lawrence Edward Neal, retailer: born London 27 October 1895; chairman, Daniel Neal and Sons Ltd 1939-63; married 1918 Jean Guthrie-Smith (died 1949; one son, one daughter, and one son deceased), 1952 Beatrice Scheibner (died 1972); died Aberystwyth 6 January 1996.