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Top 20: Britain’s oldest family businesses

RJ Balson & Son, the oldest UK business run by one family

The oldest twenty family firms in the UK have collectively traded for 7013 years, and traded on average for 350 years each, according to new data compiled by the UK’s Family Business United.

Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London is the oldest family firm in the country dating back to 1420, having been owned by two families since it was founded all those years ago. Nevertheless, the firm remains family owned today and is celebrating 595 years as a family business this year.

Furthermore, RJ Balson and Son Ltd, the butchers in Bridport which is currently owned and run by the 26th generation of the founding family, is celebrating 500 years as a family business, dating back to 1515 when Henry VIII was the King of England.

Richard Balson, the current butcher behind the block, is very proud of his heritage, saying: “Too many family businesses fail to successfully pass from generation to generation so we have been fortunate to do so. Although we are the oldest direct lineage family business in the UK, it is more important to strive to be the best at what you do, and for us at Balsons it is all about the product and the service that we offer to our customers, many of whom represent families that have also been customers for generations too.”

“It is all about the here and now and planning to succeed. We obviously have a long history but every generation needs to build on what has been handed down to them and, more importantly, be prepared for long hours and plenty of hard work which will result in the opportunity to reap the rewards of being your own boss and in control of your own destiny,” adds Richard (whose family business is pictured in an archival photo, right).

This year also sees Scotland’s oldest family firm celebrate a major milestone, marking 300 years since blacksmith John White began the manufacture of a beam end scale. The eighth generation is now running the business, which continues to evolve over time, with Edwin White and wife Tio at the helm.

As Edwin explains, “We will carry on at the front of technology, developing products and looking for new markets, and over time we have had to balance tradition with innovation and embrace new technologies.”

Edwin added, “It’s hard to believe that a firm can go on for 300 years. It has played a very big part in community life but we are delighted to have stood the test of time, evolved into the business that we are today and proud to be celebrating out tercentenary in 2015.”

Founded by Paul Andrews back in 2011, Family Business United is the UK’s leading online magazine and resource centre for the family business sector and continues to champion the cause for the sector, helping to dispel some of the myths surrounding the sector.

Clearly, the firms in the top 20 dispel the myth that family firms cannot span the generations, their heritage is part of the fabric of the firm but they are continually evolving to meet the needs of doing business in the 21st century, include major employers, generate significant revenues and make significant contributions to their local communities too.

As Andrews adds, “2015 is a celebration for the family business sector as a whole with the oldest family firms in England and Scotland alone sharing 800 years of family business history. These firms are the oldest but there are plenty more great British family firms celebrating their own milestones this year too.”

“Family firms are the very fabric of what makes Britain ‘great’ and each and every one makes a notable contribution, be it through generation to GDP, employment, tax contributions or philanthropic endeavours and we are delighted to celebrate their achievements and to continue to promote the success of the sector.”

The 20 oldest family businesses in Britain
1. Whitechapel Bell Foundry (1420 – London) Manufacturing Bells
2. RJ Balson and Son Ltd (1515 – Bridport, Dorset) Butchers
3. John Brooke & Sons Holdings Ltd (1541 – Yorkshire) Property
4. R. Durtnell & Sons Limited (1591 – Kent) Builders
5. C. Hoare & Co. (1672 – London) Bank
6. Morning Foods (1675 – Crewe, Cheshire) Miller
7. James Lock & Co Ltd (1676 – London) Milliners
8. Toye & Co (1685 – Birmingham) Regalia & Medals
9. C.P.J. Field & Co. Ltd (1690 – Sussex) Funeral Directors
10. Folkes Group Plc (1697 – Stourbridge, West Midlands) Property
11. Shepherd Neame Limited (1698 – Faversham, Kent) Brewery
12. Berry Bros & Rudd (1698 – London) Wine & Spirit Merchant
13. W. Austin and Sons Limited (1700 – Hertfordshire) Funeral Directors
14. Salts Healthcare Limited (1701 – Birmingham) Health Care Products
15. Fortnum & Mason (1707 – London) Department Store
16. Brakspear (1711 – Oxfordshire) Public Houses
17. John White & Son Ltd (1715 – Auchtermuchty, Scotland) Weighing Machines
18. Aspall Cyder (1728 – Suffolk) Cyder and Vinegar Producer
19.Floris (1730 – London) Retailer of Toiletries & Accessories
20. Wilsons & Co (Sharrow) Ltd (1737 – Sheffield) Manufacturers of Snuff

As Andrews concludes, “These family firms have stood the test of time, are steeped in history and tradition, have experienced the highs and the lows of British history, coronations, World Wars, recessions and more besides, and stand for the best of British family values, entrepreneurship and have made their mark too. It is recognised that one in three jobs in the UK is within a family firm so 2015 is a time to celebrate the success of those family firms that have truly stood the test of time.”

Family Business United maintains an ongoing list of the oldest family firms in the UK, broken down by county. 

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