James Duckworth and his Grocery Stores

Known throughout the town as Jimmy Ducks, a chain of grocery shops was started by a man of humble beginnings whose shops provided much service and many good memories for the people of Rochdale.

James Duckworth was born in 1840 near Haslingden, the son of a poor weaver who found work in Rochdale and whose mother, begging for food, carried him as a baby over Ashworth Moor. His father died when he was six years old and by eleven he was working as a half-timer calico weaver for 18 pence a week.

In his early 20’s James wanted to become a Methodist Minister but as his wife frowned on the idea he settled for a Town Missionary position in Heywood on a salary of £60 a year. His health soon broke down however, and on doctor’s advice he took to the outdoor life, selling tea door-to-door in two and four ounce bags. These sold well and with increased profits he had enough capital to open his first shop at 15 Oldham Road in 1868 although neither he nor his wife knew how to dress a window.  Business prospered and he opened village shops around Rochdale, undercutting town prices by as much as seven per cent.

Buying a small warehouse in Whitehall Street, Rochdale, Duckworth began to operate a wholesale trade too, and his business grew so fast with more shops springing up throughout the area, that it necessitated a second warehouse on John Street (1878), then a third in Water Street three years later. In 1895, the business became a Limited Company, and in 1900, the company consolidated premises in a move to a four-storey warehouse on Oldham Road. 

Meanwhile James Duckworth became a Rochdale counsellor in 1887 and held the office of mayor from 1891-1893, again from 1901-1903 and for a third time 1910-1911. He was a Magistrate for both Rochdale Borough and Lancashire County from March 1893 and served both Middleton and Stockport as a Member of Parliament. In 1908 he was knighted for his services to Liberalism and to business.

In 1905, James Duckworth, focussing on his political career, retired as chairman and managing director of his company although retaining his seat on the board. On retirement, he held a party for his workforce at the Town Hall, announcing a £2,000 benevolent fund for ill or injured employees or for those forced to retire through old age. James Duckworth died on 1st January 1915, aged 74, leaving six children from his first marriage and two from his second.

Painting by Geoff Butterworth

By 1916 there were 387 grocer’s shops in Rochdale, the Pioneers had 49 and James Duckworth had 43, publicising themselves as ‘a shop not far from your house.’  Sir James Duckworth was assisted for many years in management by his only son, Mr. James Duckworth, J.P. who died suddenly in 1937, the family continuing to run the company with grandsons Geoffrey, Alan and Roger.

In 1955 Wright’s Biscuits Ltd bought the family out but kept the local name. Wrights had a vision in the 1960’s for a super emporium on the land occupied by the Butts Mill at the bottom of Drake Street and although the plans were enthusiastically approved by the town’s Planning and Buildings Sub-committee, nothing was built and the brand’s fortunes began to decline.

In 1969, as part of a cost-cutting exercise, the Oldham Road offices and warehouse – for so many years the centre of Jimmy Duck’s activities – was closed down, at that time only 17 shops remaining under the Duckworth name. The last traces of a once-great grocery name in Rochdale disappeared in 1975 when the Oldham Road premises were demolished.