Gladys Burlton (1890-1965)

Born: Gladys Aileen Burlton

Sector: Support Services (Consulting)

“Salesmanship is the ability to sell goods that won’t come back to customers who will”. So said Gladys Burlton, who created what could well have been the first management consultancy business in the UK. Between the wars, the Burlton Institute advised businesses on their approach to capability development, offering sales-focused training and running an employment agency. It was seen as an unusual career choice for a woman and a university graduate to boot, but Gladys loved her work and passionately advocated that sales was a suitable career for all, seeking to remove the class snobbery that made it a socially inappropriate choice for the public school and university-educated. She was fascinated by psychology and many of her views on what makes for a engaged workforce could sit happily in a Linked In post today: we sometimes talk about the importance of purpose and ‘bringing our full selves to work’ as if they are 21st century concepts. In 1920 Gladys wrote: “Happiness and efficiency require not only an appeal to the right motive but an environment in which our whole personality can freely and joyously express itself.’

Gladys was born in India in 1890, the second of four children. Her parents returned to the UK in the early 1900s to live in Exmouth, where Gladys attended Southlands School. In 1910 she won a Scholarship to Westfield College, part of the University of London, and read Classics. When she graduated, she spent some time teaching but in 1916 she decided to change direction and landed a job at Selfridges. She was clearly happy with her move, speaking as early as 1917 on ‘Business as a Career for University Women’.

The Selfridges Way
By 1919, Gladys was Selfridges’ Director of Education. In November that year, Gladys spoke at the newly-formed Efficiency Club, sharing a platform with advertising guru Charles Higham. One newspaper was less than impressed with her fanciful views on management and motivation: “Miss Burlton drew a wonderful picture of what she believed would be the result if… every employer gave up keeping time sheets and issuing orders. It is an interesting notion, but I am afraid she has more faith in human nature than most people.”

Perhaps they would have responded differently if the words had been spoken by her boss, Percy Best, or even Selfridge himself, for Gladys was voicing many philosophies they espoused. Selfridge’s reputation for innovative marketing is well-established: from the day he opened his landmark store at 400 Oxford Street in March 1909, he always knew how to attract a crowd, whether by displaying the plane of Louis BlĂ©riot in 1909 or the first television set in 1925. But he also knew that if those visitors were going to stay, spend some money and come back again, he needed to provide a brilliant customer experience and for that, solid training and good day-to-day leadership were critical.

One of his first hires when he was building his leadership team was Percy Best. Right from the start he tried to re-frame work not just as paid labour for a set number of hours per day but as being part of group building and growing a great enterprise. Understanding customers’ needs and moods, using creativity and imagination were all encouraged and supported by education programmes. By the time Gladys started in 1916, Best was an important member of his inner circle and Gladys would have been immersed in his philosophy and practices.

While journalists might have been dismissive of Gladys’s ideas, industry peers were more impressed. In 1922 she became Chair of the Association for Education in Industry and Commerce and quickly developed a reputation for delivering clear messages with humour but never straying far from her key tenets: that work and education went hand in hand; that progressive employers were the ones investing in training and developing their employees; and that anyone managing others needed non-technical training, more centred on the ‘psychological requirements of their position if they were to be successful in leading a team.

It is not clear to what extent Selfridge’s vision translated into the working experience of shop-floor staff: one employee in the 1910s said she was felt like “the lowest form of animal life”, bound by tight dress codes even in the hottest weather and expected to do unpaid overtime when the store closed clearing up her department. And although Selfridge saw men able to progress as far as their ability would allow, women “although they might go far, could never attain a commanding position.” Perhaps these were factors in Gladys’s decision to leave and try working somewhere quite different.

From Oxford Street to Sloane Square
In 1923, Gladys took the role of Staff Secretary, or head of HR, at Peter Jones. The in-house magazine, The Gazette, records her employee engagement efforts: running a lecture on her favourite topic, ‘The Art of Salesmanship’, explaining commission schemes and encouraging them to take full advantage of the access they had to dental care. “Whatever happens, don’t shirk having your teeth attended to because you are afraid of the expense. Let me know what the difficulty is and we are sure to find a way out.” The difficulty many employees had in adapting to being in an environment which took staff welfare seriously is also apparently from the concern she expressed that “in all our staff of five hundred and twenty, there were only forty who said they would claim sick pay. “To add yourself to that list you need (i) an ounce of prudence (ii) a grain of common sense (iii) a modicum of courage.

Although Gladys seemed to be settling in at Peter Jones, encouraging her friends to shop there and banking some commission as a result, within a year, she had left, taking her experience from two of London’s leading retail establishments to strike out on her own. In 1924, she set up two connected organisations, the Burlton Staff Agency, an employment agency, and training and consulting business, the Burlton Institute. She wrote to John Spedan Lewis in July telling him of her early successes, in a letter which now would surely go straight to the in-house legal team:

“It might interest you to know that I have been speaking to several firms in commendation of the Pool System of Commission… Two firms, at least, are seriously considering the point and I should be glad to see them adopt your method. What a good thing I did not sign that contract binding me not to reveal “any secret or particular” learned in your business! Not that I really think you would mind my helping to spread such a very helpful idea as this!”

J.S.L., as he usually signed himself, did indeed mind: he shared this extract in a letter to staff in The Gazette of 12/7/1924, commenting:

“I do not agree myself with Miss Burlton’s view that people are entitled to enter the employment of a particular firm or company, become acquainted with methods of business that that firm or company has created and subsequently..add to their own prestige..and affect..their own earning-power by making those methods known to those other employers or clients without the prior consent of those from whom the knowledge was gained.”

But in the end, his desire to show his system was better than Selfridge’s won out.

“I have published this extract [because] it may interest Partners to see that Miss Burlton, who had long experience in an extremely up-to-date business, Mr Selfridge’s, and who began with a strong and long-maintained belief that the Pool Commission System was inexpedient, has apparently come to feel that our method is better than the ordinary method of which she had long and intimate experience in Oxford Street.” (Source: House magazine, The Gazette.  John Lewis Partnership Archive Collection)

Expert advisor
As head of the Burlton Institute, Gladys quickly became a well-known figure. She appeared on radio shows and opened fashion shows, lecturing around the country from Dundee to Eastbourne. Gladys thought retail sales roles offered great opportunities for women, putting them at the heart of the business which gave them more chance of advancement. She was one of the first people to be discussed as a potential speaker by the committee of WACL in 1924 though it took six years for that to happen. She was an early contributor to Good Housekeeping‘s series on women’s careers. In August 1924, she she travelled to Norway to speak at the Conference of the International Federation of University Women, alongside Lady Rhondda. They shared a platform again the next year at the conference for “Women in Science, Industry and Commerce” at Wembley, together with Laura Annie Willson.

Gladys worked with individual business and industry bodies like the Drapers Association. “Do the directors always take notice of your remarks and act on your advice?” she was once asked. “Oh yes, nearly always. I charge them very heavy fees so that they will take notice.” In 1927, she pulled her ideas together in a book, ‘Retail Selling’. It is packed with common sense advice that is still useful for leaders in business at all level today. Despite his unhappiness with some of her business practices, it was bought for the John Lewis partners’ library and was regularly recommended as a good book to read. Other leading retailers of the day, like the shoe company Saxone (remember them, anyone?) ordered copies to hand out to staff and Austin Reed wrote the introduction to the 1938 edition: “It is a book which principals and managers, as well as members of the selling staff, should possess and turn to for help and inspiration again and again.”

She also created a series of self-help pamphlets called ‘Learn Your Stock’, which covered all the key retailing departments, including ‘Dress Fabrics and Paper Patterns’, ‘Hardware and Household Goods’, ‘Boots and Shoes’ and “Gloves, Hosiery, Handbags, Umbrellas’. John Lewis Partnership ordered nearly 1500 copies and later editions of ‘Retail Selling’ included favourable quotes from leaders at Harrods, Coty, the Co-op and even the Canterbury Farmers’ Cooperative Association in New Zealand as well as pubications from The Spectator to The Grocer. “Miss Gladys Burlton is one of the ablest Staff Trainers in Great Britain”, claimed The Efficiency Magazine.

Luxe living
Not much is known about Gladys’ private life but I have found a glorious colour photograph of her bedroom, designed for her by Herman Schrijver (1904-1972).

Bed-sitting room designed by Herman Schrijver for Miss Gladys Burlton, featured in ‘Colour Schemes for the Modern Home’ by Derek Patmore (1933)

Schrijver worked at Peter Jones for a period, which might be how he and Gladys met. (He went on to work for Elden, another women-led interior business, where his most famous client was Wallis Simpson. In 1935, he re-decorated her Bryanston Court flat in tones of lime green, pale apricot and faded browns. It sounds pretty horrible but the only photographs I have found are in black and white so I guess we will have to believe the journalist who said that the ‘harmonious’ colour scheme set off Mrs Simpson’s ‘artistic’ furnishings perfectly.) Gladys clearly knew him fairly well based on two intriguing sentences in a short biography of him written by one of his friends: ‘The best grudges he nourished over the years were those against women: I think of Gladys Burlton, Anna Kavan and Olivia Manning… But he could end a grudge no matter what real or unreal injuries had begun it and did in the case of the three women I’ve mentioned.’ That is the only mention Gladys gets so we are left to wonder what exactly this grudge was and whether there was any connection between Gladys and the two other women, both writers.

We also know that Gladys was a good singer, taking a leading role in a performance by the Selfridges Staff Operatic and Dramatic Society at the Guildhall School of Music Theatre in 1919. She was a keen student of language and her business books included lists of phrases which she viewed as ‘commercialese’ (‘we are in receipt of / please find enclosed’) and their English equivalents (‘we have received / we enclose’). Words like ‘response’, ‘commence’ and ‘endeavour’ she called pompous: why not use their simpler equivalents: ‘answer’, ‘start’, ‘try’? She liked reading in bed and shared her top tips in a letter to The Times in 1939 (using a book rest and putting your dressing gown / bed jacket on back to front so it keeps you warm and is easy to take off before you go to sleep). Intrigued, short of news or seeking a distraction from the war, The Bystander turned this into a two-page photo spread, but rather than featuring the 49-year old Gladys, her ideas were brought to life by ‘Fleurette Rowland, an attractive show girl from the Windmill Theatre’.

The war years and after
While Gladys’ views on the customer experience, sales and employee engagement still have much to offer the modern reader, her views on working women, particularly by the late 1930s, have fared less well. She was not the only high-profile working woman to bemoan the lack of women in senior roles but like many others, she placed the blame firmly on women themselves, decrying their lack of ambition. Even where she showed some grasp of the systemic biases affecting women – for example, pointing out the fact that women (then, as now), shouldered a disproportionate percentage of household tasks – she not only failed to challenge the basic stereotypes about women being unpunctual but even added a twist. Echoing Tallulah Bankhead’s views on good girls and diaries, she proposed that ‘the brilliant girls’ were unpunctual while the ‘absolutely punctual ones’ were usually the dull girls’.

When war broke out, Gladys took on HR jobs at the Telegraph Office and the BBC. Once the war was over she returned to the world of retail writing more books on ‘Making the Best of Complaints’ (1951) and ‘Warehouse Selling’ in 1962, which focused on selling to trade rather than retail customers.

Gladys championed employees’ rights until the end of her life. She was vocal about shopworkers pay – ‘isn’t it time that retail employers paid as much as they could instead of as little as they must?’ and a month before her death wrote to The Times in response to moans about customer service. If shop assistants were incompetent it was down to low wages, poor working conditions and the absence of training rather than nebulous ‘sociological and economic reasons’. ‘Employers, not employees, are to blame for the fact that the “retail image” does not commend itself to the labour market…The staff problem will remain unsolved until it becomes normal for retail managements first to go all out to attract the best available employees and then to train them consistently in the study of their goods and how to sell them.’


With grateful thanks to Judy Faraday and the team at the John Lewis Partnership Heritage Centre for giving me access to the Archives and permission to quote from The Gazette.


Sources include:

The Times 20/6/1910; 24/2/1917; Westminster Gazette 15/11/19; Pall Mall Gazette 26/11/19; Smethwick Telephone 13/3/1920; Westminster Gazette 26/3/1924; The Vote 26/6/1931; Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail 21/8/1937; The Times 30/12/1939; The Bystander 28/2/1940; The Times 30/11/1950; June 1965

‘Retail Selling’ by Gladys Burlton with intro by Austin Reed (1938); ‘Selling Textiles’ by Gladys Burlton (1960); ‘Warehouse Selling’ by Gladys Burlton (1962)

‘Selfridge’ by Reginald Pound (1960); ‘Herman and Nancy and Ivy: Three Lives’ by Charles Burkhart (1977); ‘Consuming Fantasies: Labour, Leisure and the London Shopgirl 1880-1920’ by Lise Shapiro Sanders (2006).

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