Mysterious and tragic death of TJ Hughes founder 87 years ago

TJ Hughes is one of the most iconic department stores in the UK.

The Widnes branch of the much loved company has been standing for a number of years.

In the 100 years since the first store was opened in Liverpool, its success has been a testament to founder Thomas J Hughes.

Mr Hughes’ hard work and vision helped turn the company into the iconic department store it is today.

However, what many people don’t know is that Mr Hughes died in dramatic and tragic circumstances, the ECHO reported.

First set up on London Road in 1912 with five shop assistants, within 20 years it had grown into one of the city’s biggest department stores with over 400 staff.

In 1933, over 20 years after establishing his first store, it appears Thomas J Hughes’s mental health declined, with some speculation it was not helped by the stress of overwork.

It’s reported on April 14, 1933, while aboard a steamship travelling to Belfast, the businessman took his own life by climbing on a rail surrounding the ship’s stern.

He is then said to have shot himself before his body plunged into the Irish Sea, never to be found.

On Saturday, April 15 in 1933, the Liverpool ECHO reported on Thomas J Hughes’ tragic death on page five.

Under the headline, “Tragic end of Mr T J Hughes – founder of a great city store” an account of his death was reported.

It read: “Liverpool business circles were shocked today by the news of the tragic end of Mr. Thomas J. Hughes, founder of the firm of Messrs. T. J. Hughes and Co., Ltd., London Road, Liverpool.

“Mr Hughes, who lived at Essedale Meols-drive, West Kirby, was travelling to Belfast in the Belfast Steamship Company’s motor vessel Ulster Queen.

“When the boat was a few miles south-east of the Isle of Man, Mr Hughes was seen to climb on the taffrail and fire a shot.

“He was then seen to fall into the sea.

“The Ulster Queen was stopped and a prolonged search was made for him without success.

“A letter addressed to his wife was found.”

TJ Hughes on London Road
TJ Hughes on London Road
(Image: Colin Lane/Liverpool Echo)

The reporter went on to interview Mr Hughes’ brother-in-law, Mr F Hughes, who said: “Twelve months ago his health was in such a precarious state through overwork that the was compelled to relinquish much of his responsibility in his business.

“Latterly a reaction had set in, and the strain he had undergone had made the comparative leisure of recent months insupportable, and a strangeness of manner had been apparent.”

Mr Hughes left a widow and three daughters. His name is recorded on a family memorial in Liverpool’s Anfield Cemetery.

His brother-in-law said there was no question of financial difficulties contributing to his state of mind as the business was continuing to do well.

Despite his death, T J Hughes’ name lived on and by 2011, there were 57 shops over the UK. However, in that same year the company went into administration and shrank to just six.

Since the company emerged with new owners in 2011, those six stores continue to trade under the T J Hughes brand in stores located in Liverpool, Eastbourne, Glasgow, Newcastle upon Tyne, Sheffield and Widnes.

Further stores have since been opened throughout the UK.

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