Robert Gillow (1704–1772) was the founder of Gillows of Lancaster, an English furniture manufacturer.
Robert Gillow started out as a ship’s carpenter and sailed to the West Indies. He discovered mahogany in Jamaica and in 1720, brought samples back to Lancaster. This could have been the first mahogany ever imported to England.
He went on to establish Gillows of Lancaster in 1730 – a luxury furniture and furnishings firm. He got into the lucrative West Indies trade in the 1730s, exporting his mahogany furniture and importing sugar and rum. He also fitted out ships cabins and did finishing work on ships.
Due to the firm’s growing reputation for producing very high quality furniture, they were soon supplying to some of the richest families in the country. They opened a London workshop and in 1764 opened a showroom on Oxford Road (now Oxford Street).
They worked in solid mahogany and also made veneered and painted items often using japanning. When the price of textiles started to reduce they also went into upholstery.
They are credited with many innovations including a ladies version of a billiards table in the mid 1760s, capitalizing on the billiards craze at the time. They also invented the extending dining table, and as part of meeting (sometimes eccentric) customer requests made a revolving round topped library table, secretaires that were like early filing cabinets with movable drawers and partitions and even a bureau bedstead that was a desk that also pulled out into a bed.
By 1800 they were making the social or ‘gentleman’s’ table – a horseshoe-shaped table with ice buckets and also ladies writing tables (bonheurs du jour). They also made another semi-circular shaped social table with a firescreen and holder for bottles.
Their sketchbooks of 1816 included the Davenport lady’s desk. They also made powdering closets, medicine chests, clothes horses, linen presses, meat safes, squirrel cages and boot jacks and the occasional coffin.
They continued successfully until the late 19th century when they started to run into financial difficulties. This resulted with them joining forces with Waring of Liverpool in 1903.