It was conceived by Spedan Lewis in 1928 when he realised with horror that he, his father and his brother Oswald (also in the business) enjoyed a combined salary that added up to more than that of their entire workforce.His desire to right this perceived wrong caused a rift with his father, which led in 1914 to his renouncing his interest in John Lewis and taking sole charge of his father’s second store, Peter Jones in Sloane Square (a brave move as it was running at a considerable loss).

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For the first half of 2007 JLP profit (before tax) had risen 50.6 per cent to £146 million.

‘We are confident about the future,’ Mayfield says.

‘The success of both Waitrose and John Lewis is based on the fact that our partners [staff] own the business. Our staff turnover is roughly half the average in retail.

John Lewis's peculiar ethos may not suit everyone, but such are the perks enjoyed by its staff – from cheap holidays at one of the company country clubs to choir practice even for the tone deaf – many find it very hard to leave. Photographs by Philip Sinden John Lewis has been ‘Never Knowingly Undersold’ since 1925, when the slogan was introduced by the eponymous founder’s son, Spedan Lewis.

For generations this – and the mildly irritating, now bygone, quirks of not taking credit cards or opening on Mondays (apart from the Oxford Street branch and Peter Jones) – was what the stores were known for.

But in the past three years something has happened.

The John Lewis Partnership (JLP) – incorporating 26 John Lewis and 185 Waitrose stores – is on a roll.

Our partners have a direct share in our success so there’s always a huge buzz of anticipation at results time.’ This year a Which?

magazine survey of Britain’s favourite retailers put John Lewis in first place, with Waitrose second.

Last year every member of JLP staff – known as partners, because they are all shareholders – received an annual bonus of 18 per cent of their salary. How can such huge financial success be happening in a company whose ultimate purpose – as enshrined in its constitution – is the happiness of those who work for it?

That constitution, setting out partners’ rights and responsibilities, was drawn up so carefully that it would take an act of Parliament to dissolve it.