It’s pleasing to discover that a humble hair adornment played a part in the history of retail.

In 1856 John Lewis was an assistant at Carmichael’s drapery in Liverpool. He was 20, ambitious, hard-working and might have stayed there for ever. But when he found a fellow assistant interfering with his window display of silk ribbons, a fight ensued. Both men were sacked — and Lewis headed to London, where he landed a job at Peter Robinson’s clothing emporium in Oxford Street.

Eight years later, thoroughly schooled in the arcana of silks, cottons and woolens, he bought a poky shop nearby, formerly a tobacconist’s, and opened John Lewis & Co. As every consumer knows, the company grew into a vast behemoth, dominating the centre of Oxford Street and (with Peter Jones) one side of Sloane Square, and helped to change the nature of shopping.

Do we need a book about it? Victoria Glendinning is an eminent literary biographer whose subjects include Vita Sackville-West and Edith Sitwell. So what possessed her to write about a 157-year-old commercial enterprise famous for affordable haberdashery, wedding-list glassware and cute Christmas TV commercials?

The answer lies in the subtitle: Glendinning’s story of the Lewis dynasty is extremely “intimate” — a saga of family fights and obsessions, epic stand-offs and wild ambitions, stressed-out womenfolk and unhappy children. It’s Succession in tailcoats and spats.

At its heart is the story of three alpha males — John, Spedan and Oswald Lewis — and their wives.

Alpha Heirs

John, born into poverty, orphaned at seven and apprenticed at 15, developed an obsession with making money and a dread of losing it. He disliked spending cash on advertising, window displays (they might attract a crowd, he said, “but so it would if he stood on his head in a corner window”) and the wages and living conditions of his employees.

His treatment of underlings prompted a strike in 1920. After an assistant and a buyer in the silks department were sacked, other staffers refused to serve customers. Lewis fired the troublemakers and made staff sign an undertaking not to join a union. Soon 400 striking pickets appeared with placards and began many days of marches.

John also disliked being bound by legal niceties. A leaseholder of the Portland Estate, he fell foul of a new landlord, Tommy de Walden, and spent three weeks in Brixton prison for contempt of court. He treated the place as a substandard hotel and summoned the chancellor of the exchequer to his cell to discuss his release.

He was also a passionate anti-vaxxer. In 1914 he campaigned against the medical profession’s advice that vaccination should be compulsory for army recruits, and displayed a poster on the store window, saying: “Inoculation is a dangerous superstition, a cruel, blood-poisoning operation!”

When told that a passing doctor was trying to destroy one of the posters, Lewis walloped the doctor’s new silk hat with his umbrella. He was 80 years old at the time.

John Lewis disliked being bound by legal niceties. He was also a passionate anti-vaxxer.

His elder son, Spedan (named after John’s favorite aunt, Ann Speed), was tall, handsome, sport-loving, grandiloquent and a passionate believer in “Partnership”, through which every employee had a share in the company’s profits and could enjoy sporting holidays at the Lewis family’s country houses.

Although his belief in “industrial democracy” suggests a saintly idealist, Spedan’s interventions almost always involved raised tempers, ferocious family rows (“[Father] threatened repeatedly to strike me. I folded my arms and said, Do it”) and a tidal wave of words; he needed three secretaries to process his vast speeches, memos and corporate articles.

Oswald, handsome and feckless, enjoyed “a lifelong sense of entitlement” and spent his time networking and social climbing. He was elected to St Marylebone borough council by paying £50 to have an incumbent member removed. He became Tory MP for Colchester with a majority of 600, never held office, but asked many questions in the House — his first was about what action the government would take on the report of the Standing Committee on Tomatoes. He later made brazen attempts to bribe his way into the House of Lords.

The wives, by contrast, had a rough time. John’s wife, Ellie, had a nervous breakdown in 1909 and was taken by her sons to a Kensington flat to evade her husband’s bullying. Spedan’s spouse, Beatrice, clever and witty, dealt with panic attacks by spending time away on drama courses. Oswald’s other half, Frances, suffered from depression and anger brought on by boredom.

Oswald Lewis enjoyed “a lifelong sense of entitlement” and spent his time networking and social climbing.

Glendinning discovers that John Lewis’s father died in 1843 in a workhouse and suffered from epilepsy, then considered a sign of demonic possession. John himself had an “excitable brain” — he was irrational, irascible and found it hard to empathize with others — and Spedan shared these traits. When Spedan’s young son, John Hunter Lewis, dies of meningitis, Glendinning makes the connection: neurodiversity ran in the family, back as far as Lewis’s epileptic father. She says it’s “more than likely” that John and Spedan were, in different ways, on the autistic spectrum.

This is a vivid and eye-opening group biography, backgrounded by the rise of supermarket moguls from humble beginnings: we learn how Mr Swan met Mr Edgar at a Piccadilly market stall before founding their department store, how Wallace Waite and Arthur Rose, shop assistants, became Waitrose.

It’s as stuffed with chewy nuggets as a Fortnum’s fruitcake. Did you know the owner of Harrods, Charles Henry Harrod from Essex, was jailed in 1836 for dishonestly handling 112lb of currants? Or that William Whiteley, founder of the Bayswater store, was shot dead by a man claiming to be his illegitimate son? Or that when Harry Selfridge arrived in Oxford Street, his extravagant in-store promotions included, in 1909, the monoplane in which Louis Blériot had just made the first cross-Channel flight?

Different times. Far from normal people.

Victoria Glendinning’s Family Business is available in the U.K.

John Walsh is a former literary editor of The Sunday Times and editor of The Independent magazine