We’ve come a long way since 1957, working out of a garage in Bethnal Green. We started by testing a kettle and grew from there…
Which? was set up because our founders started questioning the way things were. They asked if things could be better for consumers. They started testing goods and services, and publishing their results in a magazine. Later, they started campaigning too, encouraging companies to improve and regulators to act.
Within the first month, 10,000 people had joined. Within a decade, Which? had 500,000 members. Today, we have more than 1.5 million members and supporters, making us the largest independent consumer body in the UK.
Take a look back to where it all began…
In the 1950s, the gloom of the post-war years started to lift. Rationing ended in 1954 and an increasing range of products appeared in shops.
Spending on goods such as TVs and fridges doubled in the 50s and, by 1957, a typical home would have had a vacuum cleaner, cooker and a plug-in radio. However, even if you could afford to buy the new goods, shoppers had few rights and little help in separating good products from bad.
It was a problem that newly married Dorothy and Ray Goodman faced when buying for their first home. They decided to get together with friends to research the information for themselves, with a view to publishing it in a radical new magazine based loosely on the American title Consumer Reports. They produced a dummy issue before Ray accepted a job that entailed moving to the US.
They left the idea with Michael Young, one of those had worked on the dummy issue. Michael, later Lord Young, was a social activist who was to establish many other organisations including the Open University.
Having founded the organisation called the Consumers’ Association, and settled on the name ‘Which?’ for the magazine, Michael launched the first issue on 7 October 1957.
A press conference yielded little coverage, other than a small piece in The Times.
Michael said: ‘After The Times thing, a taxi drew up outside and the chap who came to the door said: “I’m from Marks and Spencer and I’ve been told to get 20 copies of your new magazine and to take out 20 subscriptions”. I thought, “God, this is it!”.’
For the first edition cover feature on kettles, we paid a lab £10 to test them. Within a month 10,000 people sent in their 10 shillings (50p) to become members.
Birth of the Best Buy
We coined the iconic term ‘Best Buy’ in the second issue. The inaugural winner was Boots 365 Talcum Powder.
Michael also hired the magazine’s first proper editor, Eirlys Roberts. She remained editor until 1973, and was a major reason for its success.
M E M B E R Q U O T E
‘My father may have been one of your earliest subscribers. I remember, in the late 1950s, reading what to me was the most interesting magazine I had ever seen.
‘Throughout my life Which? has certainly been my first port of call before I have made any major purchase and also my font of wisdom on many other lifestyle topics.’
Buoyed by a big increase in membership, Which? moved on to tackle more challenging and controversial topics, including one of the most complex (and least reliable) consumer products at the time – the car.
We crowned our first Best Buy TV in May 1960.
The Bush TV 85 cost £66 3s and had a push-button system to change channels (many still used a dial).
members signed up for the first Which? car supplement.
It was much needed. The safety and reliability of cars was really poor at that time, and seatbelts were rarely fitted as standard.
The poet Philip Larkin wrote that sexual intercourse began in 1963, and we seem to agree – publishing our first Contraceptives supplement, costing 10 shillings.
It was a groundbreaking publication that tested 150 brands of condom and named Best Buys, as well as looking at different methods of contraception. Some newspapers refused to print our advert for it, saying they were ‘family newspapers’.
Standing by our testing
The continuing risk of testing products was shown when we were sued for libel for the first time (unsuccessfully). Then-director Caspar Brook (below) estimated that he received at least one letter threatening libel action after every magazine. To this day, we’ve never had damages or costs awarded against us in court.
Motoring Which? became a standalone magazine.
Time for change
We also began to adopt a more campaigning stance, and successfully campaigned for lead-free paint in toys and safer electric blankets.
We published our first child car seat safety test.
Many seats came with tables, giving children somewhere to play, or doubled up as potty-chairs, high chairs or swings. We strongly criticised the safety of some.
This was the average price of a home (according to the Nationwide House Price Index) at that time.
However, people had little power to borrow and it was tough to get independent objective advice on personal finances – step forward Money Which? magazine.
M E M B E R Q U O T E
‘When we got married in 1963, my husband and I took out a subscription to Which?. We had many expenses in setting up a home and not much money to spare, but we wanted the advice of Which? so we could rely on getting value for money.’
The 70s was the decade when we began to take a much more active campaigning role. We campaigned strongly for law changes and over this decade important new rights for consumers came in, with laws including the Unsolicited Goods and Services Act (1971), the Unfair Contract Terms Act (1977), Consumer Safety Act (1978) and the Sale of Goods Act (1979).
We published the first league table of the tar and nicotine content of cigarettes.
Geoffrey (later Lord) Howe was appointed the first Minister for Consumer Affairs after extensive pressure from us.
New legal advice helpline
We trialled a new consumer legal advice helpline for members, launching fully as ‘Which? Personal Service’ in 1976 (the forerunner of today’s Which? Legal). Its remit has expanded to now offer members a huge range of advice, whether they are buying goods, renting a home or writing a will.
In 1950, Brits made just 4.5 million trips abroad. This had doubled by 1970 – a good time to launch Holiday Which? magazine.
‘Does not return love’
Our tongue-in-cheek look at pets found the tortoise to be the most durable, but in terms of best pet overall it lost out to dogs, horses, cats and even budgies, as members told us it’s not very companionable.
M E M B E R Q U O T E
‘Given as a wedding present in 1975, I’m still using a Best Buy Kenwood Mini electric mixer. I think it was called a Chefette and came with a stand and mixing bowl, long since gone as I didn’t have storage space. It still works like a dream.’
The 80s was a decade of rapid technological and economic change, which brought us the first home computers and handheld mobile phone. For Which?, it was a decade of strong membership growth with some landmark victories.
‘Which? can claim to have filled more pages of the statute book than any other pressure group this century’
The Times London Diary, 1980
Our campaigning on competition policy led to the introduction of the Competition Act.
Anyone remember the Sinclair ZX81?
This personal computer’s launch on the high street (£69.95, or £49.95 for the kit) heralded the dawn of home computing for all. A year earlier, Which? had already started calling for legislation to safeguard the privacy of personal information stored on computers.
We welcomed the new Which? magazine
We also launched Gardening Which? magazine, and a year later merged Handyman Which?, Money Which? and Motoring Which? into a new-look, full-colour Which? magazine. This reached 600,000 subscribers and became the UK’s bestselling monthly magazine.
We also celebrated our Silver Jubilee year with another major campaign victory – the passing of the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982.
Front seatbelts became law
A key moment in one of our longest-running campaigns, when it became compulsory for seatbelts to be worn in the front seats of cars.
After pressure from us, the government passed the Financial Services Act 1986, to regulate the financial services industry.
We received charitable status for the research element of our work.
As globalisation and the internet started to bring the world closer together, we began working more with international sister organisations to multiply our efforts and further champion consumer causes.
The government announced that rear seatbelts were now compulsory for any vehicles carrying children, as a result of Which? campaigning.
Sheila McKechnie joined
The high-profile public figure joined as chief executive after 10 years as director of homelessness charity, Shelter. Sheila helped to put Which? at the forefront of debates on issues such as mad cow disease and mis-sold endowment mortgages.
We launched the first version of the Which? website
(before even Google existed)
lives are claimed to have been saved since the launch of the European New Car Assessment Program (Euro NCAP), which we co-founded in 1997.
One of the first models crash-tested, the Rover 100, scored just one star and was soon withdrawn from sale.
We took a stand at the British International Motor Show to highlight that Britons were paying more for cars than other EU consumers, later saving British drivers up to £4,000 each when importing new cars.
In light of the BSE crisis, the government agreed to our demand for an independent Food Standards Agency.
We also won the right to challenge companies that put unfair terms in their contracts.
Which? Computing Launched
Helping readers get the most out of their computers. Today, it is the UK’s largest technology title.
The Millennium Bug didn’t bring the country to a crushing standstill, after all, but the new century did herald new opportunities, a new chief executive, and strong growth in Which? membership.
'The impact of your work has been profound. Your campaigns and magazines have transformed the world in which we live, improving products and services in the public and private sectors. I know that you will use this platform to achieve even more for consumers in the future.'
Gordon Brown, 2007
Peter Vicary-Smith joined as chief executive
He led significant investments in our product testing and digital products - boosting our membership from 807,000 to 1,494,000 by 2014.
The government announced that all estate agents have to sign up to an independent redress scheme.
We were also granted official super-complaint powers, which means we can report markets that are failing consumers to government agencies.
‘And the winner is…’
We held the first annual Which? Awards to celebrate the businesses that consistently do the right thing for customers.
Which? Switch, our free energy comparison service launched, with 36,000 people later switching energy supplier using our Big Switch campaign.
The re-launch of Which? Money
Today it’s the UK’s best-read personal finance magazine with around 70,000 subscriptions.
The Which? Money Helpline opened
Providing our members with one-to-one telephone guidance on personal finance matters. Since then we’ve helped them win more than £3.2m in compensation.
Victims of mis-sold PPI also started to get their money back after our successful campaign.
With consumer life and technology moving faster than ever, we’ve expanded what we do to help people in new ways. We’ve introduced new apps as well as free websites, offering precious advice on key ‘life moment’ decisions. Plus, we’ve grown our range of one-to-one advice services.
Expert, impartial advice
Which? Mortgage Advisers launched, offering impartial, one-to-one advice based on comparing every single mortgage deal on the market.
Banking industry in need of reform
We played a leading role in setting up the Future of Banking Commission, bringing together MPs, regulators, industry bodies and consumers. The final report laid the foundations for the government’s Independent Commission on Banking.
Which? Conversation also launched as a new online community for UK consumers to debate issues.
The Office of Fair Trading upheld our super-complaint on unfair credit and debit card surcharges. From January 2018 these will finally be scrapped.
Which? University launched
Helping students with their higher education choices.
Our campaign to end nuisance calls began. So far, more than half a million people have backed us.
Which? Trusted Traders launched
A new trader-endorsement scheme that recognises reputable local traders.
2013 also saw the launch of our Consumer Rights Advice website.
Arrival of the Which? Reviews App
You can now access more than 8,000 product reviews using your smartphone.
We introduced the Which? Birth Choice and Which? Elderly Care websites, helping people at all stages in life with clear, unbiased advice.
After repeatedly exposing misleading pricing practices in the grocery sector, we launched a super-complaint to demand action from the Competition and Markets Authority. It recommended changes to the rules around special offers.
Whirlpool fire-risk dryers
Our investigations into Whirlpool fire-risk tumble dryers have resulted in the company changing its advice to consumers. But we continue to push for further action, and lobby government for a wider overhaul of the failing system around product safety and recalls.
Broadband speed checker launched to test speeds across the UK to help us make the service better.
Is airline compensation due an upgrade?
We’re encouraging airlines to voluntarily raise standards beyond the legal minimum, by agreeing to make compensation automatic.
Every question we ask helps to make consumers more powerful. Every test, survey, campaign and market shake-up we do is as important to us now as it was in 1957. So from choosing a TV, car or holiday, to having a baby, buying a house or planning for retirement, we’ll keep questioning the way things are, to make things better for all consumers.
Now visit Which?’s 60th anniversary page.
Or visit the Which? homepage to get the latest news, reviews and campaign updates.