Founded as a family shop in East London in the early 19th century, the Knightsbridge department store Harrods has grown into a brand recognised all over the world. But it wasn't always plain sailing. Here, Robin Harrod, great-great-grandson of the shop's founder, shares its surprising origins and a few of the many setbacks faced by its first owners, from fires and financial crashes to criminal convictions...
In 1824, a man named Charles Henry Harrod opened a shop in Southwark, London – a business which (contrary to perceived wisdom) was not a tea and grocery shop but a draper’s. After brushes with the law and more than a few dramatic setbacks, he would later go on to found Harrods store in Knightsbridge, widely viewed as one of the wonders of the shopping world.
Charles Henry Harrod was born in Essex in 1799, his parents’ third child. During Charles’ childhood, the Harrod family did not have a settled home and had to move several times because of his father’s job. William Harrod worked as a exciseman or gauger, collecting excise tax for the government, inspecting taxable bulk merchandise and preventing smuggling. The excisemen of this era were, to say the least, unpopular, and the attitude towards them in the local population was ambivalent. Many people, especially those living near the coast, were either involved in, dependent upon, or turned a blind eye to the proceeds of smuggling and contraband. As a consequence, excisemen were mostly employed away from their home area and moved regularly so as to avoid any conflict of interest or retribution.
Four days before Charles Henry’s 13th birthday, following the death of his mother just a year earlier, Charles' father also died. He and his siblings found themselves orphans. Although not a lot is known about what happened next, the Harrod children were almost certainly befriended by a local Essex family who had been known to their parents. Charles reputedly worked with them for a few years as a miller in Clacton, but drifted to London some years later with his brother and two sisters. He worked in his drapery and haberdashery business for around eight years, and for a couple of years with a man called William Wicking, but this partnership was dissolved in 1826.
Whilst living in Southwark, Charles decided to marry the daughter of the family from Essex whom he had known during his youth. Elizabeth Digby was part of a very large Digby clan based around the villages of Birch, south-west of Colchester, many of them successful millers, butchers and farmers. Elizabeth was 10 years younger than Charles Henry, so would have been about 14 years old when he left Essex for London.
In 1825, Charles Henry’s draper’s shop was hit hard by a financial crash. Additionally, there was a lot of competition and the business began to struggle. However, in the early 1830s, the tea trade in Britain was beginning to open up, as the East India Company had lost its monopoly on the product. Charles and Elizabeth sensed a business opportunity. They decided to try something new and to move across the Thames to Shadwell in East London, where the building of new docks allowed a much-improved method of unloading goods. This opened up prospects for an entrepreneur. In 1831 or 1832, Charles Henry gave up his Southwark drapery business and he and Elizabeth opened a tea dealer and grocer’s shop in Cable Street.
Artist’s impression of Charles Henry Harrod's shop in 1849, produced for the Harrods centenary in 1949. (Getty Images)
Scares and setbacks
In 1836, Charles Henry and Elizabeth's attempts to establish an apparently viable business suffered a considerable set back – a scarily close encounter with the law. After being targeted by a police operation, Charles Henry was caught red-handed receiving stolen goods. He was sentenced to transportation to Van Dieman’s Land [the name used by Europeans for Tasmania at the time], as one of more than 160,000 prisoners that were transported to Australia between 1788 and 1868. This punishment would have seen him forced to leave England – and his shop – for seven years.
Following his sentencing, Charles Henry’s wife and friends made several appeals against his transportation, based on his good character and bad health. A total of 190 of Harrod’s friends and colleagues – including numerous shopkeepers – signed various petitions asking for his sentence to be commuted.
Fortunately for Charles Henry, the appeals proved successful and he was reprieved from transportation. He was sent to Millbank prison for a year and was reunited with his family in the spring or summer of 1837, eventually returning to continue with his business. In the meantime, the Harrods had suffered a tragic family loss – in the early 1830s, their first child died.
Charles Henry learned his lesson and trade gradually increased. He was able to start his own wholesale business in Eastcheap, creating a solid base that some years later enabled him to lay the foundations for the Knightsbridge store of today.
The move to Brompton Road was a speculative but brilliant move at a time that the city was rapidly sprawling westwards, partially aided by The Great Exhibition of 1851 held in Hyde Park. Harrod was able to take over an existing grocer’s shop on the Brompton Road on the site of the present building. It was run by a client of his wholesale business who had got into financial difficulties and allowed Charles Henry to gradually take over in lieu of his debts.
Charles Henry Harrod consolidated his position and progressively expanded the shop and business activity. As he tired after many years of hard graft, his innovative son Charles Digby Harrod took charge and the development of the store went into overdrive.
A portrait of Charles Digby Harrod. (James Weightman)
Charles Digby was a human dynamo compared to his more careful father. A hard but fair taskmaster, he got the best out of his loyal workers. Competitors were seen off, new methods of advertising and trading were used and new departments followed. Charles Digby bought up neighbouring shops as they became available and gradually the footprint of the present store began to be formed.
His business was based not on the luxury goods and clients of today, but on selling good quality at a low price to anyone who would buy. The store's up-market business model would follow later.
In 1883, during the build-up to the busy Christmas sales season, calamity struck as a fire burnt the store down to the ground. The response in the press suggested that all was lost. For many, this would have been an enormous setback. Yet in typical fashion, Charles Digby turned the disaster into an opportunity to build the shop afresh, extend the departments and modernise the layout. He fulfilled every Christmas order on time using temporary premises across the road together with the hard work of his staff. His reputation – and that of the store – was enhanced.
By the end of the century, Charles Digby was the father of eight grown-up children. Despite this, there was noone able to take over the reins. Charles Digby decided to retire and the business was sold. Forty years of Harrod control of the store came to an end and a Limited Company was formed, with the first of a series of Burbidge family members in charge.
The sale proved to be yet another boost to the development of the future store. By 1912 the surrounding properties had been acquired and the shell of the present building had been built on a footprint that survives to this day. The future was rosy, as a dynasty of Burbidge owners was to take the store into the future.