History of Harrods in London
It’s a world-famous luxury department store now but I’ve been looking into the history of Harrods. Harrods is much more than a shop or a splendid building. Harrods is a British institution. I was reading a book that mentioned Harrods had been in the East End and I was so surprised I wanted to find out the story behind the store.
There are some reports that Charles Henry Harrod (1799-1885) worked as a Miller in Clacton, Essex but his London life started properly in 1824 when he was 25 years old. He opened a business at 228 Borough High Street in south London noted variably as a draper, mercer and a haberdasher. It looks like he started out with a partner as in 1825 the business was listed as ‘Harrod and Wicking, Linen Drapers, Retail’ but this partnership was dissolved at the end of that year. It appears he ran a business from this Borough High Street address until 1831. Let’s see what’s there’s now:
In 1832 he opened his first grocery story in Clerkenwell. ‘Harrods & Co. Grocers’ was at 163 Upper Whitecross Street, EC1. The street is now Whitecross Street; let’s see what’s there now:
A quick chat with the cafe opposite and I found out this currently closed shop was last a beauty clinic. Whitecross Street has a thriving street market and, as you can see, the food stalls were getting ready for the lunchtime rush when I visited one morning.
But the one I really wanted to find was the East End location and that came next. In 1834 tea started to become more important to his business and he opened a wholesale grocery at 4 Cable Street, E1 with a special interest in tea. Let’s see what’s there now:
Always planning ahead, Charles saw the potential in west London with the Great Exhibition coming in 1851 so he rented a small shop in 1849 on Brompton Road in Knightsbridge. The grocery shop was called ‘Harrods’ and started with a single room and a turnover of £20 per week. Soon the tea counter alone was making £200 per week. And yes, that’s where Harrods is now.
During the 1850s, Knightsbridge became highly fashionable and Harrods was able to expand and acquired the adjoining buildings.
In 1860, Charles sold the business to his son Charles Digby Harrod (1841-1905). By 1868 turnover was £1,000 per week with sixteen staff and by 1880 there were one hundred staff to offer that personal service the store is still famous for. It was by now a thriving department store offering everything from medicines and perfumes to clothing and food.
A major setback happened in December 1883 when the store burnt down but, incredibly, Harrods still managed to deliver all the Christmas hampers ordered and made a record profit. There was even a temporary Harrods store opened just along the road for their very loyal customers.
A new store was built on the same site, with the help of architect Charles William Stephens, and continued to attract the wealthy clientele of London. Known for its grandeur, when the store reopened it had a palatial style, featuring a frontage clad in terracotta tiles adorned with cherubs, swirling Art Nouveau windows and was topped with a baroque-style dome.
First Moving Staircase
Harrods continued to expand and innovate and on 16 November 1898, Harrods debuted England’s first “moving staircase” (an escalator). Nervous customers were offered Cognac and smelling salts at the top to revive them after their ‘ordeal’. I seem to remember a similar story for guests using the lift/elevator in the Savoy Hotel.
Star Wars Connection
In 1976, Harrods launched the most modern sports department: Olympic Way. Among the experts dispensing advice was fitness guru David Prowse – soon to gain worldwide fame as Darth Vader in Star Wars.
The department store was purchased by the Fayed brothers in 1985 making it a family-owned business again. They undertook a £300m refurbishment plan of restoration.
In 2010, Harrods was sold to the Qatari Royal Family for £1.5 billion.