Eight historic department stores in London…4. Harrods…
November 30, 2016
Famed as a luxury shopping destination for the rich and famous, Harrods on Brompton Road in Knightsbridge takes its name from founder Charles Henry Harrod.
Harrod first established a drapery business in Southwark in 1824 and in 1832, founded Harrods & Co Grocers in Clerkenwell. Two years later he established another grocery, this time in Stepney, with a particular interest in tea.
In 1849, to capitalise on trade to the upcoming Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851, he took over a small shop on the site of the current store – initially with just two assistants and a messenger boy. In 1861 his son, the similarly-named Charles Digby Harrods, took over the business and by 1880, the store was employing more than 100 people offering customers everything from medicines and perfumes to clothing and food and already attracting the wealthy customers it would become known for.
Even the burning down of the store in late 1883, failed to dint its long-term success, and Harrod took the opportunity to build a capacious new building on the site. Designed by Charles Williams Stephens, the building, which wasn’t finished until 1905, featured Art Nouveau windows and was topped with a dome. One of its attractions opened on 16th November, 1898, when it became home to England’s first “moving staircase” (escalator). Nervous customers were apparently offered a brandy once they’d made the journey.
Harrods’ fame continued to grow and over the years a who’s who of London society has been associated with the store – everyone from writers like Oscar Wilde, and AA Milne, actors Ellen Terry, Charlie Chaplin and Laurence Olivier and luminaries such as the “father of psychoanalysis” Sigmund Freud and many members of the Royal family.
Under the motto of Omnia Omnibus Ubique (All Things for All People, Everywhere), the store became famous for selling whatever the customer wanted including, thanks to an exotic pets department which lasted up until the 1970s, a lemur called Mah-Jongg which was sold to Stephen and Virginia Courtauld in 1923 and lived with them at Eltham Palace and a lion called Christian to Australian expats John Rendall and Anthony “Ace” Bourke in 1969 (it was later set free in Kenya).
The ownership meanwhile has long since left the Harrods family – Charles Digby had sold his shares as far back as 1889 when the company was floated on the London Stock Exchange and renamed Harrods Stores Limited with Sir Alfred James Newton as chairman and Richard Burbridge as managing director. Burbridge was succeeded by his son in 1917 and he by his son in 1935.
In 1959, the company was bought by House of Fraser and in 1985, the store was sold to the Al-Fayed brothers (Mohamed Al-Fayed famously had two memorials created inside dedicated to Diana, Princess of Wales, and his son Dodi Fayed, both of whom died in a car crash in Paris in 1997. He also decided not to renew the company’s Royal warrants – it has had up to four). Current owners Qatar Holding, the sovereign wealth fund of Qatar, bought the company in 2010.
The company has opened a number of other Harrods stores over the years – including its only ever foreign branch (long since independent) in Argentina in 1914 and, in 2000, a shop aboard the ship RMS Queen Elizabeth 2.
The Knightsbridge store, meanwhile, has been twice bombed by the IRA – in 1983 when six were killed and scores more injured after a car bomb exploded in an adjoining street and in 1993 when a bomb was placed in a litter bin, injuring four. In 1989, it controversially introduced a dress code, banning casual wear like flip-flops and Bermuda shorts.
Now the largest department store in Europe, the Brompton Road store has more than million square feet of selling floor over seven stories. It attracts some 15 million customers a year to its more than 300 different departments and other facilities including more than 25 restaurants and cafes, a concierge, bank, spa and personal shopping service.