Harrods and Knightsbridge go hand-in-hand but a new book has revealed that the high-end store had its humble beginnings in Southwark, writes Kirsty Purnell…
The Jewel of Knightsbridge reveals that the first incarnation of Harrods popped up on Borough High Street in 1824, in the same spot where Tas Café is now.
The author of the book, Robin Harrod – Charles Henry Harrod’s great, great grandson – believes that the young entrepreneur traded on the High Street for eight years, before he moved to Cable Street in east London to open up a shop in 1834.
While records of Charles’ time in Southwark are limited, Robin believes he launched his haberdasher career as one half of Harrod and Wicking partnership before striking out as a sole trader in 1828.
The book also reveals that Harrod married his wife Elizabeth Digby in Borough in 1830 and the pair published their banns in St George’s Cathedral.
“I’m not entirely sure why he chose to move to Southwark,” said author Robin Harrod, 71. “But I think he was drawn to London because he’d been living in rural Essex. His brother Frederick also lived there.”
However, Charles’ fortunes took a turn before he reached the heights of retail success he’s known for now.
In 1836, he was sentenced to seven years transportation to Tasmania – a punishment for convicts which saw them getting shipped off to Australia.
He’d been charged with knowingly receiving stolen goods – 112 pounds of currants – from a City of London wholesaler.
According to Robin, it was part of a “sting operation”, meaning that he and the wholesaler had been set up.
Charles was placed in a “hulk” – a floating prison – in Portsmouth, awaiting the next ship bound for Australia.
However, conditions were unsanitary and it wasn’t long before he became seriously ill. Old friends in Southwark and east London rushed to his aide and petitioned the Home Secretary for his release.
They were successful and his punishment was reduced to a prison sentence in Millbank in Pimlico.
While he was at the jail, one of Charles’ children died. His wife, Elizabeth, lodged a second petition in his name, asking for his release on compassionate grounds.
He was freed in 1838 having served a year at Millbank and returned to Cable Street to relieve his jeweller brother Frederick of care-taking duties.
He moved the business to Brompton Road – Harrods’ final destination – in around 1855.
“He had a lot of foresight. Brompton and Fulham were rural at that time but he had the foresight to see the population was moving west,” said Robin.
While Robin uncovered many twists and turns in his great, great grandfather’s story perhaps Robin’s own story has the greatest twist of all – for most of his life, he didn’t know he was related to Charles Harrod.
“My dad was an orphan. His attitude toward his family was if they don’t want me then I don’t want them,” said the ex-GP.
“Then after he died, my daughter came home from school with a family tree and asked he to help her fill in the blanks. The book started from there.”
“We used to joke we were related to Harrods because there aren’t many around but we weren’t serious!”
It took thirty years from start to finish to complete the research for The Jewel. “Back in those days when I started you had to go to the national archives to look things up! It was all done on paper trail, not computerised.”
Robin worked closely with the Southwark Local History Library and the Harrods archives to put all of the pieces together.
“I’m delighted that it’s got published. This hasn’t ever been about making money. You do this sort of thing so that people read your stories.”