Anthony Harding

HARDING, Anthony 1762-1851. Department store owner.

Anthony Harding was already aged seventy when he came to live at Bell House, College Road in 1832 moving from Streatham. He was born in Hoptown in Derbyshire on New Year’s Day 1762, one of four children of a member of the local landed gentry. On 12 November 1792, aged 30, he married Frances Ashby, also from Derbyshire and the daughter of one of his business associates. They married by special licence in London. Special licences were issued by the Archbishop of Canterbury and were expensive, a sign of status for the more wealthy and well-connected who did not want the ‘vulgarity’ of a public wedding. In Pride & Prejudice, on hearing of the wealth of Elizabeth’s suitor, Mrs Bennet exclaims ‘A special licence! You must and shall be married by a special licence’. The Hardings had two children, Elizabeth born in 1793 and Frances born in 1795. Mrs Harding died in 1801. When Elizabeth married she and her husband lived with her father at Bell House. Elizabeth’s husband was Thomas Scholes Withington who played a significant part in the Peterloo Massacre in 1819 and was the subject of an article in the Journal by Bernard Nurse in 2008 (Journal 157).

Anthony Harding, inventor of the department store

Anthony Harding described himself as a silk mercer but he was actually much more. In 1795 he was living in Holborn and became a freeman of the company of musicians by redemption, meaning he paid a fee of forty-six shillings. At this time the musicians’ livery was a kind of general guild open to anyone. The fact that he chose this guild rather than the drapers suggests that perhaps he was not a trained draper, that is he had not undergone an apprenticeship. This makes his later success all the more impressive. Harding, Howell & Co.’s Grand Fashionable Magazine was located in Schomberg House on Pall Mall, a mansion originally built for one of William III’s generals, where Gainsborough had lived and which was later used as the War Office.

Founded in 1789, Harding’s can be considered the first modern department store. For the first time women were able to shop on their own, safely and respectably. They did not have to walk along the street in public to visit different shops and so did not need a male chaperone, neither were they tied to buying the limited range of the tradesmen who visited door-to-door. They were free to browse and choose for themselves. These women were members of the newly-affluent middle-class, their good fortune buoyed by the Industrial Revolution. They went to the department store to shop, to meet their friends and to examine the latest fabrics to pass on to their dressmakers; ready-made clothing for women would not be available for another century. Drapers like Anthony Harding understood this newly emerging class of women and saw that shopping could now be a social activity and it is no coincidence that many of London’s famous department stores such as Whiteleys and John Lewis were started by drapers.

The shops were designed to be as attractive and enticing as possible with large glazed windows, glass chandeliers, tall ceilings from which to hang the fabrics and large glass-fronted cases to display the merchandise.

As the premier shopping street of this nation of shopkeepers, Pall Mall was one of Georgian London’s most fashionable streets and regency ladies came here for the most fasionable textiles. It is often mentioned by Jane Austen and it is outside a shop in Pall Mall that Colonel Brandon hears of Willoughby’s engagement in Sense and Sensibility. Indeed, the most frequently mentioned item of shopping in Jane Austen’s letters is fabric for dressmaking and she would undoubtedly have known Harding’s. By 1809 it employed forty people in the store plus countless artisans all over the country supplying them with items for sale. To further attract the ‘beneficiaries of the new affluent’ Harding’s had a refreshments room on the first floor. Harding was said to be a man of ‘vision and vigour and a business genius’ and he redesigned the shop to suit his needs. The shop was on the ground floor, divided by glazed mahogany partitions into five ‘departments’: first furs and fans; secondly silks, muslins, lace and gloves; thirdly jewellery, ornamental articles in ormolu, French clocks and perfumery; fourthly millinery and dresses and lastly textiles, especially chintzes and their accessories. There was ‘no article of female attire or decoration, but what may be here procured in the first style of elegance and fashion...the present proprietors have spared neither trouble nor expense to ensure the establishment of a superiority over every other in Europe, and to render it perfectly unique in its kind’. On the first floor above the ground floor shop were workrooms where many of the forty men and women employees worked. On the top floor, reached by Schomberg’s original 1698 painted staircase, was a café known as ‘Mr Cosway’s breakfast room’ where customers met for ‘wines, teas, coffee and sweetmeats’.

Harding possessed a talent for advertising and was especially keen to reassure potential customers (or ‘families of the first rank’) that all their furnishing fabrics were made in England but that they could also supply ‘every article of foreign manufacture which there is any possibility of obtaining’ (J Ashelford The Art of Dress 1500-1914) The shop had many royal customers. St James’ Palace was a short walk away and Marlborough House even had a connecting door to the shop. George III had many connections with Harding. He commissioned Harding & Howell’s to design and make the hangings for his bedroom at Kew. He asked Harding to market the cloth produced from the royal flocks of merino sheep grazed at Windsor and King George himself would bring his daughters to visit the shop. Harding would close the shop so that the royal family might browse in private and while the king would take great interest in the goods for sale the princesses loved to go behind the counters. Queen Charlotte asked the store to design particular dress silks for her, which Harding would then cannily market under the name ‘Queen’s silk’. When the Prince of Wales asked them to design a new chintz for his bedroom at Carlton House, Harding’s marketing acumen led him to arrange for a cutting of the fabric to be pasted into every issue of Ackermann’s Repository of the Arts alongside the advertisement of their shop. He also arranged for each entrant in the newly published Debrett’s Peerage to be sent a sample of chintz and reminded of the shop’s royal patronage.

Shops were open much later than they are now, until around ten at night and in 1807 Pall Mall was the first street to be lit by gas which would make the printed chintzes and textiles look particularly ravishing. When a patent was granted for the first permanent green dye for chintz Harding secured the sole selling rights. The fabric was advertised as ‘a discovery never before offered to the public’. Harding also cleverly always suggested possible linings for every fabric, thus potentially doubling sales volumes.


Anthony Harding was innovative in other ways too. London’s place as ‘the greatest and most dynamic city in the Western world’ was secure and just as Thomas Wright had sent goods out to North America so Anthony exported around the world. Although the shop covered only one third of the large Schomberg House, in 1804 Anthony Harding bought the lease for the whole building and let the other two shops; when his shop needed renovating the firm took over another part of the building, so minimising the impact on business. When they saw the demand for lace, they set up their own lace factory. They brought over a Flemish woman skilled in making French and Flemish lace and advertised for apprentice lace-makers. The Flemish expert would instruct ‘young women respectably connected and of good conduct’ in the art of lace-making, for a fee of £10 each. They also sold a hair dye which claimed to be ‘the best Dye in the universe for immediately changing red or grey hair.

In December 1819 Harding & Howell moved their business to 9 Regent St, ‘opposite Carlton House’ where they were ‘quite prepared to offer a regular succession of novelty throughout the season’. This idea of novelty was important for the sale of clothes and accessories. Disposable income was increasing and the empire was providing a wider range of goods, people were beginning to buy new things even when they didn’t need them and it was important to offer new items to ensure customers kept returning to the shop. In an 1834 report from China the correspondent talks of the demand for things ‘pretty, odd and new at Howell’s or Harding’s’. Harding & Howell were obviously highly successful and in the process they secured a Royal Warrant as ‘Silk Mercer by Appointment’ to Queen Victoria.

Although Harding once behaved unusually generously in taking back an employee who had stolen from the Company, his involvement in a charitable enterprise in 1796 sounds more of an advertisement for his shop than an act of philanthrophy - a notice placed in The Times on behalf of the ‘peculiar and distressful circumstances’ of a lieutenant in the East India Company, struggling under sickness and poverty while caring for his two infant children and was threatened with ‘the cold and loathsome damp’ of a debtors’ prison. Donations were invited to be left at Harding & Howell’s on Pall Mall.

At home at Bell House

In 1832 Anthony bought a new lease on Bell House which obliged him to contribute to the cost of lighting Dulwich village. Joseph Romilly, whose family lived at The Willows on Dulwich Common, records in his diary: ‘2 April 1833. Called with Lucy [his sister] on Mrs Withington at Bell House … civilly received’. Calls were an essential part of social networking. Ladies often had a particular ‘at home’ day where they received callers for tea and cake. People did not stay long and it was not rude to say you were ‘not at home’, the convention was that the caller would simply leave a card. All calls and cards had to be returned however and daughters were expected to accompany their mothers from when they were old enough until their marriage when they would commence their own round of at-homes.

A full house

It was a large household at the time of the 1841 census with Anthony, his daughter Elizabeth and her children Alice, Frances, Florence and Elizabeth. There were six female servants, a manservant, Sophia Hegley, the children’s governess and George the coachman, his wife Hannah and their daughter Harriet. There would also have been ‘daily’ servants such as gardeners or ‘charwomen’, who did not live in but came to work each day or to help if the family were entertaining. The lives of these figures are even harder to recover than those of the live-in servants as we have no names or particular duties and they were at the bottom of the domestic pecking order. However, we are familiar with life below stairs thanks to recemt films and television series

Most of the Harding servants came from London or the home counties as was usual at this time. Often the best way to get a reliable and trustworthy maid was through the recommendation of friends or acquaintances at church. Later, servants would come from farther afield, either travelling with a family when they moved to London, or obliged to leave the countryside because of mechanisation or agricultural depression. The nature of service was also changing at this time. No longer considered part of the family, servants were now exclusively working-class and usually female, with a heavy workload and expected to be neither seen nor heard. At this time a large extension was added to Bell House for servants’ quarters.

Anthony Harding died in 1851, aged 90 and is buried at St Leonard’s Church, Streatham. It seems that he still had a business interest in Schomberg until the day he died.

by Sharon O’Connor