17 March 2017
We review The Jewel of Knightsbridge by Robin Harrod, who discovered his ancestor founded the iconic London store
Robin Harrod’s late father had been orphaned as a child, so the author only discovered he was actually the 2x great-grandson of the founder of the legendary Harrods store in Knightsbridge after helping his daughter research the family tree for a school project. That was in 1986 and Robin has spent the last 30 years tracing the Harrod family tree, which has led to this book on the colourful history behind this lavish department store.
His impressive research has revealed that Harrods is a decade older than previously thought, as his ancestor Charles Henry Harrod, a draper, began trading in Southwark in 1824. Harrod opened his first East End grocery store in the 1830s, however, history could have been very different but for the lucky hand of fate. In 1836, he narrowly avoided transportation for seven years to Tasmania after being convicted of receiving stolen goods, and went to prison instead.
Later, after being reunited with his young family and turning his back on crime, he took over a shop on the current Harrods site in Brompton Road in 1854, around the time the Great Exhibition closed at nearby Hyde Park. This was a single-storey shop, with accommodation behind, which the Harrod family moved into in this up-and-coming hamlet-turned-suburb. The Harrods store developed thanks partly to Charles’s experience in importing and selling tea, and the business expanded over time to include other goods.
The author’s great-grandfather, Charles Digby Harrod, took Harrods on to bigger and better things. Despite the store being devastated by fire in 1883, the enterpreneur set up a temporary shop opposite, and watched as nine months later a five-storey department store rose from the ashes. He eventually sold Harrods on retiring at the age of 50 in 1889 and a new chapter in the store’s – and the family’s – history began.
This account is packed with fascinating detail for anyone interested in the Harrod family, the business or researchers tracing London or department store ancestors themselves. Throughout, Robin explains the wealth of family history records and methods used in his quest, to show how he traced his ancestors’ lives and connections. In the process, he lifts the shutters on how, from family beginnings in Suffolk and Essex, they planted the roots of the Harrods we know today. The Jewel of Knightsbridge contains a multitude of genealogical tips for ancestor-hunters embarking on their own family history journeys, with all manner of sources used, including those from Harrods and private family archives.
Although we won’t all make such remarkable finds in our own research endeavours, what Robin Harrod shows us is that from the smallest acorns, mighty trees grow.
• ISBN: 9780750968133. RRP £20 hardback, Kindle edition £8.96. The History Press.