Woods of Harrogate: Fine linens and home shop that has been owned by the same family since 1895 marks 127th anniversary

One of Harrogate's oldest independent retailers celebrates its 127th birthday this year - and it is still owned by the same family who founded it in 1895.

Linen and interior design shop Woods of Harrogate's owners, father and daughter William and Sarah Woods, had originally hoped to attract a member of the Royal Family to visit their premises on Prince Albert Row, off Station Parade, for the 125th anniversary in 2020 before Covid struck.

Instead the family team have been looking back at their business's incredible heritage and its unique standing not only in Harrogate’s retail history but in Britain’s as a whole.

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“We weren’t able to celebrate our 125th because of Covid, when it was hoped we might have a royal visit because of the long association of the family with Woods, which goes back to 1927 when the late Princess Royal (Princess Mary, who moved to Yorkshire when she married the future Earl of Harewood) was a regular visitor,” said Mr Woods.

William Woods and his daughter Sarah are both renowned interior designersWilliam Woods and his daughter Sarah are both renowned interior designers
William Woods and his daughter Sarah are both renowned interior designers

“But it’s been a delight to finally do so and to invite our customers to share in the celebrations.

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“We are immensely proud of being regarded in the industry and beyond as probably the finest specialist linen and home shop in Europe.”

Woods was recently voted as one of the top 20 leading interior design practices in the country by The Daily Telegraph.

Woods Fine Linens of Harrogate pictured in the 1940sWoods Fine Linens of Harrogate pictured in the 1940s
Woods Fine Linens of Harrogate pictured in the 1940s
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The news came as something of a thrill but Woods stands for more than success.

Having taking over the reins at the age of 17 after the tragic death of his parents in a car crash, what means most to Mr Woods isn’t simply that in an ever-changing world the shop has retained an international-wide reputation for high quality, first set by his grandfather William Ernest who launched Woods in 1895.

It’s the fact that, almost uniquely in a town blessed with an impressive range of long-established businesses - Fattorinis, Ogdens, Morgan Clare, Rhodes Wood - it is still what it always was, a wholly owned and run true family business.

“It really is a family business,” said William, who is a member of the elite British Institute of Interior Design. “Sarah, Jennifer and Jonathan all contribute significantly to the smooth running of the shop, along with Nicholas Richardson.

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“To us, the occasion of our 127th anniversary reminds us of our custodianship of something which much greater than ourselves.”

When William’s daughter Sarah joined the business’s interior design department in 2008, she became the first fifth generation in the company. She now co-runs it with William.

While Woods has counted members of the aristocracy, landed gentry and the Royal Family amongst its clients for more than 100 years, its goal is to show that ‘traditional’ needn’t be old fashioned and that excellence should be available to all, whether in a manor house or a new build.

Whether it’s household linens, bathroom towels or beds, upholstery, decorative plasterwork or curtains, Woods is about beauty and quality based on a wealth of knowledge and expertise.

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Woods’ products are so durable they endure in this modern era of throwaway culture.

Much like the shop itself...

Historical roots of a unique Harrogate shop and its links to the ill-fated Titanic

The brown plaque outside Woods may say the shop was first opened in Harrogate in 1895 but, in fact, the family name has been synonymous with the finest linen and luxury cotton since 1733.

In those days the family were involved with linen produced at Castle Mill in Knaresborough.

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The shop’s life began in the late Victorian era when William Ernest Woods, who was manager of the mill, opened a shop then called The Linen Warehouse on Princes Street in Harrogate.

In the early days, the shop supplied the town’s major hotels with fine quality linens and towels.

But it soon became celebrated as one of the finest and most comprehensive linen shops in Europe.

The new shop’s swift success was aided by its close association with famous Northern Ireland linen manufacturer named John Shaw Browns which helped support William Woods.

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Browns also supplied fine linen to the first class cabins aboard the ill-fated Titanic.

Woods still possesses a collection of original linen of the type which went down with the ship, which is why the Titanic Belfast museum, which opened in 2012, contacted Woods of Harrogate for its input.

The business moved to Prince Albert Row in 1928 shortly after receiving Royal patronage. The shop founder’s son George, took over the running of the business in 1940.

William inherited the family business in 1965 and has overseen its evolution as the world continues to change.

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How talented and quietly determined William Woods rose to the challenge after family tragedy

The tragedy of losing both parents in a car crash propelled the 17-year-old William Woods into a future he could not have foreseen.

At a stroke, the young man had to gives up his dreams of pursuing a legal career to run the family business in Harrogate. But you don’t rush into things at a shop which has been built on such high quality standards.

First, William served an apprenticeship with a famous linen manufacturing company in Northern Ireland, then he trained as an interior designer with Heal’s in 1960s London.

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It was this experience which enabled William not only to climb to the top of the tree in his area on a national level but also bring a new element of diversification to Woods Fine Linens with a new interior design department.

Not only has William led the company’s comprehensive interiors design service for the last 50 years with clients around the country with, more recently the expert help of his daughter Sarah, he has also carved out his own reputation for specialising in grand period houses.

With a painstaking attention to detail, William Woods is one of only a handful of people in the UK to be a Fellow of the British Institute of Interior Design.

As someone who, alongside the likes of his great friend, historian Malcolm Neesam, played a key role in forming Harrogate Civic Society in 1971, William cares not only about the future of the business but of the town itself.

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Although convinced both can still have a successful future, he admits he is worried.

“We are hopeful that we continue to grow,” said William, “but conditions on the high street are tough.”

“Businesses need to adapt to survive and thrive. We aim to be on the leading edge of what we do rather than chasing others.”

Yet it may be the company's traditions which enable their continued success - the shop still has an Edwardian lift and purchases are wrapped in brown paper and string and carried to customers' cars. The shop has never opened on weekends - preferring to preserve treasured family time - and has staff who have clocked up decades of service.

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