Harrogate of Ogden: Behind the scenes of a Yorkshire retail institution

Robert Ogden (right) with his brother Ben outside the family-run shop in Harrogate. Picture by Simon Hulme.
Robert Ogden (right) with his brother Ben outside the family-run shop in Harrogate. Picture by Simon Hulme.
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It’s a story that includes chapters on a tiara worn by Napoleon’s Joséphine and the treasures of the Tomb of Tutankhamun. Sarah Freeman looks back on 125 years of a retail institution.

Once all shops were like Ogden of Harrogate. In fact, until not all that long ago the jewellers was surrounded on St James Street by independent businesses, many of which could trace their history through generations of the same family. Things have changed though. Over the last decade brothers Ben and Robert Ogden, who now run the firm, have watched those they once shared a postcode with move on or close down and now they are the last independent men standing in this corner of the town.

The Ogden family and staff pictured in 1909.

The Ogden family and staff pictured in 1909.

The Ogdens don’t moan about the arrival of middle-class mainstays like Joules and Whistles – they are far too polite for that – but they also know that in a world where fashion fads come and go, any retail firm which can chalk up 125 years must have something worth cherishing.

“There is a balance to be had,” says Robert. It’s Monday morning and the street is just waking up. There are no customers yet in Ogden. They will come later and, before they do, the staff painstakingly arrange the window displays as they have always done. “Part of the reason people come here is because they trust us and they like how we operate. You tinker with those fundamentals of a business at your peril, but this isn’t a museum and you can’t preserve the present in aspic.

“I like to think that we have that balance just right. We do make and stock contemporary designs, but if someone comes in here with a family heirloom that needs restoring we also have the knowledge to be able to do that.”

In preparation for the landmark anniversary, the brothers have been amassing objects produced in 1893, which so far include a newspaper article that mentions the business and a pocket watch believed to be the first that the firm sold. “What we have learnt is that every piece has a story to tell,” adds Ben, who is the gems expert of the brothers. “That pocket watch was sold to a man called Mr Bennett. He didn’t have enough money to buy it outright, so was allowed to pay for it at so much per week.

Jeweller John Charmak pictured at work in the workshop. Picture by Simon Hulme.

Jeweller John Charmak pictured at work in the workshop. Picture by Simon Hulme.

“However, one day when he called in to hand over his next instalment, he was called into the office and told that he needn’t to make any more payments. It turned out he had shown the pocket watch to so many people that orders had gone through the roof. It’s easy for customers to be seen as just numbers in a profit and loss column, but JR Ogden realised that if you look after them, they will look after you.”

The story of Ogden began as Harrogate was booming thanks to its spa waters.

“In some ways, our story reflects the story of the town,” says Ben. “When James Roberts Ogden founded the firm, the spa town was in its heyday. The new baths had opened in the 1870s and as soon as they did the visitor numbers boomed. These were people who had money to spend and the staff here were often sent to the big hotels with the latest display of jewellery.”

The firm’s first premises was in Cambridge Street. According to the records, the first item sold was a clock for £2.12.6 and from that one sale the business grew and it played a part in so many chapters of the town’s history.

The first pocket watch sold in 1893.

The first pocket watch sold in 1893.

In 1911 the Daily Mail sponsored a round Britain air race and, keen to get in on the act, the Harrogate Chamber of Trade asked the jewellers to provide a silver tea set as the prize for the first person to get to the town. There was, however, one stipulation – the pilot had to be English. “Unfortunately the first pilot to arrive was French and so was the second,” says Robert. “The Chamber of Trade was apparently getting a little nervous, but the third plane to land did indeed have an English pilot. The only problem was the tea set was so heavy that it hindered his take-off and he had to leave it behind.”

While its high-end clientele has provided something of a buffer from the vagaries of the economy, Ogden hasn’t been immune from events of the outside world. While the company survived the First World War, it was changed. By 1914 it had opened a number of other shops around the country, but all except Harrogate were closed and never reopened.

“When the war ended JR Ogden decided instead that he would open a site in London,” says Ben. “In order to find suitable premises he went to the capital disguised in working men’s clothes and loitered the streets around St James to find out which were visited by the most wealthy looking customers.” The opening of the London store was JR Ogden’s last great act and once everything was in place he stepped back from the business and handed the day-to-day running to his sons so he could pursue his other interests which included Egyptology.

Ogden was in correspondence with Howard Carter who had just discovered the Tomb of Tutankhamun. He also helped catalogue the treasures discovered by Sir Leonard Woolley in his famous excavations in what is now Iraq and became an adviser on goldwork to the British Museum.

“He really was quite a remarkable man and it his legacy and all the Ogdens who came after that we really want to celebrate this year,” says Robert, looking at a series of glass cases on the first floor of the shop, which now acts as a mini museum to the business. “I think everyone who has been involved in the business shares an eye for quality. In the lead-up to the coronation of George VI we acquired the famous diamond coronet which had been created for Emperor Napoleon’s wife Joséphine. It was bought by one very well-connected lady who wore it to the coronation and it’s really lovely to think that we have played a part, however small, in those moments in history.”

Later in the year there will be a series of anniversary events, but for now downstairs customers drink freshly brewed coffee while choosing their latest piece of jewellery and upstairs Ogden’s master craftsmen are busy repairing, restoring and working on new commissions.

“It’s this room which helps set us apart from a lot of jewellers,” adds Ben, wandering through the small, but perfectly formed workshop. “Most firms these days have to send their work off to somewhere else, but we have always kept ours in-house. I’ll be honest, it isn’t easy finding people who are skilled enough to work with the kind of jewellery we deal with, but having craftsmen on site who can talk to our customers and work with them is one of our great selling points.

“They use some of the same tools JR Ogden’s men would have used 125 years ago, but we also have invested in the latest technology. It’s that blend of tradition and forward thinking which I like to think was there in 1893 and which has run through to day. In fact, I think it’s in our DNA.”