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16 October 2014
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Warden Brothers

This Newtownards store first opened in 1877 selling ironmongery and hardware to local farmers. James Warden was the shop's founder and the business still remains a family firm today.

Helen Campbell (left) chats to Helen Mark outside the front entrance to Wardens

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Article contributed by Claire Burgoyne (July 2004)

'Warden Brothers' has always occupied the same site on High Street in Newtownards. Its founder James Warden was a young man from a farming background. James had served an apprenticeship in Riddells in Belfast, a 200 year old firm that Wardens is still doing business with today.

In the late 1800s, big department stores were just opening to cater for the well-to-do members of Victorian society. Selfridge’s and Harrods in London, and Robinson and Cleaver in Belfast with its marble staircase, were havens for the wives of the newly wealthy captains of industry.

When Wardens opened though it was just selling ironmongery and hardware to local farmers. The farmers came into Newtownards for the market once a week and would call into the store. In fact, the shop has a ledger dating back to 1890, which lists all the orders and accounts for that year. Looking through its entries local names keep turning up .... Montgomery, Ballybarns, McKee, Sandyland, Ritchie, Ballyblack. One entry is for Sam Bailey, who was a vet in Newtownards, and shows him purchasing a dandy-brush, a sheet and a ball of twine for a grand total of three shillings and four pence ha'penny. Apparently Wardens used these hand-written ledgers up until about 20 years ago. Descendants of some of the customers who feature in the 1890 ledger are still doing business with the store today.

Wardens celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2002. As part of the celebrations the shop ran a competition to find the oldest receipt from the store - a local farmer came forward with one dating back to the 1800s. Listed on it is 200 weight of iron at 15 shillings, 12 pounds of chain at 3 shillings and a yard of jack chains at 3 shillings. It's possible the customer was repairing a farm cart.

Helen Mark hears from Hugh Shanks about how they came across the old Wardens' receipt..

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Another receipt dated 13 August 1898 is made out to Thomas Andrews Esquire, Maxwell Court Farm, Comber for two pairs of head shears at six and six pence. Could this be the same Thomas Andrews who was involved in the design of the Titanic?

William Warnock chats wtih Helen Mark
Still a good place to chat!
William Warnock with Helen Mark

Wardens started off as a hardware store and hardware is still at the heart of the shop’s business. Nowadays it's the DIY enthusiasts and home decorators who crowd into the department.

William Warnock, who joined in 1957, is responsible for this part of the store. He says people still talk of the time - before he joined - when farmers would come into the store on Saturday nights and stay for a chat until 11pm. Back then the shop was a real meeting place for farmers – ‘the’ place to get together in Newtownards.

It was another 'James' Warden who developed the shop in the 1950s. He was the father of Helen Campbell, the current managing director of the store. He left school when he was quite young, in the belief that they had taught him all they could. The store then came to be known as the "wee boy's shop". James hated to tell people he couldn't get them things and would go to extreme lengths to produce the goods. On one occasion somebody wanted curtain material to match some other furnishings they had. There was not the same variety then, so his solution was to have fabric handpainted the desired colour, with the hope that the customer would never wash it!

Dick and Ida Thompson share happy memories of Wardens with Helen Mark
 Dick and Ida Thompson share happy memories of Wardens with Helen Mark

Farming customers are still regulars though. Ida and Dick Thompson have been coming to Wardens for years and have very happy memories of the place. In particular Dick remembers electric fencing being brought into the store and the manager of the hardware department playing a joke on customers by shaking their hands and giving them electric shocks!

The Wardens building is full of creaky charm. Some parts of the original buildings are still there – the old walls were discovered when they were redecorating recently. Upstairs is a top room where they used to plan out the carpets. A giant sewing machine would stitch up the carpets and customers can still see the metal studs in the floor, used as a measuring gauge, which are embedded into the wooden floorboards.

Over the years Warden family members have either gone into the family business or farming. Helen Campbell was persuaded to join the family firm after studying chemistry at Queen’s. She's married to a farmer though, so she's still closely rooted to her family's agricultural roots. Not only is Warden Brothers a family firm, but there is a family feeling within the workforce. Many of the staff, both past and present, have given long service to the store working in it from leaving school until retirement. Today there are around seventy members of staff employed by Wardens.

Helen Mark heard the story of Warden Brothers when she visited the store for a BBC Radio Ulster series Bargains and Bed Linens in July 2004.

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Have you any stories or ancedotes about Wardens you'd like to share? Tell us about the traditional departmental store in your local area - whether opened or closed. You can do this by filling in the form below.

Find out more about other department stores that featured in the series .....

The White House, Portrush

S.D. Kells, Lisnaskea

Linton and Robinson, Strabane

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