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.
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?
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!
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.
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