IN AN era when once iconic high street names like Anderson & McAuley and Robinson & Cleaver are but a distant memory, one department store has weathered the changing face of shopping to celebrate 145 years in business.
Newtownards boasts several outstanding shops, many of them independently owned, but none can lay claim to the longevity of the great high street tradition that is Warden Bros Ltd. The family run department store has been passed down through generations of the Warden family and is currently managed by Jane Campbell, whose mother Helen Campbell (née Warden) was a familiar face to shoppers at Wardens from the 1970s until her death in February 2020.
Helen’s great uncle, James Warden, established the department store at its current site on High Street in 1877 and in celebration of that remarkable family achievement the store is hosting a week of spring events from April 25-30. Sarah Groves, who has been with the soft furnishings department for 19 years, is also currently hard at work on a new window display that will feature still-working products that have been bought by Wardens’ customers across the generations. It’s a fitting tribute to a store that has stood proudly through two world wars, the Troubles and a world-wide pandemic.
Jane reveals that her great great uncle, James Warden, was a particularly young man when he opened the store in 1877. “He set it up to cater for the local farming community, so there was ironmongery, farming supplies and so on.
At one stage the business had a store in Belfast selling fireplaces but now it’s all on one site, which has been expanded over the years. “When James died quite unexpectedly at a young age his two brothers, Robert and George, took on the store,” says Jane. “Robert’s son James, who was my grandfather, was obviously a very ambitious person,” she continues, “because at the age of 14 he told them there was nothing else he could learn from school and he wanted to get into the world of work “He came in here and worked alongside Robert and George but his father then went back into farming and really James was left in charge and it was known by local people as, ‘the wee boy’s shop’ because he was only a young teenager when he was running the business.” Jane describes her grandfather as a man of great foresight who made tremendous strides in developing the business.
She explains: “He realised that when the farmers came down to do the market trading at the Old Cross and in town, they often brought their wives so he started selling furniture through catalogues and realised that there was a market for that. “He started selling more of the interior side of things and I suppose it was before interior design was the industry it is now. “He was out furnishing, measuring carpets and measuring for curtains at some of the grand houses within the area, and at hotels.
He would have travelled far and wide doing that. “We actually made furniture on the premises and there are still some of the designs here. All of the curtains were made on site and they still are made on site here for our interior design business and soft furnishings department.” That legacy has, if anything, become an even more key element of business at Wardens following the pandemic. Says Jane: “People were at home and realised the importance of having a home that they loved to live in and the importance of having a nice garden. I think life in lockdown for many of us became a lot more simple and we went back to those things that are important. “Interior design has become a bigger part of our business, people are really interested in their home environment.”
Jane adds that whilst Wardens has always moved with the times, it has never forgotten its farming roots. “There was hardware and ironmongery at the very beginning and that’s still a core part of what we do and the hardware department is still very much a big part of this business,” she says. Jane’s grandfather James Warden remained the very visible face of Wardens until his death in 1975. “Even as his health started to fail he was still here, he still sat at the front door speaking to all of the customers as they came in and out,” says Jane. James had three daughters of whom only Helen went into the family business after first studying Chemistry at Queen’s University and then cutting her teeth in the world of work at Hales department store in London.
On her return to Northern Ireland, Helen took over the running of Wardens from her father and in one particularly memorable sale met the man she was later to marry. Explains Jane: “My dad was a farmer from Omagh who had lived in Canada for many years. He was working on the house that we grew up in and he needed a fireplace and he ended up coming here to buy it, and that’s how he met my mum. “You can’t move a farm very easily so mum ended up moving to Omagh. She was a girl from Newtownards who had never been on too many farms before but dad built the farm up pretty much from scratch.”
Throughout her working life Helen commuted between Omagh and Newtownards, staying overnight two or three days a week with her mother who lived on the Portaferry Road. “Mum had three children and I’m the eldest, says Jane. “We all grew up in Omagh and mum was very much involved in family and farm life in Omagh as well as working at Wardens. “She was busy but we have always been very fortunate in having brilliant store managers. “She loved it here at Wardens; she loved the people who worked here, the customers, business life, the Chamber of Trade, everything about Newtownards – she loved it. “I suppose that passion came through into all of us and we were all really proud to be associated with the store and always very interested in what she got up to when she was in Newtownards and we were back on the farm. It inspired us all to be interested in the business.” Jane adds that personal relationships have always been at the heart of the Wardens’ business. “It’s how my mum met my dad, the fireplace is still in our house in Omagh and we have had so many people here whose work has become important in their own lives and they’ve met their partners here,” she says. “We have had generations of staff and customers in here. There’s a couple setting up their wedding gift list at the moment and their parents had their wedding gift list here too.” The store has also served as an important community space for locals, she says. “Farmers who maybe didn’t get into town much would have come in and met people they knew in the hardware department and that still happens, it’s still very much a place where people meet and there are a lot of familiar faces.” Jane credits the strength of the relationships between staff and customers as being at the heart of Wardens’ success. “We are really fortunate in having brilliant staff, many of whom have been here for decades now. The staff are the real strength of this business,” says Jane. “Right back from day one the focus has always been on customer service.
Every department here is very specialised and we have specialist staff so if you’re coming in to buy curtains or a new spade, saucepans or piece of glassware, you will be speaking to someone who knows that product really very well. “That’s what we have always focused on and the loyalty of our staff and customers has been tremendous.” Jane is enjoying heading up the team at Wardens. “It’s important to have an active role so it’s been brilliant to be involved in it over the last few years. “I really enjoy the business and the family have a very strong belief in it and the future of high street retailing and the future of Newtownards. The staff have worked so hard to bring in leading brands to develop the business.” She admits that Covid has proved to be a challenge for Wardens, just as it has for every business. “All of a sudden having been in business for over 140 years the shutters came down in March 2020 for the first time ever. “It was really strange and there was a huge amount to organise, but the government furlough scheme was a fantastic support for businesses, for our staff and for us personally. “There was a huge amount of anxiety, people were worried about their own personal health, their family’s health and their work so it took that pressure off greatly. People were going to be at home and know that they had a job.” She admits that it has been ‘brilliant to be back open’, adding: “Our customers have been super, so supportive, so understanding.
Like every business there have been delays in goods coming in, but they have been really brilliant.” She adds: “Wardens started out as a business that was very much here to serve the farming community and there’s a real community feel within our customer base and within this area, of the importance of supporting independent retailers. “You see it in the thriving high street that we have and the thriving town that we have, that people really do understand the importance of supporting local businesses and the benefits of that to the local economy and creating jobs. It makes for a very vibrant town.”
Jane works closely with the Chamber of Trade in Newtownards, and says the whole town benefits from how active the organisation is locally. “The Chamber has put a huge amount of work into making positive changes in the town, hosting and running events and bringing different people here and we really appreciate the work they do and the Council does to support that,” she says. “It sets Newtownards apart, it’s a thriving place, there are lots of reasons to live here and we’ve houses being built and we want to be a part of that obviously and contribute to the local area.”
Commenting that, ‘there are a lot of people needed to keep things in motion’, Jane says the store employs 45 staff on the shop floor, in administration and out doing deliveries. The emphasis has always been, she says, on selling items of quality, something which has become even more important to customers in recent times. “It’s maybe an environmental awareness,” says Jane, “but people are interested in buying products that last. Couples setting up their wedding lists here know that these will be things they’ll have for the rest of their lives. There’s definitely a move to that. “People are looking for good service, for expertise and lovely products and that remains the same today. “We’ve worked hard to attract big name brands here and to keep them with us, but people also still come in here to buy hammers and nails like they did 145 years ago.”
Jane herself works at the department store part time, four days a week, and says that she is hopeful that the family tradition will be continued, perhaps with her nieces and nephews at the helm one day. Wardens’ Spring Week of celebratory activities, from April 25-30, will include an open evening on Thursday, April 28, with an artisan food trail featuring local producers, and cookery demonstrations by Paula McIntyre and Le Creuset. Valhalla Theatre Company will be dressed in historic costumes, plus there’ll be whiskey tastings, cocktail making with Waterford, coffee demonstrations and prize draws. “It lets people see how products should and can be used and maybe gives them a bit of inspiration,” explains Jane, adding that designers will also be coming over from London to share their ideas.