Anscombe's Department Store,




This receipt from 1936 recently appeared for sale on ebay and as it clearly referred to a large department store in Harpenden I decided to explore further.


If you are wondering what the 2/6 is doing in the roundel to the bottom left  you have never been in an "old-fashioned" department store. The salesman made out the document for the suspenders, and the customer handed over half a crown (a coin worth 2 shillings and 6 pence) and both were placed in a tube and attached to a high level wire that took the tube to the cashier's desk.  The cashier would stamp the receipt and return it, and the change, to the sales point, via the wire, when the goods, change and receipt were handed to the customer.

I decided to find out more and the book Wheathampstead and Harpenden Book V reported:

Tailors often had a drapery side to their business. In Harpenden the first draper to be described as such, Samuel Oliver, appears in the directory but not the census for 1851. Allen 'Grab­all' Anscombe opened a draper's shop in 1855; by 1861 he was employing two young men, two youths and three young women in the workrooms at Leyton Road. His entry in the 1890 directory reads: 'Family drapers, silk mercers, dress and mantle makers, outfitters, carpet warehousemen, boot and shoe factors, wholesale and family grocers and provision merchants, china and glass etc'. The overhead wire system for carrying money to and from the cashier's desk was still in place when the shop closed in 1981.  [Picture of system in Anscombe's store]

Harpenden - A Picture History (published in 1977) includes a picture and said:

The Anscombes were another family who helped to build commercial Harpenden. Using a room in their Regency house on Leyton Green as shop, they traded as linen drapers, hosiers, haberdashers, grocers and general stores from 1866. Later the firm specialised in fabrics, furnishings and haberdashery and Mrs. Allen Anscombe taught little seamstresses the trade in an upstairs room. A son, Ernest, became an architect and added an extension of character to the growing shopping centre. Today both Wellington House and the shop are listed buildings in the Conservation Area and keep something of their gentility from another age. Where else, in 1973, can you find - still working - the overhead wire tramway which delivers customers' change?

An online search revealed a history of the store, written in 1982, anticipating the immanent closure of the shop, on the Harpenden History web site - but this says little of the early days. I also found an Anscombe Family Tree (which outlines the genealogy).

I decided to do a timeline relating to the shop using records available to me up to the time the Anscombes gave up control in 1926. However the attempt to find newspaper reports was frustrated by the poor coverage of the British Newspaper Archive for Hertfordshire in the latter part of the 19th century into the 20th century - when I an sure there were adverts in papers such as the Herts Advertiser. However I did find details of several family marriages, etc.

Allen Anscombe was born on 30 Oct 1824 in Hampton, Middlesex, his parents being Allen Anscombe (1797-1851) and Mary Ann Woodham (1797-1836).

At the time of the 1841 and 1851 censuses Allen Anscombe was an assistant draper working for Jabez Cherry in the High Street, Redbourn, Jabez being described (in 1851) as a draper and tailor employing 3 men and 3 apprentices. Jabez Cherry was still listed as a tailor at Redbourn in the 1881 census.

In July-September 1855 in the St Albans area Allen married Mary Dorothea Ashby (born Harpenden 1830), daughter of Thomas Ashby, retired butcher with means, of Fish Street, Redbourn. As 1855 is given as the founding date in a "farewell" picture giving the dates 1855-1982, and the date 1855 is mentioned elsewhere, it seems likely that Thomas helped to set up his new son-in-law in business.

Allen and Mary started a family in 1857 - their children were:

Born Name Married Occupation Died
1857 Allen Anscombe Lily May Goldsmith   Draper 1933
Pamela Rothwell  
1860 William Henry Anscombe     Draper 1954
1862 Arthur E Anscombe Edith Mary Freear   Architect 1941
1864 Ernest Anscombe     Surveyor 1914
1868 Albert T Anscombe       1869
1869 Edith Mary Anscombe William R Price     1942
1872 Selina F Anscombe       1944

Information from the time of Allen's death (1903) suggests he had been associated with the Congregational church in Harpenden for about 50 years, so possibly since his arrival in the town.

At the time of the 1861 census he was a draper and milliner in Harpenden employing 2 young men, 2 youths & 3 young women in workroom.

In 1866 the Post Office Directory simply listed, under Harpenden Allen Anscombe, linen draper, hosier & haberdasher.

Luton Times 13 November 1869

By 1871 the business had expanded significantly and Allen is now described as a draper and grocer employing 12 assistants and apprentices, five of whom where living in.

The 1878 Post Office Directory entry for Harpenden listed Allen Anscombe, Linen draper, grocer, &c

At the time of the 1881 census Allen (Senior) and his wife were lodging in Brighton while the children were living in the Draper's shop in Harpenden, the resident staff including a dressmaker, a milliner, and a draper's assistant and three draper's apprentices.

The 1882 Kelly's Directory entry for Harpenden listed Allen Anscombe, Linen draper, grocer, &c

ANSCOMBE-FREEAR.  on the 15th inst At the Congregational Chapel, Harpenden, by the Rev Johnson Barker , B.A., LL.B., of New College Chapel, St John's Wood, London, assisted by the Rev. W Glyde Tarbolton, minister of the Chapel, Allen, eldest son of Mr Anscombe, of Harpenden, to Pamela, eldest daughter of Mr Rothwell, of Morton End, Harpenden, and St John's Wood.

Herts Advertiser, 17 March, 1883

The 1886 Kelly's Directory entry for Harpenden listed Allen Anscombe & Sons, drapers, outfitters, carpet warehousemen, grocers & china dealers.

The 1890 and 1895 Kelly's Directory entry for Harpenden listed Allen Anscombe & Sons (established 1855) family drapers, silk mercers, dress & mantle makers, outfitters, carpet warehousemen, boot & shoe factors, wholesale & family grocers & provision merchants, china & glass stores, &c.

By 1891 Allen (junior) and his family were living in the draper's shop, while Allen (senior), his wife, and the other children were living in a separate private house, Hazelbank, Leyton Green, Harpenden,

On the 28 June 1891 there was a large fire in as workshop at the Anscombe's shop,

Outbreak of Fire.—On Saturday night, about 12.30, an outbreak of fire in some sheds on the premises at Messrs. Anscombe and Son's was simultaneously discovered by several persons. Mr. W. H. Anscombe, who is captain of the Fire Brigade, was quickly on the spot, and was shortly afterwards followed by the other members of the Brigade. It was then found that a shed, utilised as a storehouse for empties, with some chairs and fixtures, was in full flames. It was impossible to save this building, and the efforts of the Brigade were then directed to preventing the fire spreading to adjoining stables and premises. The structure was composed of wooden walls, and was about 30 feet long by 12 feet wide and 16 feet high, with galvanised iron roof. Messrs. Anscombe are insured in the Union Office, and the damage is estimated at about £30.

Herts Advertiser 4th July 1891

On 30 June 1891 Pamela Anscombe (36), wife of Allen Anscombe junior, was buried at Harpenden. - See Funeral of Mrs Anscombe

ANSCOMBE-GROSSMITH - On the 27th Inst., at St Stephens, Paddington?. by the Rev Herbert Chapman, rector of Norton-in-????. William Henry, second son of Allen Anscombe, of Harpenden, to Ethel Eva, second daughter of John Graham Grossmith, of London.

Morning Post, 30 September, 1893


PRICE-ANSCOMBE. On the 29th ult., at the Congregational Church, Harpenden, by the Rev Professor Adeney, M.A. of New College, London, William Richard Price, second son of the late Edward Price of Llanelly, to Edith Mary, elder daughter of Allen Anscombe, of Hazelbank, Harpenden.

Morning Post, 2nd April, 1897

ANSCOMBE : FREEAR. - On the 27th Inst., at the Victoria-road Congregational Chuurch, Cambridge, by the Rev John Eames, B.A., assisted by the Rev. W. R. Price, of Harpenden, Arthur Edward Anscombe, A.R.I.B.A., third son of Allen Anscombe, of Hazelbank, Harpenden, Herts, to Edith Mary, only daughter of Charles Freear of Cambridge, and late of Harpenden and Luton, Beds.

The Times, 29 October, 1897

1900 Dec quarter Allen Anscombe junior married Lily May Grossmith in Hackney area

At the time of the 1901 census Allen junior and family were living at Wellington House, Leyton Green. Allen senior, described as a draper and grocer, was at Hazelbank with his wife and two daughters. William was a draper living with his family at Park Side, St Nicholas Avenue, Harpenden. Arthur Edward was and architect living at Vaughan Road, Harpenden. Ernest was an auctioneer & surveyor living in Marylebone.

 The 1902 Kelly's Directory for Hertfordshire listed Allen Anscombe & Sons, (estab. 1855) family drapers, silk mercers, dress & mantle makers, clothiers, outfitters & hosiers, carpet warehousemen, boot & shore stores, also wholesale & family grocers & provision merchants, china & glass stores. It also recorded that The Congregational chapel, erected in 1897, at a cost of £2,600, from designs by A. E. Anscombe, architect, is of red brick with Bath Stone dressings in the Gothic Style, and will seat 350 persons. Allen Anscombe junior was on the Harpenden Urban District Council, and William Henry Anscombe was Fire Brigade captain at the fire station in Leyton Road.

Owing to Ill-health, Mr Allen Anscombe has resigned the post of treasurer of the Harpenden Congregational Church, which he has held for over 40 years. The trustees and congregation have presented Mr Anscombe with an enlarged portrait of himself.

Luton Times & Advertiser, 8 May, 1903

Allen Anscombe (78) of Hazelbank, Harpenden died on 10 July and was buried at Harpenden 14 July 1903

In 1911 Allen senior's widow, Mary was living at Hazelbank with her daughter Selina Frances, and her sister Catherine Ashby (who had been in the household in earlier censuses).  Allen junior (draper, grocer and furnisher) was with his family in Leyton Green. Arthur Edward was an architect living in East Common, Harpenden. William Henry was now a forage and coal manager "of Brand" living in Kingston on Thames. Edward was a land valuer and surveyor lodging in Gloucester

The 1912 and 1922 Kelly's Directory entry for Harpenden simply listed Allen Anscombe & Sons, drapers, Leyton Road.

FURNISHING. - Experienced FITTER required at once. All round general experience; accustomed to bench; local rate. - Anscombe & Son, Furnishers, Harpenden.

Herts Advertiser, 28 February, 1925



Herts Advertiser

12 December 1925



The 1926 Kelly's Directory entry for Harpenden listed Allen Anscombe & Sons Ltd, drapers, clothiers & house furnishers, Leyton Road. T.N. 55

The 1929 Kelly's Directory entry for Harpenden listed Allen Anscombe & Sons Ltd, drapers, Leyton Road. T.N. 55

The 1932 and 1936 Kelly's Directory entry for Harpenden listed Allen Anscombe & Sons Ltd, drapers, 1, 3, 5 & 7 Leyton Road. T.N. 55

Kelly's St Albans Area Street Directory for 1949

The Store in the 1970s

From Harpenden

(which contains 3 other pictures of the store)



Harpenden in Old Picture Postcards

(Volume 2) contains a different picture


An assistant dispatches the wooden cup to the cash desk


Rapid Wire in Hertfordshire

by Eric Meadows

Many people may remember in their childhood or youth seeing in larger shops, often drapers, cash from the counter being catapulted along an overhead cable to the cash-office. The wooden cup sped rapidly along the cable, to stop abruptly with a crashing sound at the end. This cash transit system was named "Rapid Wire'" It was designed about 1880 in America and first manufactured about 1890 solely by the Lamson Engineering Company, now in north­west London. The systems were quite common by 1900 and, though of American origin, more were installed in Britain than elsewhere in the world; a few on lease but mostly sold. ... ...

What has all this to do with Hertfordshire? Well, a Harpenden shop, the clothing, drapery and millinery departments of A. Anscombe & Sons Ltd. in Leyton Road, have what is probably the largest "Rapid Wire" still in regular use in Britain, if not in the world. It has seven cables. It also has a unique feature -the only terminal upstairs in existence which shoots the cash-cup vertically downwards through a hole in the floor, then round a right angle bend and along below the ceiling of the ground floor. Few terminals of this type were made, as most of the upstairs terminals had the cable straight from them to the cash desk at an angle of thirty degrees. ... ...

Hertfordshire Countryside, September 1974

The mass of wires over the cash desk in Anscombe's store. à

The article also includes pictures of cash lift used to connect with the upper floor of the store. These pictures are reproduced on the Cash Lift page of the Cash Railway Website - which discusses this kind of system in considerable detail. It lists the following other sites in Hertfordshire which had wire or pneumatic payment systems:

Holland & Barrett, Bishops Stortford

Neales Bon Marche, Hertford

Co-op, Letchworth

Fishpools, Waltham Cross

Cawdells, Watford


Tell me if you know of any other Hertfordshire stores that had such a system?


The store finally closed in 1982.

Shop staff (not family) recorded in censuses as resident in shop/household

Census Name Born Post From
1861 ROSE, Robert 1837 Assistant Draper Salisbury, Wiltshire
1871 GOVILL, Mortimer 1848 ??? Assistant Essex
1871 READ, Thomas 1849 ??? Assistant Essex
1871 ARNOLD, Eleanor L 1854 ??? Assistant Hertfordshire
1871 PORTER, Sarah A 1855 Apprentice Middlesex
1871 WOODROW, Henry R 1850 ??? Assistant Northamptonshire
1881 GASK, Sarah J 1849 Dressmaker Tooting, Surrey
1881 PEARSE, Louise 1858 Milliner Teignmouth, Devon
1881 SMITH, William 1854 Drapers Assistant Furnex Pelham, Hertfordshire
1881 SMITH, John J 1864 Drapers Apprentice Scotland
1881 COOPER, Arthur E 1865 Drapers Apprentice Bromley, Kent
1881 NOAKES, Arthur A 1865 Drapers Apprentice Chatham, Kent
1891 BEAMISH, Jessie B 1862 Dressmaker Camberwell, London
1891 SHELDRICK, Annie M 1862 Drapers Assistant Borough, London
1891 WATLING, William T 1866 Drapers Assistant Ipswich, Suffolk
1891 GUBBINS, Harry E 1869 Drapers Assistant Staines, Middlesex
1891 RODWELL, Bertram M 1877 Drapers Assistant St Albans, Hertfordshire
1891 WICKENS, James M1877 1877 Drapers Assistant Shilton, Oxfordshire
1901 FRY, Caroline 1867 Dressmaker Tunbridge Wells, Kent
1901 WAKEFIELD, Marion E 1876 Drapers Assistant Weston Turville, Buckinghamshire
1901 DORRINGTON, Gertrude 1879 Drapers Assistant Luton, Bedfordshire
1901 BERWICK, Lilian M 1884 Drapers Assistant Cranfield, Bedfordshire
1901 COVER, Ernest J 1882 Grocers Assistant Toddington, Bedfordshire

If you can add to the information given above tell me.

June 2013   Page created
April 2017   Added info on 1891 fire and funeral