Family wraps up the fur coat business

 

Trade NamesRose Doyle hears the remarkable story - nearly 200 years old - of an immigrant who started a business that has become an institution on Grafton Street

"An ancestor of mine married Wolfe Tone . . ." As an opening line for a family history Elizabeth Barnardo's is enviable. And true. With the help of her mother, Caroline, she matter-of-factly works out the bride's place in the family. Mrs Tone was a great grand-aunt, they agree, adding that her wedding dress is on permanent loan to the National Museum at Collins Barracks.

The fashion note, in a twist that has more to do with fate than design, has followed the family through the centuries. Barnardo Furriers, at the foot of Grafton Street, has one of the more window-shopped frontages in town. Through good times and bad, for most of the last 130 years, it's reliably displayed a touch of luxury, glamour and exotica.

What's not so obvious from outside is the hard work and tenacity which has kept the business in the family for almost 200 years and made the Barnardos, according to Elizabeth, the oldest family of manufacturing furriers in Europe.

A fifth generation Barnardo, Elizabeth, runs today's business with her mother, Caroline. A multi-tasker if ever there was one, she tells the story between dealing with customers, reassuring her small daughter and keeping an ear to demands on the phone.

"The first Barnardo, John Michaelis, arrived on the Clare coast in a fishing boat in 1810. As far as we've been able to make out, the family was originally from Venice but moved to Germany. While in Clare he met and fell in love with a Miss Elizabeth O'Brien. He went back to Germany but returned in 1812, married Elizabeth, came to Dublin and started a fur business in 4 Dame Street. It's said that he was a taxidermist by trade."

Mrs Barnardo died giving birth to their sixth child, a girl called Elizabeth who died when she was a month old. As was common at the time, John Michaelis married his wife's sister.

He and his second wife, Abigail, went on to have 13 children. Of the 19 children fathered by John Michelis Barnardo one would become renowned.

Born in 1845 and the 13th child in the family, Thomas John grew up to become the Dr Barnardo who founded the Barnardo children's homes. His younger brother, Henry Lionel (born 1847) took over the business when John Michelis died in 1874. Things were going well enough by this time for the company to have been appointed Court Furriers every year from 1832.

Towards the end of 1874 Henry Lionel moved family and business to 108 Grafton Street. When that building burned down in 1882 he seized the hour, had a great sale and created a purpose-built fashion shop at the corner of Duke and Grafton streets. The sale, of "the best goods uninjured by the fire", offered fur-lined circular cloaks in every kind of Fur (sic) from 14/6d up, Fur Carriage rugs from £2.6.0d to 3gns, and Seal Bag Muffs, mounted in Nickel Silver Frames from 10/6d.

Henry Lionel Barnardo, in a style and for reasons more than typical of his time, made life difficult for his son and successor, Henry Cecil, when he fell in love with Ellen Josephine McDonald, then working in the shop.

Disapproving of the match, he sent his son to Canada to work as a lumberjack. Henry Cecil's ardour remained uncooled and in 1912, six months after his father's death, he returned, took over the business and continued keeping company with Ellen Josephine. Ten years later in 1922, they married in St Andrew's Church in Andrew Street.

"She'd worked in the shop since she was 14," Elizabeth explains, "and was the serious business person in the relationship, running things while he went off to antique auctions and conducted the Dublin Philharmonic Orchestra.

He was known for his extravagant generosity to 'touchers', or beggars. Josephine was generous too, but of a more practical nature."

When they lost all their money in the crash of 1929 they survived by selling the second shop, loading laundry baskets with the fur stock and wheeling the lot back down to 108 Grafton Street to continue trading. Henry Cecil and Ellen Josephine had been aged 43 and 44 respectively when they married.

They had one child, a boy they named Thomas Henry, who grew up to marry Caroline, father Elizabeth and create the internationally known, fashionably aware furriers Barnardos has become.

Henry Cecil himself died in 1944, cycling home to the house he and Ellen Josephine had bought in Blackrock in 1932. He was found dead on a bench on Avoca Avenue.

"That left Harry, as my father was known," Elizabeth explains. "As time went on he took a very international attitude to the business.

Aer Lingus was up and going then and he started supplying stores in the US and abroad, putting on fur fashion shows in all sorts of places - Bermuda, Switzerland, France, America.

He always used Irish models; Winnie Butler, Lady Antonia Wardell, Hilary Freyne, Rosemary Smyth and Adrienne Ring. He did the MC bit himself, reciting snatches of Percy French."

In 1971, in St Andrew's Church, Harry and Caroline married. She'd been working up the street in Bewleys but they met through a shared passion for badminton. Caroline, remembering, laughs.

"He was one of the most eligible bachelors of the time and was 20 years older than me. He just bided his time, waiting for me to grow up!"

Harry Barnardo, sadly, died of cancer seven years later, in 1978. Elizabeth, the only child of Caroline and Harry, was born in 1972.

The year they married Harry Bernardo bought Rohu furriers in Castlemarket for Caroline to run. She'd already spent their engagement year in London, studying fur and business at the London College of Fashion. When her husband died she took over his role in 108 Grafton Street. Rohu is still owned by the family.

Elizabeth, whose family home is in Rathfarnham, laughs when she says she "grew up under the counter here, just like my own two children are doing today". Over the shop there's a cheerful playroom and Harry (three) and Elizabeth (one) come with her and are cared for there during working hours - when they're not perambulating on Grafton Street.

The family story has been diligently researched and lovingly handwritten by Olive Harris. She came to work in the shop aged 14, became secretary to three generations of Barnardos and, much loved by customers, started selling again towards the end of her time with the family.

Barnardos today exports sable, mink, fox, musquash, lambskin, leathers and suedes across the world, has workrooms on the premises and cold storage facilities for customers wanting to protect their furs during the summer.

"Since dad died the business has been in the hands of two women, myself and my mother," Elizabeth says. "We're a great team; she keeps my feet on the ground when I get some of my wilder design ideas. I worked here every Saturday from 12 years of age and in 1990 went to the London College of Fashion where, as well as design, I learned how to run a business.

"Today's customers are far more aware of trends, more travelled and able to buy anywhere in the world. We have to be the best to get business. I'm very proud of our name. When I go to auctions in Seattle and Copenhagen to buy skins, as I do four times a year, it doesn't matter how much I spent because the Barnardo name in trade and business holds good."

The anti-fur movement didn't effect them much, she says. "Our agricultural background in Ireland gives people an understanding of animal life. We're members of the World Wildlife Federation and use farmed animals and so don't endanger species."

We go upstairs, to a room of shining wood and mirrors, and I get a real feel of today's furs. Elizabeth and Caroline, gleefully and with confidence in their product, dress me in exotic, featherweight furs; a floor length Sapphire mink which reverses to become denim, a knitted mink jacket, an opera coat in bronze taffeta and multi-coloured dyed fox collar.

All designed by Elizabeth who says the key is "wearability and ease" and that inspiration "comes fromeverywhere. We do sizes eight to 26 and have a vast collection every season. The raw techniques and materials available today are wonderful - my grandfather didn't even have zips to work with!"