Sydney Harrington 1859-1946

Edgar Lake

In the report of his death the Hertfordshire Mercury described Sydney Harrington as ‘One of Hertford’s oldest and most interesting personalities’. I knew him when I was a child and remember in particular his Edwardian style of dress and leisurely manner. His shoes would be highly polished and he always wore dove grey spats. I own and sometimes wear one of his waistcoats. It is black and sprigged all over with the faintest hint of tiny white flowers.

He was a talented amateur artist and he produced some interesting political cartoons. Other local artists in his circle were Alfred Nicholls (1868 – 1924), James Thorpe (1876 – 1949), and Starr Wood (1870-1944).

Sydney Worpell Harrington came from a family of four boys and two girls. Worpell was a local surname and I assume that it indicates a family link. His father John is listed in the 1863 trade directory as a corn, flour, and coal merchant with premises on Mill Bridge. The business prospered and he became a successful maltster. He purchased Lombard House and the two adjoining maltings. He also had maltings in Railway Street, Railway Place, and Brewhouse Lane. His uncle was William South. William was a prominent figure in the town. His wife died in 1870 and he was childless. It was his fortune that established John Harrington. When John died in 1904 the business interests passed to Sydney.

William South (1807 – 1896) was a brewer and maltster. His home at the end of his life was 29 Castle Street. In 1839 William and his father Thomas (c 1776 – 1852) were listed in the Poll Book for the Borough as brewers living in Back Street. In 1849 Thomas was granted a licence for a public house to be called the Duncombe Arms. The property backed onto a brewery that formed part of the Fore Street Inn, the Cross Keys. This brewery was bought by William South from John Moses Carter in 1845. By 1874 William was listed solely as a maltster, with premises at Old Cross and Brewhouse Lane.

A few years later William retired and John Harrington took over his business. In 1889 William bought the Duncombe Arms. His mother had been the licensee after the death of his father, and I imagine that this was a sentimental investment. It was a good one as the property together with 26 Railway Street (formerly Back Street) made £3250 in 1898.

William was a ‘strong Liberal’ to use the words of the Hertfordshire Mercury. When he was young he played an active part in local elections. Prior to 1868 Hertford returned two Members to Parliament. In 1852 the Liberals took both seats with the election of William Cowper and Thomas Chambers. This was seen as unlocking the Borough and Lord Cowper was asked for a piece of the Panshanger Oak to make a large key. It was then carried by William South while riding on horseback through the town at the head of a procession of celebration. William became custodian of the key and he carried it at subsequent elections. The key passed into the hands of the Harrington family, and it now lives at the Castle.

Sydney Harrington was very proud of his great uncle and in due course inherited his business and his political commitment. He lived a very full life, the two shadows being the early death of his wife, and the loss of his nephew Hubert Barker in the First World War. Sydney married on 8 November1893 Lucie Maud Tidy of Danes Hill, Bengeo. The service was at Christ Church. The church was decorated with plants, ferns, heaths, crotons, acacias, and dracoenaes, all from the Francis Nursery. ‘The animation that prevailed throughout the town indicated the hearty and general interest taken in the fortunes of the happy pair. The menu for the meal that followed is preserved in Hertford Museum. There was one daughter of the marriage who developed a passion for hunting. As a child it was a source of wonder to me to hear that she had fallen from her horse yet again. Her father was a man of action. He was a skilled shot. A member of ‘A’ Company of the old Herts Volunteers he took part in shooting competitions all over the country. He was invited to shooting parties on local estates. He loved fishing and once landed a 10lb 2oz trout. He loved the sea and yachting. He would sail a small yacht from Hertford to his home in Southwold. The journey was via the Lea and the Thames. He was a good swimmer and was awarded the Royal Humane Society’s certificate for life saving after he rescued one of his brothers from drowning in the river. As a youth he enjoyed pony riding, and he was a cyclist. He loved acting and was a member of the Hertford Corps Dramatique. The Corps gave public performances in the Shire Hall. The members would also present plays at the local mansions. His first appearance was in ‘Belphegor the Bufoon’ when he was aged ten. The leading actors in the Corps came from the Austin, Ginn and McMullen families.

He served as a magistrate for over 30 years. He was a good employer. On the occasion of his marriage all the staff employed, by the bride’s father and those employed by Harrington’s were given supper at the White Hart. Sydney and Lucie made their home at a house called the Grotto in Ware. Scott’s Grotto was in the extensive grounds of the house. Alas, these have now been built over. Lucie died in 1932 and Sydney then moved to High Mead in Bengeo.

Politics were an enduring passion. In the 1880s Hertford had a Parliament that would debate the issues of the day. In this Parliament George Faudel-Phillips was the Liberal Prime Minister, John Harrington was in the Cabinet, and Sydney was the Government Chief Whip. The Townshend family, and later George Faudel-Phillips provided support to the Liberals in the town, and a counter balance to the Tory influence of Lord Salisbury. In his early days in Hertford George was referred to as a ‘little Radical Jew shopkeeper.’ All this changed when he became Lord Mayor of London, was made a Baronet and formed friendships with members of the Royal family.

Sydney had considerable artistic talent. There is no doubt that with training he could have enjoyed a successful artistic career. I suspect that this would have been unthinkable. He had a duty to the business built up by his father and great uncle and this became the focus of his life. He worked in pencil and water colour and could produce a good likeness.

In 1874 Baron Dimsdale decided not to stand for re-election to Parliament. He was a Tory and was seen as supporting the Salisbury influence in the town. The Liberals were delighted, but in the event his retirement did not benefit their cause. Salisbury wanted the seat for his nephew Arthur Balfour, and he was elected. Sydney produced a delightful cartoon showing the Baron leaving Hertford to walk home to his house in Essendon.

In the 1885 Borough Council elections there were four seats to be filled. The Liberal slogan was ‘The whole hog’. Sydney reacted with a cartoon showing the Liberal candidates riding a pig which is being pulled through the door of the Shire Hall. As so often happened the Hertford electorate opted for two from each party. One of his cartoons is on permanent display at the Hertford Museum. This shows Baron Dimsdale at the top of the ‘poll’ above the Shire Hall. George Faudel-Phillips is trying to pull him down. It was painted at a point where the Borough Council was Liberal and Faudel-Phillips was working with the party to oust the M.P. at the next election. As we have seen Dimsdale stood down. Hertford Museum has a small cache of these delightful picture. Sydney must have painted many more and it would be good to trace other examples of his work. The cartoons are rarely signed, and at this distance of time the subjects are usually obscure.

Sydney’s brother Hubert made a career for himself in Africa becoming a Civil Commissioner and Magistrate for Northern Rhodesia. While Sydney shot pheasant in Hertfordshire fields Hubert shot big game on the plains of Africa. He never lost his love of Hertford and would often come home to fish with his brother in the local rivers. He had access to the best waters as Sydney was a member of the Amwell Magna Fishery.

Sydney died suddenly at the age of 87 in 1946. At the funeral service the congregation sang the hymn ‘There is a land of pure delight’. Looking back and imagining the Hertford of his day I can’t help feeling that he experienced here a taste of the joys to come.


The Key of the Borough is usually said to date from 1835. In a Hertfordshire Mercury interview Sydney Harrington linked the making of the key to the 1852 election.

Further reading:

Death of Mr. W. South Hertfordshire Mercury 28 March 1896

Mr. Sydney Harrington’s Business Career Hertfordshire Mercury 3 October 1941

Death of Hertford Maltster Hertfordshire Mercury 12 April 1946.

The author gratefully acknowledges the help received from the staff of Hertford Museum, in particular Margaret Harris.

This page was added on 03/01/2022.

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