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Heals (1810-2022)


196 Tottenham Court Road, London; furniture makers, bedding manufacturers, retailers (fl.1810-2022)

The business was originally founded in 1810 by John Harris Heal at 33 Rathbone Place, London, where he traded as feather dresser, mattress maker and carpet warehouse. In 1818 the business expanded and moved to 203 Tottenham Court Road. In 1840 the firm moved again to 196 Tottenham Court Road from where it still trades in the 21st century as Heal’s.

After John Harris Heal’s death in 1833 the business was continued by his widow Fanny and until 1844 traded as Fanny Heal & Son, after which it became known as Heal & Son. In the Post Office Directory 1871 Heal & Son were recorded as bedstead & mattress makers at 195, 196, 197 & 198 Tottenham Court Road, W and 8, 11 & 12 Francis Street. Under the direction of John Harris Heal junior the business thrived until he died in 1876. It was less successful under the control of his son-in-law, Alfred Brewer (1825-1901, m. Ann Heal in 1862) and his two sons, Harris and Ambrose, until 1894 when Brewer retired.

In 1897 Joseph F. Johnson was appointed furniture buyer for Heal’s. In 1907 the partnership was converted into a limited liability company, Heal & Son Ltd.  With Ambrose Heal senior as Chairman and his sons Ambrose junior and Ralph as joint managing directors the business rapidly expanded. In 1915 Ambrose Heal jointly with Hamilton Temple Smith patented a unit furniture system design. Smith had originally joined Heal & Son as sales manager, in 1919 was made director responsible for sales and finally retired in 1954. Following further expansion after World War Two, a holding company, Heal & Son Holdings Ltd, was formed in 1968, as an umbrella for subsidiary companies that had been developed, i.e. retail furnishing, Heal & Son Ltd (the bedding factory, on which the business had been founded, always formed part of the retail company); contract furnishing, Heal’s Contracts Ltd; fabric converting and wholesale, Heal Fabrics Ltd; building works, George Coulter Ltd; furniture manufacturing, Heal Furniture Ltd.  In 1983 the firm was taken over by Habitat Mothercare, (which subsequently became Storehouse), and Heal family management of the firm ended.

During the First World War the shopfront at 195 and 196 Tottenham Court Road was rebuilt to the designs of architect Cecil Brewer, along with the loading yard in Alfred Mews and the bedding factory behind No. 11 Francis Street (now Torrington Place) replacing the old farmhouse on that site.  A few years later 8, 9, and 10 Francis Street were rebuilt to provide factory and warehouse space. In 1937 the frontage was extended southwards by Edward Maufe to incorporate nos 197-199 Tottenham Ct Rd.  In 1962 a new building designed by Herbert Fitzroy Robinson was completed to the north so that Heal’s retail frontage filled the block between Torrington Place and Alfred Mews from that date until 1984. Further retail expansion came through a 50% shareholding in Dunn’s of Bromley arranged in 1964, which led to full ownership in 1975 on Geoffrey Dunn’s retirement. In 1969 John Bowles & Co. Ltd, Brighton, was acquired. It was subsequently closed in 1975. More successful was the opening of a Heal’s branch in Tunsgate, Guildford, in 1972.

In parallel with selling furniture and furnishings to the public through retail shops, other related activities were developed that involved subsidiary companies being set up during the Second World War. The first was Heal’s Wholesale and Export Ltd (created in 1941) which was renamed Heal Fabrics Ltd in 1958 after some ten years of concentration on exclusive furnishing fabrics. When the German distributor for Heal Fabrics retired in 1964 his business in Stuttgart was taken over and became Heal Textil GmbH. Heal Contracts Ltd. manufactured parachutes for the Ministry of Supply and then furnished many major company boardrooms and fitted out a number of ships. In 1962 an office was opened in Edgbaston in view of the volume of contract trade coming from the Midlands. This moved to more central, larger premises in Blucher Street, Birmingham in 1969. In 1975, Heal Contracts also briefly opened offices in Glasgow and Dubai. For furniture manufacturing capacity Heal’s acquired J.L. Green and Vardy Ltd in 1955 and transferred the Heal Cabinet Factory from Tottenham Ct Road to the Green & Vardy factory in Essex Road, Islington. In 1966 Green and Vardy was renamed Heal Furniture Ltd (and amalgamated with Heal’s CONTex operation which imported Scandinavian furniture for wholesale distribution between 1960 and 1969). In 1976 certain assets (timber, veneer, machinery and orders in hand) of Archie Shine Ltd were purchased but Heal’s Essex Road furniture factory was closed down in January 1979. A small workshop for the manufacture of special handmade pieces was re-established at Tottenham Ct Rd which continued until 1983.


Heal’s gradually expanded through the 19th century from feather-dressing and mattress-making to also offer a wide selection of bedroom furniture. In the 20th century the range was enlarged further to include furniture and furnishings for the whole home but with a distinctive emphasis on good modern design. This was under the impetus of Ambrose Heal junior (later Sir Ambrose) who, inspired by the teachings and examples of John Ruskin and William Morris, insisted on the highest standards of fitness for purpose not just in the merchandise available but also in all facets of the business such as shop layout, advertising and poster design. Thanks to this specialisation the firm has traded for longer than all the other Tottenham Ct Road furniture retailers.

In 1897 a small cabinet factory was established in Alfred Mews where most of the furniture designed by Sir Ambrose was made. Among notable orders delivered were; bedroom furniture for Standard Hotel, Norrkoping (1899); council chamber furniture for Reigate Town Hall (1901); boardroom furniture for Vickers Maxim (1911); tables for Winston Churchill’s home, Chartwell (1924); and St John’s College, Cambridge (1930). In addition to exhibiting furniture at all the Arts & Crafts Society Exhibitions between 1899 and 1938 and regularly at the Ideal Home Exhibition and other exhibitions, Heal’s also exhibited furniture in international exhibitions: Paris 1900, Christchurch 1906, Ghent 1913, Paris 1914, Paris 1925. However, the output of Heal’s own Cabinet Factory represented a small portion of the total amount of furniture retailed by the organisation. In 1927 Heal & Son became a Royal Warrant Holder to King George V as Makers of Bedsteads and Bedding.

The key members of the family who were important in the business were:

Heal, John Harris, senior (b.1772-d.1833)

Born in Gillingham, Wiltshire, to a farming family, he was the elder brother to Ambrose Heal (1779-1837). Both brothers moved to London early in the 19th century.  John Harris Heal entered the feather-dressing trade by joining a firm in Leicester Square, London (thought to be A.A. Fonseca, a “real Ostrich feather warehouse”) before setting up his own feather-dressing business in 1810 at No. 33 Rathbone Place, London [Heal, The Story of the Four-Poster] thus founding the business that became Heal & Son and still trades as Heal’s in the 21st century. By 1815 he was selling carpets [oldbaileyonline] and in 1818 he moved to No. 203 Tottenham Court Road, next door to Messrs Hewetson’s furniture shop, where he is described as a ‘Mattress and Feather-bed Manufacturer’. In 1820, during the trial of two people accused of stealing six blankets, he described himself as keeping ‘a bedding warehouse in Tottenham Court Road’ [oldbaileyonline].  After his death in 1833, (buried St. Giles’s cemetery, St. Pancras) his widow, Fanny Heal, carried on the business.

Heal, Fanny (b.1782-d.1859)

Born Frances Brewer, she married John Harris Heal in 1810. Their son John Harris Heal junior was born in 1811. John Harris Heal senior died in 1833 and the following year, on 14 July 1834, Fanny took her son aged 22 into partnership. In the Articles of Copartnership they are described as Dealers in Feathers and Bedding Manufacturers. From 1834 to 1844 the business traded as ‘Fanny Heal & Son, Bedding Manufacturers’. Needing to expand they moved in 1840 from 203 Tottenham Court Road, London, to larger premises at No. 196 Tottenham Court Road from where the firm continues to trade in the 21st century. The premises were then known as Miller’s Stables and this was where they erected their Bedding Factory, equipped with a feather-dressing mill and stove and a wool carding machine. Fanny retired in 1845 and moved to 14, Notting Hill Gate. She is buried at St Pancras cemetery, Finchley.

Heal, John Harris, junior (b.1811-d.1876)

Born in London and baptized at St Anne’s, Soho, the only son of John Harris Heal senior, he married Ann Standerwick Heal, daughter of his uncle Ambrose Heal (1779-1837), in 1834. In the same year, following his father’s death, he was taken into partnership with his mother Fanny Heal and as bed and mattress makers they traded as Fanny Heal & Son for eleven years. They lived on the premises at 203 Tottenham Court Road until the business expanded and was transferred to 196 Tottenham Court Road in 1840. In 1848 John Harris Heal junr. and his family moved out to Woburn Lodge, next to St. Pancras Church, until in 1860 Grass Farm, Church End, Finchley became the family home. The retail shopfront at Tottenham Court Road was rebuilt in an Italianate style by the architect J. Morant Lockyer in 1854 to reflect its growing importance. In 1864 nos 197 and 198 Tottenham Court Road were acquired providing space for a cabinet factory and a timber yard. A fire in 1871 destroyed the old cowhouses and outbuildings at the rear and they were replaced with packing rooms and factories.

In 1842 an advertisement proclaimed that the establishment was ‘the largest in London for the manufacture and sale of bedding – NO bedsteads and other furniture being kept’.  By 1851 John Harris Heal junior was employing 85 men and the range of merchandise had expanded to include four-poster and half-tester bedsteads as well as iron and brass bedsteads, wardrobes, chests, sofas and chairs. He had developed the ‘French Mattress’ (a sandwich of long East India wool around best black horse hair) around 1840 and in 1844 spring mattresses (what would now be called  bed bases) appear in the price list to which was added in 1860 the patented Sommier Elastique Portatif (a foldable sprung bed base with no surface filling). Illustrated catalogues were published and advertisements were regularly placed in Illustrated London News, Punch and The Spectator. At this period the novels of Charles Dickens were being published in monthly parts and between 1837 and 1865 they carried Heal advertisements. At the Great Exhibition in 1851 an eider-down quilt with embroidered satin covering was exhibited. For the 1862 Great International Exhibition a Louis XVI style bedroom designed by J. Braune in enamelled mahogany was made. In the shop, bedrooms were displayed in room sets. John Harris Heal was a member of the London School Board (the first directly elected body for the whole of London) from 1873 until his death. He was Master of the Painter Stainers Company in 1869.

Heal, Harris (b.1843-d.1906)

Eldest son of John Harris Heal junr., he was born in the farmhouse at the rear of 196 Tottenham Court Road, London. Educated at Bruce Castle School, Tottenham, and then, because of his delicate health, at Chatham House School, Ramsgate. In 1859 he left school and immediately entered his father’s business. By 1871 he described himself as ‘manager of the firm and son of one of the partners’ after he discovered a fire on the premises due to arson, on his return from a ball at about 3.15 am [oldbaileyonline]. He was taken into partnership in 1874. Following the retirement of Alfred Brewer he became senior partner in 1894. He had joined the Livery of the Worshipful Company of Painter Stainers in 1870 and was elected Master in 1892.

Heal, Ambrose (b.1847-d.1913)

Younger son of John Harris Heal junior, he joined the Heal & Son business in 1867 and was admitted into partnership in 1875. Following the death in 1906 of his elder brother and senior partner, Harris Heal, a limited company, Heal & Son Ltd. was formed in 1907. Ambrose was the first Chairman of that company until he died in 1913. Under his leadership (combined with the design talent of his son Ambrose) the business expanded considerably. In 1895 Ambrose acquired the British patent rights developed by John Staples to improve the support of springs in upholstery and he put his second son Harold in charge of building up Staples & Co. as an independent bedding factory using these patents.  In 1897 Ambrose also created a small cabinet factory alongside the Heal & Son retail premises and bedding factory. He was also active in voluntary work within the trade, lobbying for quality controls on fillings which led to Viscount Allendale’s Rag Flock Act being passed in 1911 and The Bedding & Allied Trades Association Limited being set up in 1912. Ambrose was elected as the first Chairman of the association. He also took part in the charitable work of the Furniture Trades Benevolent Association. An enthusiastic historian, he accumulated an enormous collection of ephemera about St. Pancras which was bequeathed to the Borough on his death. This consisted of portfolios of prints, playbills, broadsides, cuttings, autograph letters, etc., classified according to the street or building dealt with now housed in Camden Local Studies and Archive Centre, Holborn Library, Theobalds Road, London. He read a paper before the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society in March 1913 entitled The Old Farmhouse in Tottenham Court Road and died in October that year. [Oliver Heal, Sir Ambrose Heal and the Heal Cabinet Factory, and Bill Laws, Bed Times, 100 years of the National Bed Federation]

Heal, Sir Ambrose (b.1872-d.1959)

Eldest son of Ambrose Heal who, after schooling at Eastbourne, Tottenham, Marlborough and Westgate-on-Sea, was apprenticed to the Art Furniture Maker James Plucknett (formerly Collier & Plucknett) of Warwick from 1890 to 1892. He subsequently trained for some months at the Oxford Street department store of Graham & Biddle before joining the Heal family business in Tottenham Ct. Rd. in 1893. He started designing furniture in 1895 and in 1897 designed several successful ranges of bedroom furniture which were initially made by C.R. Ashbee’s Guild of Handicraft at Essex House, Mile End Road, until Heal’s own cabinet factory was set up later that year. For Heal’s stand at the 1900 Paris International Exhibition he designed an extravagant bedroom suite in oak, inlaid with pewter, holly and ebony, which marked the emergence of Ambrose’s distinctive personal design style. This was followed by more modest, but highly satisfactory designs in chestnut, with squashed heart handholds, and then in 1905 by even simpler bedroom furniture, in painted pine, created for the Letchworth Garden City Cheap Cottages Exhibition. As a result, Ambrose earned a reputation for making good use of machinery to produce furniture affordable to the middle-classes, in contrast to leading members of the Arts and Crafts Movement who were rejecting machine-assisted making entirely. Pursuing this policy, he patented, with Hamilton Temple Smith, a unit furniture system in 1914 and a range of mass-produced bedroom furniture intended for national distribution, to be made in an ex-aircraft factory at the end of WWI. Neither of these were commercially successful and so now he is remembered mainly as the designer of special pieces of furniture made in small quantities, often displayed at Arts & Crafts Society exhibitions between 1899 and 1938. These demonstrated the cabinet maker’s skill as well as the designer’s ingenuity.  Examples of his work are held by the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Geffrye Museum.

He was one of the founding members of the Design and Industries Association in 1915, having been part of the Acting Committee that mounted the Exhibition of German and Austrian articles typifying successful design for the Board of Trade. His contribution to British design development was recognised when he was knighted in 1933 and elected a Royal Designer for Industry in 1939. He was appointed a member of the Victoria & Albert Museum Advisory Council in 1931 and in 1933 was invited to serve on the Council for Art & Industry. He retired as chairman of the firm in 1952. In 1954 he was awarded the Royal Society of Arts Albert Medal for services to industrial design.

Sir Ambrose Heal was fascinated by the history of trades in London, particularly during the 18th century. He formed a major collection of Trade Cards, now housed at the British Museum, from which he compiled a number of reference books that culminated with London Furniture Makers. This was one of the foundation blocks upon which the DEFM and the DBIFM was eventually constructed.

Heal, Ralph (b.1882-d.1931)

Youngest son of Ambrose Heal (1847-1913), Ralph was appointed joint managing director (with his brother Ambrose) of the Heal business in 1907 when it was turned into a private Limited Company. His responsibilities included running the bedding factory and the despatch department as well as maintenance of the premises. He served in the Army during WWI and returned to work in the firm in 1919 but died in 1931 aged 49.

Anthony Standerwick Heal (b.1907-d.1995)

A son of Sir Ambrose Heal, Anthony joined the firm in 1929, having first trained with Gordon Russell Ltd. He set up an electrical department in 1932 and was appointed managing director in 1936, taking over responsibility for the firm’s advertising. He became chairman of Heal’s in 1952 and held this position until 1981. Although he made some furniture whilst training at Gordon Russell and is known to have designed a few pieces in the 1930s he subsequently concentrated on the commercial activities of the firm. In 1964 the Royal Society of Arts presented him with the Bi-Centenary Medal ‘to recognise the considerable influence you have exercised in many fields of design’ and the following year Heal & Son was awarded the R.S.A. Presidential Medal for Design Management in recognition of the company’s long pioneering work in this field. In 1970 he was awarded the Order of the White Rose of Finland by the Finnish Government and in 1974 he was appointed Chevalier (First Class) of the Order of Dannebrog by the Danish Government emphasising the close links with the Scandinavian furniture trade. Anthony Heal was involved in education for the furniture industry for thirty years, serving on the Furniture Advisory Committee of the City & Guilds of London Institute from 1950. He was one of the founders of what became the Furniture Makers City Livery Company, serving as Master in 1959. He was appointed to the Council of Industrial Design and was a member of its mission to Moscow in 1964 and was Chairman of the C.O.I.D. awards panel in 1965.  

J. Christopher Heal (b.1911-d.1985)

The youngest son of Sir Ambrose joined the family firm in 1934 and was soon designing furnishing fabrics and furniture.  He was the youngest of the ‘seven architects’ to take part in Heal’s modernist exhibition of that name in 1937 (alongside such greats as Marcel Breuer) and exhibited a bedroom suite at the Paris Exhibition that year. After World War Two he designed numerous bedroom and dining suites in Contemporary styles that were mainly manufactured in Heal’s own furniture factory. Notable was his plywood bedroom for the 1946 Britain Can Make It exhibition. He also designed a number of modular furniture storage systems. He was design director for Heal’s from 1952 to 1975.

By Oliver Heal