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Henry Hart, Philanthropist and Three Times Mayor of Canterbury

Henry Hart (1833-1921) was an archetypal Jewish success story of the 19th century and embodied all of the virtues that were admired in Victorian public figures. He was a philanthropist and public servant and benefactor. He also built varied and substantial business interests across the South-East and was a pioneer of both the department store and the creation of chains of retail stores.

He was born in Canterbury in 1833 the son of Mordechai Hart, a father of nine children, who ran a successful pawnbrokers business at 56-57 St Peters Street. His father might well have been one of those original Jewish arrivers to Canterbury who were reputed to have made good, having spent their first night sleeping rough in the shelter of the West Gate of the city, tired from their travels on the road.

Hart succeed to the family business on the death of his father and soon embarked on a long and distinguished career serving in a wide variety of civic and public offices. His first office was as a Guardian of the poor in 1858. He became a member of Canterbury City Council in 1861 and in 1864 he became Sheriff. Then in 1868 he was elected Alderman a position which he held for 50 years.

He was three times Mayor, firstly in 1869, then again in 1870 and finally in 1900-1. He also became a City Magistrate in 1878, a Governor of Simon Langton Schools and later a Vice-Chairman of the Governors. Henry Hart was said to have taken an especial in educational matters and was one of the original founders of the Canterbury School Board. In 1891 he became Chairman of the Council Finance Committee and from 1899-1907 Chairman of the Asylum Committee. In 1899 he was also appointed a County Magistrate. Late in his career, in 1905, he was awarded the Honorary Freedom of the City in recognition of his "long and valued service" to the City. He finally retired from the Council in c.1918.

If all these public works were not enough for any lifetime, Henry Hart was also influential in establishing the Beaney Institute - the city museum and library. He did so by procuring £10,000 from the bequest of the late Dr Beaney, with the help of Alderman Mason.

He was also a very successful business man, and in fact in terms of his financial flair he was always regarded as the leading financial authority on the Council.

While Henry Hart started his business career with his father's pawn brokerage he soon expanded it. By 1867 he is listed as having moved into the tailoring and gentleman's outfitting in an address at 20 High Street. He also continued as a pawnbroker at an address in Best Lane. The new venture into the clothing business was significant as it offered greater scope for expansion than the pawnbroker's business - an opportunity he was to exploit to the full as he eventually established a chain of clothing stores across the south-east of England.

His next shop was apparently in Folkestone - by this time he worked with his brother Philip Hart as partner. A trade directory states he set up his business in Dover in 1874. This was at Waterloo House on the edge of the Market Square and became the center of the family operations and the home of his son, Samuel, who became a Junior partner in the family business.

He took over an existing century old clothing business. His success is demonstrated by the fact that in 1892 he rebuilt Waterloo House as one of the first department stores in the south-east. The store was highly modern being four stories with a central atrium through the building and the ground floor included six plate glass windows. By this time the Hart business stocked a large of gentleman's clothing, sporting clothes and also specialised in work clothing and institutional and military uniforms.

Waterloo House was just the center of a wide field of operations the Harts controlled an important chain of stores covering Kent and Sussex - in additional to the shops in Folkestone and Dover, there were outlets in Canterbury, Gosport and Portsmouth as well as in Harrow Road in London by the turn of the century. Waterloo House was run by Samuel Hart who also lived on the premises and was available to take orders by day or night!

The military connection seemed to be important to Henry Hart. His business benefitted from the sale of uniforms serving the important military garrison around Dover.

A later extension of his business in Dover was the creation of firm of general furnishers; carpet, china and glass merchants as well as general removers and depositors. This side of the business specialised in serving the military and military contracts - for example furnishing and supplying officer's messes and providing tents and their equipment. His brother Philip supervised this part of the Hart enterprises.

The provision of military contracts was a sector of business that had attracted Jewish interest - for example members of the famous Isaacs family were blockade runners in the American Civil War.

Apart from the successful family business, Henry Hart was also the sometime Director and Chairman of the Canterbury Gas and Water Company.

Henry Hart was also the president of both the Canterbury and Dover Synagogues, when the Canterbury synagogue was re-consecrated in 1889, it was Alderman Hart, who was chosen to give the address on the history of the congregation. Hart was an important figure in Jewish life, particularly in the South-East in a similar fashion as his brother, Sir Israel Hart of Leicester.

It is evident that Hart shifted eventually shifted the focus of his life and business from Canterbury to Dover. This was probably due to economic considerations - with the coming of the railways Dover probably became a more promising center of commerce for the family.

Personal reasons also were most probably relevant. Hart's first wife, Rosa, died tragically at the age of 35 in 1871 leaving ten children behind. Additionally his daughter Lizzie died in 1872 aged seven and his son Israel, aged seven in 1874.

These sad losses in Canterbury and his subsequent remarriage to Priscilla may have encouraged his move to Dover. His second wife died at the young age of 48 in 1895 and another son who died 1882 at eleven months and is at Dover cemetery near his second wife.

Hart certainly retired to well to do Victorian suburb of Dover and he passed away in the town in 1921. By contemporary accounts, Hart died a highly respected and loved public figure. His dedicated and unselfish service to the city was regarded as unprecedented in the history of Canterbury.

While Henry Hart was very much in the mould of the Victorian gentleman and public benefactor, there can be little doubt that his success and virtue were essentially Jewish in character and origin. The way that Jewish ideals met Victorian mores of the period perhaps helps explain the not infrequent prominence of men like Hart in his society. While Hart's commercial enterprises may not have been glamorous, he may also be counted among the pioneers of the modern commercial and retail sector that forms part of the fabric and even soul of modern society.

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