John Charles Denton
by Linda Ayres
John Charles Denton was sharp, intelligent and had the drive to succeed. By the time he had reached the age of 19 years he was running three firms. At the age of 31 years, he had built the biggest and best store in Bedford.
He was born on March 16th 1843 at Higham Ferrers, Northamptonshire, the only child born to Jane and William Denton. By 1851, the family lived in the upper floors of 43 St. Loyes Street, Bedford. On the ground floor his mother had set-up a shop selling new and second-hand furniture, his father worked as a cabinet-maker.
When he was14 years old, his father left the family to live in America. In 1861, Jane applied for an order for the protection of her property against him. She claimed that he had written to her several times since he had been there, and two years earlier he had, in fact, asked her to join him. He had never sent any money for her support, and she had it on very good authority that he had married again in America. The magistrate granted her application.
John was educated at the Bedford Modern School and served his apprenticeship at a London grocery firm where it became clear that he had exceptional business skills. After he had finished his apprenticeship, he returned to Bedford. By the age of just 19 years, he was running three firms, which were Denton’s Tea Warehouse at 20 St Paul’s Square, a grocery store at 45 St Loyes. and a firm at Irthlingborough.
By 1869, he had shut down his grocery shop in St. Loyes to run his mother’s furnishing firm. He was soon in trouble with the police who had cautioned him on many occasions for leaving furniture outside his shop. In spite of the warnings, he would repeatedly leave furniture outside the shop and when a police officer saw the bottoms of washstands standing in front of the shop at 11.30 am, he cautioned him. He told the police officer he was about to put some marble tops on them and in order to send them away. They were still there at 7.00 pm and several officers had time after time cautioned him that day. He claimed that a railway trolley brought the washstands, but he was waiting for the marble tops, before he could deliver them to a house in town. When the tops came, his men had gone out, and therefore he was unable to deliver the goods. He never intended to take them into his premises, nor did he display them for sale. The magistrate said that he should have been aware that he was in breach of the by-law, and he was surprised that this was his first time before the magistrate as he had goods exhibited outside of his shop week after week. Allowing you to keep on putting your goods out in front of the shop would encourage other tradesmen to do the same, and that would result in an annoyance. John replied it is a very wide street. The magistrate said that had nothing to do with it. If he had not sufficient room for his goods, he should hire another place. He told the magistrate he could not find one. On April 1st, 1870 the magistrate fined him 5 shillings, with costs, altogether 12 shillings. It should be a warning to him that such things could not be allowed. This episode had taught him a lesson and from then on he did not leave goods outside the premises.
His furniture firm continued to go from strength to strength but he was running out of room and he needed to find larger premises. He could not find premises large enough and bought land in a prime spot on the corner of Midland Road and Well Street. He built the largest shop in Bedford, and it was also claimed to be the largest of its kind outside London.
He named the store “The Bedford Pantechnicon and Warehouses.” It was designed in the Italian style and there were five storeys. On the ground floor were the furniture, piano departments, and the public room, for the use of all sorts of events and large enough to hold 500 people. The floor above was the carpet department, a Library, antique furniture, ironmongery, china and bedroom furniture. Storerooms occupied the top floor.
In 1878 he celebrated the opening of the shop with a lavish dinner in the public room for 150 friends and for all those connected with the construction and design of the building. Evergreens, bunting, and Chinese lanterns adorned the room, and large and small flags decorated the exterior of the building.
John and his wife Sarah had seven children, sadly two of them died while young. Those of their children who were of age worked at the Pantechnicon. His eldest son Alfred lived in Chicago, where John owned property that his son managed. John was a keen traveller and made many trips to the Continent and visited America at least five times.
His health began to decline owing to the stress, and the constant worry of managing the firm had taken its toll on both his physical and mental health. He consulted doctors in London and Bournemouth. In order for him to get well, he stayed at his home in Yarmouth. He seemed to make some progress – enough for him to attend his son’s birthday celebration. Soon afterwards, he caught influenza from which he did not recover; he died at his home in Bedford on the 19th April 1895 aged 52 years.
A Washington car carried the coffin from his home in Costin Street to the cemetery, followed by four mourning cars. He was laid to rest inside the family vault, together with his wife Sarah Elizabeth who had died in 1891; his daughter Annie Laurie who died November 8th 1877 aged 11 years; Claude Montague his infant son who had died 1878; and also his mother who had died aged 84 years January 21st 1894. Grave Ref: B3.239
Within three years of John Denton’s death, the Pantechnicon was running at a loss. His three daughters moved to Brampton, Huntingdonshire, and lived on their own means. In June 1898, Mr. Longhurst and Mr. Skinner bought the store and for the next eighty years, the firm of Longhurst and Skinner became one of the most well known firms.
Disaster struck the store on January 11th 1912, when fire destroyed the building, at the time said to be one of the worst fires in Bedford. The fire did much damage to nearby properties, and thought to have started in the rug department. A man in a passing mail van raised the alarm at 2.58 am. So great was the blaze that the whole town was lit up and residents living nearby had to vacate their premises. Despite the efforts of the Brigade and their helpers, the building gave way at 5.30 am. Premises damaged in the fire were The Nags Head, The Golden Lion, the Co-operative Store, and three shops. The estimated damage was £20.000. Within a year, Longhurst and Skinner had rebuilt the store and apart from just a few alterations, the store was as it was before when John Denton had built it.
During WW2, the American Red Cross Club took over the first and second floor of Longhurst and Skinners where they held Christmas parties for local children. Glen Miller’s band played there at least twice. In 1978 Perrings Furnishings bought the shop, which closed in 1994. Today the building is now a pub and hotel known as “The Pilgrims Progress,” and owned by Wetherspoons.
Bedfordshire Times & Independent 1870, 1895, 1912,
Researcher: Linda S. Ayres
May 21, 2021