Regent Street in London is one of the capital's premier shipping streets. In the nineteenth century it was a highly desirable commercial area with a mix of perfumeries and glovers, tailors and hat makers. Among the retailers to acquire a prime piece of this real estate was James Heenan, cigar supplier to "nobility and gentry". 

James was born in London the son of a tailor by the name of John Heenan and his wife Mary. His father died in 1813 two brothers John Emanuel and Benjamin both made their career in the law but James as a young man evidently decided his interest lay in business.

His acquaintance with a young heiress would appear to have given him an entry into the tobacco business. Ellen Ruddick was the daughter of John Ruddick who was employed at the Audit Office though in what capacity is unknown.  When he died he left the bulk of his estate to his daughter. Although as a 15 year old she was very young to engage in business it's clear that she used at least part of her fortune to invest in a snuff warehouse and to begin operating a business under the name of “Ruddick Ellen & Co, tobacconists”.  She acquired a small property at 24 King William Street, a thoroughfare built in the early 1830s to ‘improve’ the northern approach to the new London Bridge.

How she and James knew each other is a matter of conjecture. By the time she had come of age they were married in the parish church at Islington in 1838. James was living in Prince’s Row, Kennington at the time and described his occupation to be that of "a gentleman."  Just three years later, at the time of the 1841 census, this had changed to 'tobacconist'. The likelihood is that he had taken over his wife's tobacco business while she focused on domestic duties including the care of their daughter Ellen Mary.

Elevations of 24 King William Street and 30 Regent Street, produced by John Tallis

The business clearly thrived because it soon expanded with a new shop in the fashionable Regent Street on the edge of the upmarket Mayfair district.  He had also acquired a partner in the form of Francis Curtis, trading under the name of Heenan and Co from premises at number 30 Regent Street, paying rates of around £230 each year. The building no longer exists having been, like so many of the smaller shops in Regent Street, replaced in the late nineteenth century by larger premises better reflecting the preferences of a new generation of shoppers. Today the entire block is occupied by the Lillywhites store.

The move to Regent Street was a smart decision for two reasons and showed James had a good head for business. Firstly the area was growing rapidly and embracing new ideas in retailing - in 1850 for example it became one of the first places in the world to embrace late-night shopping when the shopkeepers stayed open until 7pm. Secondly the tobacco business itself was changing at this time. Pipe smoking that had prevailed since the sixteenth century was now supplemented by cigars.Cigar divans, essentially a form of coffee house, began springing up in many parts of the city and quickly became the place to be seen by fashionable men.

It was a trend that James Heenan clearly recognised had potential for his business because by 1843 he was advertising himself as a purveyor of "the very highest quality" Havana cigars from his premises at 30 Regent Street.

The Morning Post, 20 April 1843

Cigars may in fact have become a more important part of his business. By the time of the 1851 census James considered himself a cigar merchant rather than tobacconist. His fortunes must have improved because the partnership with Curtis was dissolved through mutual consent in 1850 with James taking on his former partner's debts.  The pair must have retained their connection because when Curtis died in 1862, James Heenan was his executor.

During the 1850s James became a shareholder in the Great Western Railway. As a further indication of their rising status Ellen and James moved their home to a more upmarket part of the city, settling in The Cottage, Englands Lane, Hampstead and later at The Elms, also in Hampstead. This was an area of London much in demand at the time because it promised fresh air and open spaces in contrast to the polluted atmosphere of the city. Today England's Lane is one of London’s most sought-after communities with it's tree-lined row of houses mixed with small shops selling hand-made toys and tea shops. In the 1860s it was the place much favoured by bankers and professionals. 

The Heenans continued to live there until the 1870s.  James evidently took less of a hands-on role in the shops as time progressed. He had already put the business in Regent Street in the hands of two assistants who lived above the premises and he brought in a manager for the King William Street shop. In 1872 he took a further step when he relinquished the Regent Street property, letting it to a distillery company for use as offices. James died in 1874 though his probate record indicates he retained his interest in the King William Street operation.

What happened to the business is not clear. Ellen Mary died in 1847 and the couple's only child William Henry went into the property business rather than following his father's occupation. William Henry became a land agent and subsequently a dealer in Government bonds. Ellen Heenan, his mother, died in 1889 while she was staying with her son in Bow, Devon.

Sources and additional information

  • Further information on businesses in Regent Street and the history of the Heenan and Ruddick commercial operations can by found at the  London Street Views blogsite
  • John Ruddick's estate [PROB 11/1711/51 accessed via Find My Past]
  • Marriage of James Heenan and Ellen Ruddick, October 18, 1838, Parish Church of Islington, County of Middlesex. [Church of England Marriages and Banns, 1754-1932, London Metropolitan Archives]
  • Ellen Mary Heenan died Q4 1847, registered at London City [Government Register Office vol 2 page 218]
  • 1841 census for King William Street, London within the walls. The occupants include James Heenan, his wife Ellen, their daughter Mary aged 9 months and Ellen's mother Hannah, aged 70. Class: HO107; Piece: 1492; Folio: 36; Page: 13
  • Advertisement for Heenan and Co: The Morning Post, 20 April 1843
  • Entry in London Post Office directory for 1848 shows James Heenan operating as a tobacconist from two premises [accessed via Find My Past]
  • Rates paid on Regent Street are recorded in Westminster Rate Books 1634-1900, available via Find My Past
  • 1851 census for The Cottage, England’s Lane, St John Hampstead: Class: HO107; Piece: 1492; Folio: 36; Page: 12
  • Dissolution of partnership with Curtis: The London Gazette, 14 June 1850; issue 21104 page 1683
  • James Heenan's notice to prospective debtors of Francis Edward Hargraves Curtis was published in The London Gazette on September 11, 1863, issue 22770 page 4439.The advertisement referred to Curtis as lately residing at The Parthenon Club and also Holles Street, Cavendish Square and at Lower Rock Gardens. The 1861 census shows a Francis Curtis residing as a boarder at number 7 Lower Rock Gardens. Aged 47 he is a widower born in London and "retired from the general office" [class RG09, piece 591, folio 60 page 16]
  • 1871 census for The Elms, England’s Lane, Hampstead: Piece 91; Folio 19; Page 32
  • James Heenan died Q4 1874, registered at Hampstead. [Government Register Office Vol 1a page 498]. Probate granted to Ellen Heenan [National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1966, 1973-1995 via Ancestry]
  • Ellen Heenan's death was reported in the Exeter Flying Post; January 19, 1889 [accessed via the British Newspaper Archive]
  • Elevations of King William St and Regent Street were published in John Tallis’s London Street Views (1838–1840), a series of 88 pamphlets in which he attempted to capture London’s commercial energy. Accessed via London Street Views blogsite