Soap-making was a very profitable business in the 17th century and King James I of England decided to exploit this to gain some extra income by establishing a soap monopoly. He then sold the right to make soap to a small number of businesses. In 1770 William Yardley, who sold swords, buckles and spurs to the English aristocracy, acquired one of the soap-making concessions when his son-in-law William Cleaver went bankrupt. Yardley began to build up the toiletry business and handed the company on to his son Charles. When soap taxes were finally removed, soap became available to everyone and Yardley's business boomed. The company moved to New Bond Street and trademarked a whole range of lavender-scented products.
In the 1960s the company was taken over by British American Tobacco, which tried to give the firm a more modern image, using the top fashion models of the day (notably Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton) and introduced a new range of fragrances for men and women. As a means of promoting the new products Yardley decided to become involved in Formula 1 sponsorship in 1970 with British Racing Motors. In 1972 the company moved on to McLaren. In 1974 the company supported a third McLaren for Mike Hailwood while the main team ran in Marlboro and Texaco colours. At the end of the year Yardley pulled out of F1. The company remained as part of BAT until it was sold in 1981 to the pharmaceutical company Beechams, which later sold it on to an American investor Wasserstein Perella.
In the 1990s the company suffered from cheaper competition and struggled to survive. In 1998 it went into receivership but was later revived under new ownership, with headquarters in Memphis, Tennessee.