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One of my favourite London wonders is its living history. There are so many beautiful old buildings have been preserved and are still in use today, sometimes for the same purpose they were originally built for.
It’s quite a novelty browsing in these olde shops which have changed little since they were first built, sometimes hundreds of years ago. We are so lucky in London that there are still quite a selection of these shops still open awaiting for our custom today. Several famous London shops haven’t survived and I will cover those off in another podcast but with Christmas round the corner and shopping being a major part of that I thought I’d share with you my favourite old shops of London.
Which part of London is best for old shops? When I think of old-fashioned shop front the area of St James stands out as well as the City. But Mayfair and Holborn offer a few too.
Berry Bros. & Rudd
It was founded in 1698 as an upscale grocers by a business woman known as ‘Widow Bourne’. She and her daughters ran the St James' establishment which supplied the area's fashionable coffee houses and was passed down through the family. Amazingly, with it having traded for over 300 years it is a still ran by the eighth generation.
The fabric of the building is amazing. The dark wooden frontage frontage and uneven wooden floor date back over 300 years back to when Widow Bourne first set up shop. The floor is formed from timbers of a former ship. This was common practice. We know Liberty shop used the timbers of two ancient 'three-decker' battle ships; HMS Impregnable and HMS Hindustan.
From day one it has sold wine but began in 1845 they began specialising in the drink. It sells over 5,000 different wines. Berry Bros. & Rudd hold two royal warrants and have been the supplier of the royal family since 1760 during the reign of George III. Their shop is conveniently opposite St James’s Palace, the official residence of HM The Queen. St James’s Palace was created by Henry VIII and he flattened at hospital (called St James’s) to do it. The shop is on a corner which is formed from Henry VIII’s tennis court - I doubt that there is another shop that can say that! There’s an urban legend that a passage leads from this room into St James’ Palace has now been blocked off. Who knows, perhaps one day it will be found.
When you go in you will notice a large pair of scales from 1765. Many notable customers have been weighed here- Pitt the Younger, Lord Byron, Beau Brummel, the Prince Regent and yes you guessed it Napolean III. Their weight was recorded in a book, which the shop still has now. Don’t forget that this was a time before people had their own scales at home.
If you go down the rickety staircase you will see a truncheon belonging to Napoleon III (nephew of THE Napoleon). The French statesman was good friends with one of the Berrys. In 1838 when the Chartist riots spread through England, George Berry signed up as a special constable. Accompanying him was his friend, the future Napoleon III. The two served together as Special Constables (hence the truncheon).
The vaulted cellar is named after Napoleon as he used the location as a secret meeting place when in exile in London.
If you love being outdoors in this season then perhaps you would enjoy their ginger liqueur. It was invented in 1903 at the request of the physician of Edward VII. The king loved to race around at the high speed of 20 miles an hour in his Daimler, which one I can’t be certain as he owned eight of them, and he would do that come rain or shine. The physician was worried that the King might catch his death of cold when driving on chilly winter days due to wind chill. The purpose of the cordial, a combination of ginger cordial and brandy, was “to resuscitate and revivify”. This early incarnation was quickly taken up by Edward VII’s friends and other members of high society as a “restorative liqueur” to accompany their outdoor activities, and before long, it was a popular staple amongst Edwardian shooting parties. Ginger Brandy - Special Liqueur was produced by Henry Berry was renamed “The King’s Ginger” in Edward VII’s honour in 1935. Oh and it goes rather well with hot chocolate!
3 St. James’s Street, London SW1A 1EG / 63 Pall Mall, St. James's, London SW1Y 5HZ
Open Monday to Friday 10am – 9pm, 10am – 5pm on Saturday and closed on Sundays.
Virtual Wine Tastings: https://www.bbr.com/events-and-experiences
By Appointment to:
HM The Queen
Wine & Spirit Merchants
HRH The Prince of Wales
Wine and Spirit Merchants
Fortnum & Mason
We see this fabulous shop on our Christmas Lights tour. Fortnum & Mason is an essential London destination for all in search of extraordinary food. Its headquarters are located at 181 Piccadilly, not far from Berry Bros. & Rudd. They also have two royal warrants.
It’s rich with history and innovation – from the invention of the Scotch Egg in 1738 to its revolutionary Sparkling Tea in 2020 – Fortnum’s continues to expand to new outposts at home and abroad. It has had a colourful continuous history and has often been centre stage at some of London and UK’s important historical moments.
Established in 1707 during the reign of Queen Anne by Hugh Mason and William Fortnum. Fortnum had taken a position as Footman in Queen Anne’s household
That’s when Fortnum found he could make a fortune by selling the queen bundles of discarded half-burned wax candles. He managed them to convince his landlord, Hugh Mason, to start a business venture together, and so they opened the now-famed grocery shop together.
It was decades later when the shop became primarily interested in selling mostly food to travellers, so they packaged easily transportable meals. They did this as they found the shop was perfectly placed for travellers venturing west. Fortnum developed the smart idea of wrapping a hard boiled egg with pork sausage meat, covering that in breadcrumbs and deep frying the whole thing. Hey presto! You have the world’s first scotch egg. It’s tasty, filling and portable. Stories say it was most likely named after officers of the Scots Guard that lived in the vicinity of the shop, who had taken a liking to the egg who know knows if that’s true?! It’s certainly a favourite of mine when needing something to munch on in between London tours.
Fortnum’s reputation was built on supplying high-quality food. It especially saw rapid growth throughout the Victorian era and even though its developed into a department store, it does still continue to focus on offering a variety of exotic, speciality and also 'basic' provisions such as scotch eggs, Royal Blend tea and florentines.
And it’s the entrepreneurship with Fortnum & Masons that’s impressive. It hasn’t just had one idea and ran with that. During the 1922 expedition to the peak of Mount Everest Fortnum & Mason were the chief supplier of food and drinks. It was a massive endeavour that ultimately didn’t make it to the top, but the store had supplied them champagne in any case. The expedition still broke a mountaineering record, and they celebrated with the champagne along with dozens of cans of exquisite and delicious food.
The Crimean War was the very first war to be covered by on-the-spot reporters. This highlighted to the home front the appalling conditions were forced to live with. The story of the Charge of the Light Brigade gripped the nation. It was described as a suicidal attack, a very public failed military action involving the British light cavalry led by Lord Cardigan against Russian forces during the Battle of Balaclava. It was made famous by Alfred Lord Tennyson in his 1855 poem. Queen Victoria sent an order Fortnum and ’Masons requesting them “to dispatch without delay to Miss Nightingale in Scutari a huge consignment of concentrated beef tea”. Beef tea, a very 19th century remedy. If you open a book about 19th century dietary remedies it would be hard to find one that does not mention beef tea. It was a type of broth – made with beef and water – given to patients to drink if they were suffering from digestive problems, fever or weakness.
George V was known for throwing lavish parties, and one of the largest ones was the Jubilee in 1935, which commemorated 25 years of his ascension to the throne. As it’s always been a tradition in the history of Fortnum & Mason, they were responsible for catering to guests from all corners of the Empire. They created a special department that accommodated to the different dietary needs of the subjects of the Empire coming from far away, such as specially prepared Hindu, Muslim, and Indian meals.
In 1984 when they sold the single ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ Bob Geldof and Midge Ure wrote the hit. Its purpose was to raise money to help a struggling Ethiopia deal with famine. The idea was brought up by an employee, and the charitable event was a smashing success.
The most important people in the history of Fortnum & Mason are, obviously William Fortnum and Hugh Mason. Without them, the enterprise wouldn’t even have existed in the first place, and so in 1964, W. Garfield Weston which was the board chairman at the time commissioned a unique external clock made in their honour. And even now on the hour, every hour, 18th-century music starts playing from this beautiful four-ton clock, and two figurines of Fortnum and Mason come out and bow to each other. Perhaps you have seen it in action?
181 Piccadilly, St. James's, London W1A 1ER
Opening times: Monday – Saturday 9am - 9pm / Sunday 11.30am* - 6pm
(*11.30am - 12 noon is browsing only on Sundays)
By Appointment to:
HM The Queen
Grocers & Provision Merchants
HRH The Prince of Wales
Tea Merchants and Grocers
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