A hive of English elegance, Burlington Arcade retains its sophisticated Georgian air despite the onslaught of high-end luxury brands on other parts of Mayfair
Article by Rupert Watkins
There remains something extremely pleasurable about wandering down Burlington Arcade, out of the weather and, to a large extent, the crowds, it is one of the very last elegant shopping experiences in London. Despite the increasing pressure from larger conglomerate-backed luxury brands, the arcade has retained many of its smaller shops and dealers. Scratching below the surface, it also offers a microcosm of London life over the past 200 years.
To delve into the history of this sophisticated shopping institution, I leisurely wandered up it with Chief Beadle Mark Lord – to hear the stories and gossip. Built by Lord George Cavendish, who then lived at Burlington House next door (now the Royal Academy), the idea was to build a sheltered area where his wife Lady Cavendish and her friends could shop in comfort and security. Opened in 1819 on March 20th, the other reason for building it was that Lord Cavendish wanted to stop the unwashed masses throwing rubbish into his back garden…
In this era, Mayfair, though aristocratic, was still a much less refined area than it would later become. Old Bond Street was still filled with gentlemen’s betting shops and boxing clubs. Whilst fighting in the Napoleonic Wars, Lord Cavendish had seen the earliest grand arcades being built in European cities and was keen to imitate them. Lady Cavendish had a large input into the design of the arcade as her husband remained abroad campaigning.
Even today, various design details can be seen untouched given the listed status of the arcade. If you look along the arcade, every section has a different facia, deliberately so in order to break up the eye line. Burlington Gardens are actually 10 feet higher than Piccadilly hence the sloped floor; there had originally been a plan for steps half way along until Lady Cavendish vetoed them.
The original aspiration was to give employment to “industrious females” usually war widows of men from Lord Cavendish’s regiment the 10th Hussars and the beadles, engaged to keep to peace and gentlemanly atmosphere of the arcade, were also non-commissioned offices from that cavalry regiment. To this day, the beadles wear the colours of the 10th Hussars; the famous scarlet of the 10th (and their modern-day successors the King’s Royal Hussars) is found on the beadle’s waistcoats.
Mark has been at Burlington Arcade for 16 years, “you never know who you’ll chat to next, where they’re from, what they’re visiting London for or what their spending power is, so every day is interesting” he explains. Having been there for some time, he has seen changes in the type of shops the arcade now houses but believes it to be a good thing, “you must always adapt and give each era’s customer what they want. We’ve now got a good mix of small independent dealers and larger luxury brands, we do need a few of those larger brands as they pull people in.”
Shop facades cannot be altered or removed in any way to preserve the Georgian symmetry of the building. Though clearly there are some 1970s miscalculations before planning regulation tightened up Mark explains there is now tighter control over shop interiors. Originally the shop tenants lived above or below their shops. Mark takes me down into the basement of a unit being renovated to show me the remains of the twin tunnels that run the length of the arcade; these connected all the shops and for many decades purchases in the shops above were taken through the tunnels to either be handed to the customer at the arcade’s exit or delivered to their town address – the consumerist era of swinging a designer shop bag as a status symbol hadn’t yet come in.
In the Victorian era, the arcade gained a reputation as an upper crust red light district, shop owners rented out their upper rooms to prostitutes of both sexes. In summer their availability was indicated by an open window with a stocking hanging out of it, in winter by a candle held against a red handkerchief. By Edwardian times this sleaziness had passed but the reputation still lingered well into the early 20th Century – hot water though was installed before the First World War.
In the Second World War the Arcade was damaged in the Blitz, a direct hit on the Burlington Gardens end meant the last 60 feet had to be completely rebuilt and restored. 1964 saw the arcade’s only ram raid when a Mark X Jaguar was driven down the northern end of the building and thieves escaped with over £35,000 (1960s prices) of jewellery – and were never caught. The police though did track down the Jaguar which had been stolen from a country doctor, “he dined out on this for years!” Mark laughs.
Of all the shops in the arcade, one jeweller remains righty famous as the manufacturer of the Victoria Cross – Britain’s highest award for bravery in combat. Hancocks was approached to create several prototypes and in 1856, Queen Victoria approved the final design. The small jeweller, who also specialises in antique silver and objet d’arts, has continued to make the revered award ever since.
Today Mark sees and helps people from all over the world as four million visitors cross the arcade’s entrance every year. He sees many from the US, many coming to see where family heirlooms were procured when a grandfather was serving over here during the war. His team of beadles continue to patrol the elegant surroundings of Burlington Arcade. One of the many conventions they enforce is no whistling though Mark smiles, “I did make an exception once and give a licence to whistle to Paul McCartney…….”