Shopping in style – Part 1 | The history of the Burlington Arcade

Delve into the history of London’s longest shopping arcade on Piccadilly.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2017

Burlington Arcade has been standing in Mayfair since 1819

Decades before the likes of Westfield came to London, those who wanted to shop in comfort headed to one of the capital’s arcades. Like the mega malls of today, these arcades featured numerous shops under one roof, providing a sheltered retail experience whatever the weather. However, as well laid out as these modern fashion meccas are, they just can’t compare to the historic and upmarket designs of the late Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian period. As part of Metro Girl’s series on the six historic arcades of Mayfair and St James, we will be starting with the Burlington Arcade – the longest and the 2nd oldest of the arcades.

In the early 19th century, the site of the arcade was owned by the wealthy aristocratic Cavendish family. The family had inherited neighbouring Burlington House through marriage when Richard, 3rd Earl of Burlington’s (1694-1753) daughter Lady Charlotte Elizabeth Boyle (1731-1754) wed William Cavendish, 4th Duke of Devonshire (1720-1764), who briefly served as Prime Minister. The couple’s son Lord George Cavendish, 1st Earl of Devonshire, (1754-1834) inherited Burlington House in 1815 and ended up using some of the side garden to erect the arcade. His apparent reasoning for building the mini mall was to prevent the passing public from lobbing oyster shells – a common and affordable food at the time – over the wall into his home. As well as give him more privacy, it would also be a tidy earner for the estate.

Lord George enlisted architect Samuel Ware (1781-1860) to design the arcade with building starting in February 1818. While it was being constructed, the world’s oldest existing shopping arcade, the Royal Opera Arcade opened on Pall Mall in 1818. While the Royal Opera only had shops on one side, the Burlington was a double-sided arcade. Opening on 20 March 1819, the Regency-style building featured a 196 yard long walkway lined by 72 two-storey shop units. The high ceiling covered the walkway featured windows letting in lots of light, with Palladian-style, Ionic columns bringing in some style from the classical world. The arcade cost £29,329, with all shops being occupied by the end of the year. Originally, there were 47 leaseholders, including some females, with tenants and their families residing in the cramped living quarters above their shops.

Wikimedia Commons

Burlington Arcade in 1828 by Thomas H Shepherd from ‘Metropolitan Improvements; or London in the Nineteenth Century’.
Image via Wikimedia Commons

By 1828, it appeared the arcade was certainly prospering, with milliners, hosiers, linen shops, shoemakers, hairdressers, jewellers, watchmakers, tobacconists, umbrella sellers and florists among the many businesses on site. In 1830, Burlington retailer James Drew was the first in the arcade to receive the Royal Warrant. He made the famous high collars for Prime Minister William Gladstone (1809-1898) and invented the soft collar.

Seventeen years after the Arcade opened, parts of it were destroyed when a fire broke out in March 1836. The flames destroyed the Bond Street Bazaar which ran from No.10 Old Bond Street to the back of No.14 in the Arcade. Shops Nos. 12-15 and 58-61 were ravaged. Another fire damaged further shops in 1871.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2017

The current entrance was remodelled in the 1930s

In summer 1926, the Arcade moved out of the family when Lord Chesham, the great-great-great-grandson of Lord George Cavendish, sold the freehold. After a few months, the freehold was sold on again for £330,000. Five years later, the Ionic screen and 19th century iron railings were removed from the Piccadilly entrance and replace by the current arch. In March 1936, another fire broke out in the Arcade, prompting panic amongst shopkeepers and their customers, leading to looting.

Like many businesses in London, the Arcade succumbed to bomb damage during World War II. At 2.55am on 11 September 1940, a bomb hit the junction of Cork Street and Burlington Gardens – just a short distance from the north entrance to the Arcade (for photos of the bomb damage, click here). Most of the shops in this corner of the building were destroyed. As glass was in short supply during the war, shops continued to do business with cardboard or wooden windows. Work finally started to restore the Arcade in 1952, in the hope it would be finished in time for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in June 1953, as her carriage would pass the building. Fortunately, it was ready for the big event.

Burlington Arcade © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2019

An empty Burlington Arcade after hours

In 1964, the Arcade became the scene of a rather dramatic crime when a Jaguar Mark X sped down the thoroughfare, with pedestrians fleeing out of the way. Six masked men jumped out of the vehicle and stole £35,000 of jewellery from the Goldsmiths and Silversmiths Association shop. The criminals were never caught, but their actions prompted the introduction of bollards at each end of the Arcade.

In the 21st century, the Arcade was given a makeover after it was bought by Meyer Bergman in 2010. Up lighting was installed to highlight the interior design features, as well as the walls being painted in its original ecru colour. In 2015, a new floor designed by London architect Jamie Fobert replaced the previous terrazzo tile one from the 1990s. Today, Burlington Arcade features a mix of traditional and luxury retailers, including Manolo Blahnik, Crockett & Jones, Chanel, La Perla, Church’s Shoes, House Of Cashmere, among others, who cater to over 3 million visitors annually. One business, Hancocks at No.52, designed and created the first Victoria Cross – the country’s highest medal for bravery.

The famous Beadles still patrol the Arcade. The original Beadles were former members of the Arcade’s creator Lord George Cavendish’s regiment, the 10th Hussars. They were originally recruited to enforce the Lord’s code of behaviour. They are thought to be the smallest private police force in existence and still wear their traditional uniform of frockcoats and top hats.

  • Burlington Arcade, 51 Piccadilly, Mayfair, W1J 0QJ. Nearest stations: Piccadilly Circus or Green Park. For more information, visit the Burlington Arcade website.

To discover more retail history of London’s shopping arcades and department stores, click here.

For more of Metro Girl’s history posts, click here.

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About Metro Girl

Media professional who was born, brought up and works in London. My blog is a guide to London - what's on, festivals, history, reviews and attractions. All images on my blog are © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl, unless otherwise specified. Do not use without seeking permission first.

Posted on 12 Nov 2016, in Architecture, History, London, Shopping and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

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