Where’s London’s oldest…department store?

A 304-year-old institution, Fortnum & Mason on Piccadilly is generally believed (depending, of course, on definition) to be London’s oldest department store.

Founded in 1707, it owes its establishment to the meeting of shopkeeper Hugh Mason and William Fortnum, a footman in the house of Queen Anne, who was his lodger. The story goes that their joint venture began when Fortnum began retrieving the half-used candles discarded by the royal family (they insisted on fresh candles each night) and they started selling them on to ladies at the Royal Court.

Initially founded as a grocery store, Fortnum & Mason, which moved to its current site on Piccadilly in 1756 (see picture to right), become known for its high quality and rare goods – in particular tea.

It has held numerous Royal Warrants since the mid 1800s with the first granted in 1863 when the firm was appointed as grocers to the then Prince of Wales.

A supplier of British officers during the Napoleonic Wars, it was also active during the Crimean War when Queen Victoria had shipments of “concentrated beef tea” sent to Florence Nightingale for use in her hospitals there.

Among its other claims to fame are that the first Scotch egg was created there in 1738 and that in 1886, it became the first store in Britain to stock tins of Heinz baked beans.

The massive clock which hangs on the facade of the building was commissioned in 1964 by Canadian businessman Garfield Weston who bought the business in 1951. Every hour models of Mr Fortnum and Mr Mason come forth and bow to each other.

The store, now famous for its luxury food hampers, underwent a £24 million restoration in the lead-up to its 300th anniversary in 2007. As well as the flagship store, there are now branches – “stores within stores” – in Japan. The firm also reportedly plans to open Fortnum & Mason stand-alone shops in locations like China, the Middle East and India (its last overseas stand alone store was opened on Madison Avenue in New York in the 1930s but the business was short-lived thanks to the Depression).

As well as its array of goods for sale, the Piccadilly store now houses a number of eateries including St James’s Restaurant, The Parlour, The Fountain, The Gallery and the 1707 Wine Bar.

See www.fortnumandmason.com.

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