Eight historic department stores in London…3. Fortnum & Mason…
November 23, 2016
Now a Piccadilly institution, Fortnum and Mason’s origins (which we dealt with in 2011 in a London’s oldest post but couldn’t resist looking at again) famously go back the early 17th century when Hugh Mason rented out a spare room to William Fortnum, a Footman in the household of Queen Anne.
The entrepreneurial Fortnum decided to supplement his income by selling Queen Anne’s half-used candle wax (new candles were required every night) for a small profit. It was he who convinced his landlord, who also had a small shop in St James’s Market, to join with him in a joint venture – the first Fortnum & Mason – in Duke Street in 1707.
Initially founded as a grocery store, Fortnum & Mason, which moved to its current site at 181 Piccadilly in 1756, become known for its high quality and rare goods – in particular tea – and during the 18th and 19th centuries supplied the gentry who were in London for the ‘season’. Departments inside the store have included a rather bizarre ‘Expeditions Department’ which apparently supplied King Tut’s finder Howard Carter and a 1922 expedition to Mount Everest.
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, Fortnums 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.
Other claims to fame include the creation of the first Scotch egg in 1738 as a food for travellers and that in 1886, it became the first store in Britain to stock tins of Heinz baked beans. It also operated a post office between 1794 and 1839 when the General Post Office was founded.
The iconic 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. Other features on the building itself include four colonies of bees which have lived on the roof since 2008 in uniquely-designed hives.
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, it also now operates stores in St Pancras (2013) and Heathrow Airport (2015) as well as, since last year, in Dubai (it did open a store on Madison Avenue in New York in the 1930s but the business was short-lived thanks to the Depression). Fortnum & Mason products can also be found in a growing number of department stores around the world.
The Piccadilly store houses a number of eateries including The Parlour, The Gallery and The Wine Bar as well as, since it was opened by Queen Elizabeth II herself in 2012, the Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon – already famous for its afternoon teas.