Created By: Elizabeth Brown
Burlington Arcade, opened in 1819, is both the most famous and the most traditional of London's shopping arcades. But change is afoot. An ambitious and, according to its tenants, long overdue renovation programme is about to commence. A private offshore family trust (which remains anonymous) bought the arcade from Prudential in 2005 and handed the reins over to property manager The John Baker Group, which immediately sought to improve the space’s fortunes, employing retail agent CWM (credited with transforming Marylebone High Street from a staid haunt of wealthy ladies with miniature dogs into one of London’s most profitable and popular shopping streets) to work its magic. The aim is to attract a younger, hipper customer by challenging the myth that the arcades are stuffy, snooty and overpriced tourist magnets (in fact, 75 per cent of their trade is from Londoners).
Thankfully, it won’t be a heavy-handed case of out with the old and in with the new. Heirlooms such as this are worth more money to London if they’re meticulously preserved, so English Heritage has been brought in as a consultant. Each shop is protected by the Realm as an antique and number 61 (part of the Mont Blanc shop) is designated an antique monument with no alterations permitted at all. In fact, by the end of the refurbishment programme next spring, the arcade will look more authentically nineteenth-century than it does now.
Jeweller Sandra Cronan (number 18) is one of the many tenants who welcome the change and is a longtime fan of the arcade: ‘In my early teens I always walked along here and thought how wonderful it would be to have a shop here. What I remember is the exquisite detail – the moulding on the arches has since been whitewashed, but I remember it all in beautiful pastel shades of peach, cream and turquoise. I long for it to go back to how it was.’
While the building itself will be returning to its grand old glory days, the atmosphere and merchandise will have to appeal to a broader range of customers. Nick Bond of leather goods shop Franchetti Bond says: ‘We have to make the arcade more accessible. The mutton chops have to go. It needs to be seen as somewhere less expensive, less intimidating and less olde-worlde.’ In fact, there is already plenty of great stuff to buy: traditional scents, exquisite antique jewellery, classic cashmere and tailored shirts – the problem is that people just don’t think to visit.
Burlington Arcade was commissioned nearly 200 years ago by Lord George Cavendish who lived next door in Burlington House (now the Royal Academy). Fed up with local oiks dropping litter (mostly oyster shells) into his back garden, he came up with the idea of building a shopping arcade to block off access to his back wall, and commissioned his architect, Samuel Ware, to design one. Wanting to seem a philanthropic sort, Cavendish put his own spin on the planned arcade as being for the ‘gratification of the public and to give employment to industrious females’. In the event, most of the 47 original leaseholders and their families lived and worked in cramped conditions in the shops along with their stock. Of this 47, only six were ‘industrious females’, though archaic customs of the day meant the male corsetiers and milliners were also addressed as ‘madame’.
Burlington still has its own set of rules and regulations, enforced by its own private police force, the smallest in the world. The Burlington beadles were originally recruited, when the arcade opened in 1819, from Cavendish’s family regiment, the Tenth Hussars, and sat recumbent and resplendent in their top hats and tails on special armchairs placed at each end of the arcade. Nowadays, just as smartly attired, they are more likely to be giving tourists directions or – as when I visited – mending small boys’ scooters. They still make sure the old rules are adhered to, in the politest and most diplomatic terms, of course. You’re still not allowed to run in the arcade – as head beadle Mark Lord puts it, ‘a gentlemen never hurries’. Singing, humming and playing an instrument are also banned, along with riding or even pushing a bicycle. An ‘unfurled’ umbrella is also outlawed. The more eccentric and anachronistic regulations still exist but the beadles let them go: it wouldn’t be good for business to exclude unaccompanied women, those with pushchairs or people carrying large parcels.
This point of interest is part of the tour: London Shopping Tour