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Beneath the Arches of the Burlington Arcade, Mayfair

For some, it is a pleasant thoroughfare; for others, a meeting place; and for many, a treasure trove of treats. For head beadle Mark Lord, the Burlington Arcade is a capsule of the city. Luxury London delves into its past, present and future. 

In the early 1800s, Mayfair wasn’t quite the epitome of luxury and elegance that it is today. In fact, one reason why the Burlington Arcade was built was to deter the unruly frequenters of the raucous gentlemen’s clubs on Old Bond Street – particularly those who threw oyster shells into the garden of Lord George Cavendish’s residence, Burlington House, the building now more commonly known as the Royal Academy of Arts.

The arcade – designed by Samuel Ware and opened in March 1819 – boasts the oldest and smallest private police force in the world (called beadles), which was initially made up of men from Lord Cavendish’s regiment: the Tenth Hussars. Head of this team of beadles today is Mark Lord, who has patrolled the arcade for 15 years.

Lord describes the Dickensian scene that would have played out before the arcade was built: there would have been cock fights, gambling and copious amounts of gin and beer drunk because people didn’t trust the water. Orphans formed pickpocketing street gangs just like in Oliver Twist; widows were sent to the workhouses or cast out on the streets; and crucially, there was no Metropolitan Police Force.

Naturally, the area wasn’t suitable for Lady Cavendish to shop with her friends when Lord Cavendish was away at war (the idea for the arcade was proposed after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815). Thus, the Burlington Arcade became the answer to a number of problems.

“In those days if a soldier fought well, he was normally given a small sum of money by his commanding officer as a pension. That’s why so many pubs are called the Earl of such-and-such,” says Lord.

“But no one thought of the widows. The Cavendish family changed that. Many of our original shopkeepers were widows of soldiers. They’d have a shop on the ground floor, live on the first and second floors, and in the basement there would be a kitchen area where they wrapped up the shop parcels. Two different worlds existing in parallel.”

The arcade is well-known for its bizarre rules, which are now a source of bemusement even though some still remain in place. According to Ellen Lewis, vice president of Meyer Bergman (co-owners of the arcade with Thor Equities): “the continued implementation of many of the original rules, such as bans on whistling – only two people including Sir Paul McCartney are exempt – and running, help keep the history of the arcade alive; while certain historic artefacts such as the original brass shopfront of Harrys of London allow the original arcade to exist alongside its contemporary history.”

Shoppers weren’t allowed to carry their purchases along the arcade, either. “Underneath street level there were walkways where boys and girls would run up and down and tap on the windows and ask if there were any parcels to be delivered,” says Lord.

“They would either take them to the end of the arcade or to the customer’s London address. In some of the basements the original windows, frames and fireplaces remain. There are even staircases that don’t go anywhere but we’re not allowed to touch them because they are listed.”

There were once columns at each end of the arcade where beadles would sit and decide who could come in or not: unaccompanied ladies, children and anyone ‘displaying merriment’ would be turned away. These rules of entry have now been eradicated, along with the columns – a result of bomb and fire damage before eventual refurbishments to widen the openings.

Such regulations didn’t prevent illicit activities taking place in the arcade. Mary Anne Evans, more commonly known by her pen name George Eliot, used to meet her married lover George Henry Lewes in Jeff’s Bookshop at number 15 (now Michael Rose jewellers), where it’s said they would leave love letters to each other between the pages of books.

During particularly hard times, the rooms above the shops were rented out to courtesans, however even these activities were kept as classy as possible.

“The arcade has always reflected the capital’s economy: when London’s flourishing, the arcade is flourishing,” says Lord. “In the 1850s, 60s and 70s, London was a bit suppressed, but nothing as coarse as money changed hands. Ladies of the night would be gifted items such as a brooch, hat or gloves from the boutiques by their callers and then they would sell it back to the shop for cash.”

Lord recalls a tale about a Madame Parsons who ran such an establishment above numbers 27, 28 and 29. All the shopkeepers – regardless of gender – were called Madame in those days, however Parsons lived as a woman and it was only when she died that it was discovered she was in fact biologically male.

The Burlington Arcade has changed little; its boutiques have evolved with the changing times. According to Lewis, these developments are very much organic: “transitions happen seamlessly and as a result there still remains a perfect blend of old and new, traditional and contemporary.”

In the past six months, the arcade has welcomed cutting-edge knitwear designer Zoe Jordan; young handbag brand Sophie Hulme; a new Mulberry boutique with a pop-up gin bar upstairs; and Atkinsons – a perfumery that was established before the arcade was built.

“It has been 67 years since the last Atkinsons store was in London, at 24 Old Bond Street, so the launch of this new flagship boutique had to be special,” says Dino Pace, the brand’s CEO.

“We enlisted Christopher Jenner to design the store. We wanted him to think about the new house of Atkinsons as an experiential place where people could breathe the essence of our creations, benefit from the grooming services of an in-store barber shop and feel at home.”

Despite this sprinkling of exciting names between the well-worn pavements of veteran perfumers and jewellers such as the Vintage Watch Company, Hancocks or David Duggan – whose store is the only privately owned Rolex-approved watch shop in the UK – the arcade’s unique, unchanging ‘essence’ remains the same. This is preserved, perhaps, by its legendary rules, careful curation of shops and even the continuation of Lord Cavendish’s original intentions.

“It has a really family feel to it. As soon as we opened the door there was a queue of people wanting to speak to us and all the jewellers said if we needed anything fixing we could take it to them,” says Sophie Antropik, retail supervisor at the Sophie Hulme pop-up.

If you stroll through the arcade with Lord, you are sure to be interrupted numerous times by shopkeepers and passers-by who pull him aside for a quick word. Jewellers nip in and out of one another’s stores to ask advice about certain pieces; the cheerful shoeshiner is constantly polishing; tourists snap away at the gold leaf-lined Ladurée store that glints from Piccadilly; and, just as Lord predicts, people on the phone often slip into conversation exactly where they are. Even Manolo Blahnik himself – who is expanding his boutique this year – signed the soles of a pair of shoes that Lord bought for his daughter on her 18th birthday.

“There are five beadles and three of them have done military service,” explains Lord. “One was in the Irish guards and two fought in Afghanistan. When Britain pulled out of Afghanistan, it left a lot of men very vulnerable, so we try to give them jobs if we can. We try to have a balance between uniform and non-uniform, and represent London as the international city it has become.

“Burlington Arcade doesn’t just house beautiful objects, it’s a living part of London’s history.”

51 Piccadilly, W1J, www.burlingtonarcade.com