A wry view of life for the world-weary

The Streets Of London – Part Fifty Three



Burlington Arcade, W1

This rather ostentatious and grandiose shopping arcade dissects Piccadilly and Burlington Gardens and is somewhere I have always shepherded TOWT through at some pace because the prices of the wares on display are beyond what my plastic can bear.

It owes its origin to a group of tossers. Lord George Cavendish whose gaff was Burlington House, the premises now occupied by the Royal Academy, was getting a bit peed off with the hoi polloi who took delight in throwing their oyster shells and other bits of detritus over the wall into his garden. As you do in those circumstances, he commissioned his architect, Samuel Ware, to build an arcade of shops “for the sale of jewellery and fancy articles of fashionable demand for the gratification of the public and to give employment to industrious females” to act as a barrier.

And so on 20th March 1819 the arcade consisting of a single straight walkway with seventy-two two storey units was opened to the public. A feature of the original arcade which is retained today is the glass roofing to give light and it was the forerunner of other glazed shopping arcades such as those to be found at Saint-Hubert Gallery in Brussels and The Passage in St Petersburg.


The hoi polloi were not entirely driven away, the arcade becoming a resort for sex workers who occupied many of the second storey rooms to ply their trade and pickpockets who roamed the arcade for easy pickings. Their enterprise gave rise to two unusual features of the arcade which are still to be observed today. Firstly, it is verboten to whistle in the arcade and, secondly, the arcade has its own security force, beadles decked out in top hats and frockcoats. The beadles originally were former members of Cavendish’s old regiment, the 10th Hussars. The sex workers would whistle to alert the pickpockets of the approach of the beadles and so whistling was prohibited. The arcade and fun are clearly antonyms.

Vehicular access to the arcade is prohibited by elegant bollards at either end of the arcade. It was not ever thus. In 1964 a Jaguar Mark X tore down the arcade, causing pedestrians to take cover and six masked men jumped out. They proceeded to smash the windows of the shop of the Goldsmiths and Silversmiths Association and got away with a haul worth some £35,000, despite office workers in adjacent buildings showering them with plant pots and furniture. It was gratifying to see a return of the tossers but more substantial deterrents were required – so to prevent a recurrence, the bollards appeared.

There are now just 40 retail units in the arcade, a number of the original units being merged and you can find on sale a range of what are termed high-end (aka expensive) clothing and footwear shops as well as antique dealers and jewellers, maintaining the original remit of the arcade. Of particular note are units 52 and 53, occupied by Hancocks, who have made every one of the 1,358 Victoria Crosses awarded since 1856. They are made from a lump of metal extracted from a Chinese cannon which may have been captured from the Russians during the Crimean War. Apparently there is enough metal left to make another 80 of the medals. Let’s hope there isn’t much call for them.

Well worth a look if you are in the are but keep your hand on your wallet.

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