This coming Wednesday marks the bicentennial of the opening of the Burlington Arcade, in the Mayfair section of London. Though it opened in the last full year of the Regency, this elegant shopping area was popular from the outset. Its many upscale shops selling luxury goods were frequented at one time or another by the majority of the affluent residents of the city, both ladies and gentlemen. Authors of Regency romances might find that this new shopping venue will make an ideal setting for one or more scenes in a story of love in our favorite decade.
A brief history of the Burlington Arcade . . .
Louts lobbing litter. According to most histories of the origin of the Burlington Arcade, that was the primary impetus for the development of the narrow tract of land on the western edge of the Burlington House property in London. This narrow alleyway or footpath ran between Piccadilly and Burlington Gardens for nearly two hundred yards. According to the available sources, people often used this footpath to quickly and easily move between those two major thoroughfares. Unfortunately, while they did so, quite a number of them tossed their trash away on the grounds of Burlington House. Empty bottles and boxes, bits of paper or straw, and even the occasional partially-eaten loaf of bread or chicken leg, were just some of the rubbish found in the Burlington House gardens. But the bulk of the unwanted refuse appears to have been oyster shells, oysters being a cheap, fast food for the poor during this period.
In 1815, Lord George Cavendish purchased the Burlington House property in London, from his nephew, the Duke of Devonshire. At the time he purchased the property, the famous sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens, the Elgin Marbles, were on display in an outbuilding on the grounds, at the invitation of the Duke of Devonshire. Naturally, these ancient works of art had attracted a significant number of visitors to the area, which increased the foot traffic to and around the grounds of the house. Soon after he took ownership of the Burlington House property, Lord George requested that Lord Elgin remove these famous Greek sculptures from his grounds. That request eventually resulted in the purchase of the Elgin Marbles, for Britain, by Parliament, the following year.
The Duke of Devonshire had inherited Burlington House through the Boyle side of his family. However, he had never lived in it, since he also owned the large and elegant Devonshire family town house, just a few blocks away. Lord George Cavendish fully intended to use Burlington House as his London residence. A wealthy man, due to his marriage to an heiress, Lord George could afford to have the house remodeled and updated to suit his large family and affirm his social consequence. The architect Samuel Ware was recommended to him by his nephew, the Duke of Devonshire, since Ware had done a lot of work on Devonshire’s properties in both Britain and Ireland. Lord George Cavendish, and his family, moved into Burlington House about a year later, when the renovations were complete. Not long after their arrival, his wife began to complain about the rubbish which was routinely tossed onto their grounds by passers-by using the footpath. Lord George had a wall built along that side of the property, but that did not eliminate the problem. One source reports that the final insult came when the body of a dead cat was flung over the wall, landing almost at the feet of Lady Cavendish. She immediately demanded that her husband find a permanent solution to this repugnant situation.
Lord George consulted with his architect, Samuel Ware, about the most practical way to resolve the trash tossing problem. Ware was probably aware that his fellow architects, John Nash and George Repton, were in the process of designing a shopping arcade to be located along the side of the Royal Opera House. Shopping arcades had originated in Paris, in the early nineteenth century. Essentially, these arcades were covered passageways with raised walkways which gave access to a group of several retail shops while protecting shoppers from the elements and muck generated by carriage traffic. In his proposal to Lord George, Ware stated that this new development would be "a Piazza for all Hardware, Wearing Apparel and Articles not Offensive in appearance nor smell." It was their intention that this would be an exclusive set of shops in which tenants would be restricted to those who were purveyors of fine goods and services. This would exclude less salubrious and malodorous businesses, such as butchers, coopers (barrel-makers), fish-mongers, chandlers (candle-makers), carpenters and most fresh produce vendors.
Samuel Ware knew that the arcade at the Royal Opera House was designed with shops along one side, while the other side was open to Pall Mall. It is believed that Ware suggested to Lord George that they build a double arcade to fill the alleyway which ran along the west edge of the Burlington House property. There was enough space for such a structure and fully enclosing the alleyway would be the most effective way to exclude trash tossers. Since this arcade would be fully roofed over, it would be impossible for anyone passing through it to throw anything onto the grounds of Burlington House. In the 1870s, Henry Baker, who had been a pupil of Samuel Ware, stated that another reason for the building of the Burlington Arcade, and why it was given two stories, was to block the view from Burlington House of the many windows in the buildings along Old Bond Street, which backed onto the east side of the alleyway. It seems that some of the tenants of those buildings had caused periodic annoyance to the residents of Burlington House. Lord George might have also considered that this solution would have the added benefit of providing his wife, Lady Elizabeth Cavendish, with an attractive and pleasant place to shop for lovely things which was quite close to home.
A brief mention of this projected new shopping venue was published in The Gentlemen’s Magazine: and Historical Chronicle, dated 24 September 1817. It read, in part:
It is said, that after numerous deliberations, Lord George Cavendish has determined to appropriate a proportion of the grounds connected with Burlington House, for the gratification of the publick, and to give employment to industrious females. A line has been marked out at the West end, extending North and South, in which will be a covered way, or promenade, from Piccadilly into Cork-street. [Where the promenade would intersect with Burlington Gardens.] This covered way will contain a double line of shops, for the sale of jewellery and other fancy articles, and above will be suites of rooms. . . .
This notice suggests that Lord George Cavendish and Samuel Ware must have been fairly well along with their plans for the new shopping arcade for it to be made public in the autumn of 1817. The reference to "industrious females" is generally believed to indicate that Lord George expected a number of the shop-keepers in his new arcade to be milliners, lace-makers, glovers, hosiers and dress-makers, the majority of whom were female. Jewellers, watch-makers, hatters, perfumers, cane-makers, hair-dressers, goldsmiths, book-sellers, florists, haberdashers, tailors and shoe-makers, as well as fine glassware and chinaware sellers, were among the other types of luxury-goods tenants which he had in mind for his new arcade. Agents for Lord George Cavendish appear to have begun seeking tenants for the new arcade even before the notice was published.
It is believed that construction on Lord George’s new shopping promenade began soon after the announcement appeared in The Gentlemen’s Magazine. There were a few challenges to the site which Samuel Ware was able to overcome with his designs. The alleyway ran for 196 yards, which was much longer than the length of the Royal Opera House shopping arcade, and it was to be double-sided and two-storied. In addition, the construction site had a rise of nine feet over its length, running north from Piccadilly to Burlington Gardens. Ware’s solution was to design the promenade in three sections, with each group of shops clustered along a "Saloon" or "Interval." The floor of the arcade was designed as relatively flat and level, to provide ease of walking for shoppers. The level promenade floor was only interrupted in the middle saloon, with a set of steps which adjusted the difference in height between the Piccadilly and Burlington Gardens entrances.
When construction began, the plan was for Lord George Cavendish to foot the costs of the exterior shell of the building only, with a partner to underwrite the remaining interior construction costs. In early 1818, the partner appears to have dropped out of the project and Lord George took over the full cost of construction. Ware’s student, Henry Baker, later estimated the final cost of construction to have been about £30,000. It is not clear whether Lord George’s involvement in the construction of the interior of the arcade had any influence on how it was actually built. But it is known that the final arcade plan differed from Ware’s original designs. The shops were no longer clustered, but ran the length of the arcade, on either side, in regular and nearly unbroken ranges. The single set of steps at the center were changed to two shallower sets of steps, which were placed about equidistant from one entrance and the center of the arcade.
The facades of both the Piccadilly and Burlington Gardens entrances were comprised of an elegant set of three tall classical arches. The arches were surmounted by a modillioned classical cornice divided into three sections, with a pair of balustrades flanking a central plaque. A set of wrought iron gates was placed at the base of each arch so that the arcade could be closed to the public in the evening. The floor of the new arcade was wood, unlike the stone floor seen there today. Most of the interior of the ground floor of the arcade was also finely worked and polished or painted wood. The Royal Opera House arcade had an arch-covered walkway, with a line of circular domed skylights set into it at intervals to bring in some natural light. Of course, the Royal Opera House arcade also had the advantage of being only single-sided. The double-sided Burlington Arcade had a peaked roof, which was filled nearly edge to edge with dozens of square skylights that flooded the promenade with natural light. But this new shopping arcade did not depend solely upon natural light. It was also fully piped for gas lighting and was said to present a most brilliant appearance of an evening. However, it must be noted that though most shops in Regency London stayed open until nine or ten o’clock at night, Lord George Cavendish established a strict rule that the Burlington Arcade would close each evening promptly at eight o’clock.
In the completed Burlington Arcade, there were seventy-two units, with a fairly even mix of double- and single-width shops. Each unit had one or two large, but fairly shallow, bow display windows facing onto the arcade walkway, based on whether it was a single or double width shop. In addition, each unit had cellar space below it, as well as room(s) above it, on the second floor. Access to the floors within each unit was by way of a narrow spiral staircase which ran from the cellar to the second floor. The intent was that each tenant could store their extra stock in their cellar and live in the space above their shop. However, it worked out that some shop-keepers had to use part of their living quarters to store their overflow stock. Such a situation could make for very cramped living space for any shop-keeper with even a small family. Each shop had an elegant and decorative front door which opened onto the arcade, as well as a plain back door which could be reached without going through the arcade. Both doors had unique locks so that shop-keepers could lock their shops when they were out.
As it happened, the Royal Opera House shopping arcade, which opened in 1818, was a very popular and successful venture. This proved to be an advantage in attracting tenants to the new Burlington Arcade, since many purveyors of luxury goods were well aware of the success of their competitors who had shops in the Royal Opera House arcade. Therefore, Lord George Cavendish had every expectation that he could not only eliminate the throwing of trash onto his property, as well as block the view of windows in the back of the buildings on Old Bond Street, with the shopping arcade which he was building, and it might also make him a tidy profit into the bargain. In fact, all of the units in the Burlington Arcade had been let by March of 1819, when the arcade opened, though not all of the tenants had moved in or were ready for business on opening day, Saturday, 20 March 1819. In the end, there were only six female shop-keepers among the original tenants, but for the time, that was a significant number. Records are rather sparse with regard to the individual rents paid by each tenant, but it is known that Lord George Cavendish received a total of about £3200 in rental payments that first year. Which meant that he realized more than a ten percent return on his investment in just one year. And the majority of his tenants had taken seven-year leases on their shops. Lord George Cavendish and his heirs found that the Burlington Arcade turned out to be a very good investment, since it has been an exclusive and very successful shopping venue since the day it opened, two hundred years ago this coming Wednesday.
Part of the success of the Burlington Arcade was due to the fact that Lord George Cavendish also instituted what amounts to a private security team to patrol the promenade during the hours it was open to the public and enforce good behavior. Many references to the history of the Burlington Arcade state that these men were chosen from his former regiment, the 10th Royal Hussars, and that they were known as beadles. Most of which is true, but none of that actually happened until well into the reign of Queen Victoria. From the day it opened and for several decades thereafter, Lord George Cavendish hired a few unemployed soldiers, initially Waterloo veterans, to serve as porters in his new shopping arcade. Two porters were on duty each day, one at each street entrance. It was their responsibility to "exclude improper characters" and enforce the rules laid down by Lord George.
There were only a few rules which Lord George wished to be enforced in those early years. The arcade had to close promptly at eight o’clock each evening. It is not clear if this was due to some notion that people should not continue to shop later than that, or merely Lord George’s wish to remove people and their attendant noise and bustle from the west side of his property at what he, or perhaps his wife, considered to be a reasonable hour. Another rule forbid anyone to carry parcels in the promenade. At that time, it was considered unseemly for people, particularly ladies, to be seen carrying packages in public. And Lord George intended that only respectable people could shop at his arcade. Therefore, whenever anyone made a purchase in one of the shops in the Burlington Arcade, the shop-keeper, or one of their assistants, would wrap up the goods, note the name of the purchaser on the package and hold it in the back room, or in the cellar. When the shopper returned home, they would send a footman or other servant to the arcade to collect their purchases, by way of the back doors of shops, without setting foot in the promenade. Since it was assumed that shoppers would proceed at a leisurely pace along the promenade, running, and even walking fast, was prohibited in the Burlington Arcade. Another rule seems to have been forced upon Lord George. A few months after the opening of the Burlington Arcade, a new vehicle, the velocipede, became all the rage in London. Some of those who rode this precursor to the bicycle would try to ride their velocipede just about anywhere. The porters who manned the street entrances at the Burlington Arcade had strict orders to forbid entrance to anyone riding a velocipede. That may be the reason that there is still a rule against riding a bicycle in the Burlington Arcade to this day.
Changes came to the Burlington Arcade in the decades after the Regency ended. Ownership of the arcade descended in the Cavendish family through the nineteenth century. By the late 1870s, the arcade had become the property of Charles Cavendish, Lord Chesham. During that time, many of the shop-keepers had found living quarters elsewhere and were no longer living above their shops. Some were using the upstairs space for an office or for extra storage. But at least a few of those rooms were being used as places of assignation for a number of prostitutes. Perhaps the most infamous of these second-story brothels was operated by a cross-dressing milliner with a shop in the arcade. Most people believed he was a successful lady milliner, and his true gender only became known upon his death. Under cover of his millinery business, he was managing a stable of working girls who entertained their customers in the rooms over his shop in the Burlington Arcade and in a high-end brothel in Regent Street. In addition, as ready-made clothes became more widely available and less expensive, even lower-class criminals, such as pick-pockets, were able to dress better, thus avoiding ejection from the Burlington Arcade by the porters who monitored the street entrances.
By the later Victorian period, London did have a police force, but it had a vast area to cover and officers could not be permanently stationed in the Burlington Arcade. Lord Chesham decided that he would have to do something to stop the prostitutes and pick-pockets who were preying upon the shoppers in the arcade. Therefore, he recruited several retired soldiers from his former regiment, the Royal Hussars. [Author’s Note: Lord George Cavendish never served in the military, while Lord Chesham served in several regiments over the course of his life, including the Royal Hussars. He eventually rose to the rank of general in the British Army.] The former soldiers which Lord Chesham recruited were dubbed beadles, an old English term for care-takers or watchmen. The beadles were all fitted out with black top hats, dark blue frock coats embellished with decorative white braiding and black cloaks, which they wear to this day. It is believed the frock coats were specially designed and made for them by Henry Poole, a prominent tailor who opened the very first tailor shop in Savile Row. Which is further evidence of the late introduction of the beadles into the Burlington Arcade. Henry Poole did not open his shop until 1849, and fine tailoring did not become a significant feature of that London street until the second half of the nineteenth century.
The beadles regularly patrolled the Burlington Arcade, and enforced Lord George Cavendish’s original rules, as well as new rules established by Lord Chesham. It had become the habit of prostitutes and their customers to signal one another by whistling, humming or singing a certain tune. In much the same way, pick-pockets often had accomplices stationed in the arcade as lookouts who would whistle or sing a specific tune, if they saw a porter or police officer patrolling the promenade. Another signal used by prostitutes to their customers was the opening or closing of an umbrella or parasol. Therefore, whistling, singing, humming, playing a musical instrument and opening a parasol or umbrella were all prohibited in the Burlington Arcade in the Victorian period. All of those same activities are still prohibited in the Burlington Arcade to this day. It may be of some interest that there is a long-standing urban legend that the beadles do allow Sir Paul McCartney to sing, hum or whistle as he strolls through the arcade.
Dear Regency Authors, although the Burlington Arcade did not open until the last full year of the Regency period, it quickly became an important shopping venue for luxury items in London. Nearly everyone who was anyone wanted to visit the elegant new arcade, not only for the luxury goods which were on offer, but also just to be seen strolling along the fashionable promenade. It is also important to remember that the shops of Old Bond Street backed up against the Burlington Arcade, making it very easy for one or more characters in a Regency romance to engage in a shopping expedition to both the Burlington Arcade and the shops along Bond Street in just a few hours. Of course, authors of romances set in the Regency cannot include the beadles of the Burlington Arcade in their story, since they were not introduced until the later Victorian period. However, there were porters on duty there in the Regency who enforced Lord George Cavendish’s rules and would provide information and assistance to any respectable shopper who might need it. The Burlington Arcade is literally an enormous hutch of plot bunnies for authors of Regency romance.