Burlington Arcade, London


London’s Burlington Arcade opened in 1819 and has been a role model for many other arcades that opened up around the UK in the following years, becoming the place to see and be seen, and specialising in luxury. In many respects it is still the same today, over 200 years on.

Beadles in uniform still patrol the arcade, and in theory it is still forbidden to whistle or run, while swearing is certainly looked down upon within the arcade gates.

For lovers of arcade history, there’s lots to look out for even today in Burlington Arcade. The lamps might no longer be powered by gas, but they still look attractive, lighting up the beautifully-curved glass shop fronts that line the arcade from one entrance in Piccadilly to the other end at Burlington Gardens.

The glass roof might not be original (but you can blame that on fires and storms, not to mention Luftwaffe bombs) but it still pours more light down onto the shops below, and they are a delight, with small units over two floors, some even with the original spiral staircase still visible through the front windows (Marinella Ties shop), or a staircase with an interesting turn (the glove shop), and Goode’s silver shop has a pleasing curve to its banisters.

Don’t forget to look up at the first floor windows. Some of these are leadlight, with the old shop’s wares spelled out in the coloured glass: “Sweetmeats, bonbons, caramels, chocolates.” This is now David Duggan’s watch shop, but I’m glad he kept the old windows upstairs.

Other stand-out shops include an African concept store which was founded in South Africa in 2010; a makeup store where you can create your own lipstick; there are hats by Swaine, Northampton shoes, shops to buy scarves and ties or gloves; there’s an art gallery, a champagne bar, a chocolate shop; and there is a good quality coffee shop, with a handful of tables outside allowing you to read, write or just watch people go by, as people have been doing in this arcade for the last two centuries.

My favourite shop today

So many fantastic shops to choose from, but the one I actually used to sit and people watch was the excellent coffee shop Noxy Brothers.

My pick of the arcade’s past

In 1822, while Mr Wilson the haberdasher was standing by the fire talking to his assistant one day, a thief walked into the other part of his shop (he had two units in the arcade) and walked off with a writing desk valued at 5 guineas. When the thief tried to sell the desk on, he chose a shop in nearby Regent Street, which just happened to be run by Mr Wilson’s brother, who recognized the desk and had him take it back to his brother’s shop. It turned out Mr Wilson hadn’t even noticed it gone, and was so pleased to have it ‘back’ that he decided not to press charges. He was accused of excessive leniency in the newspapers.

In 1824 two shopkeepers came to blows in the arcade after the son of one, a tailor, joined a gang of boys shouting and causing a disturbance in the arcade. The other shopkeeper, a jeweller, objected to the row, and grabbed the boy he recognized by the scruff of his neck, causing the boy to call for his father, who came out and struck the jeweller in the face and stomach. The case went to court, where it came to light that the boys were just playing ‘tag’; the jury found in the jeweller’s favour, though, and fined the tailor £2.

In September 1940 Burlington Arcade suffered a direct hit by German bombs in the Blitz. But, while one half was destroyed the other half continued trading afterwards, and even the jeweller, whose shop was replaced by a large hole in the ground by the bomb, managed to sift through the rubble to find valuable pieces of his stock.

There were several jewellery thefts from the arcade over the years, including one involving jewels owned by Lillie Langtry, but perhaps the most audacious robbers drove up the arcade in a Jaguar in 1964. They made off with £50,000 worth of jewellery, and then damaged several other shop fronts as they reversed back down the arcade at speed to make their get-away.

This arcade in films or books

Burlington Arcade was, strangely enough, the IRA’s main office in the 1992 Harrison Ford thriller Patriot Games. It also featured in the 1996 film 101 Dalmations.

What’s your favourite shop in the arcade today?

What memories do you have of visits in years gone by?

Have you got any good stories to add on the past of this arcade?

Have you seen Burlington Arcade in any other films or books?

Does the arcade have its own website?

Yes, click the link for access to Burlington Arcade’s own website, which us regularly updated. The arcade is also active on social media Facebook and Instagram.

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