Royal Opera Arcade, London


The Royal Opera Arcade in London is the oldest arcade in the UK, having been built between 1816 and 1818, so pre-dating even the Burlington Arcade. It runs from Pall Mall to Charles II Street, with His Majesty’s Theatre on Haymarket backing onto the northern end of the arcade.

Sadly, it is almost deserted now, with very little footfall, and hardly any of the 30 or so shop units occupied. A small café still operates towards the Pall Mall end, but little else (even the list of businesses on the boards at one end is out-of-date, with most of them gone now).

It’s a beautiful arcade, though, with its original shop fronts still in place, its ironwork girders that run down the centre of the arcade, each holding a vintage lamp, its round windows bringing light into the place from above, and best of all its staircases visible inside nearly all the empty units: there are spiral staircases, some painted white, some in original iron, wooden staircases, more traditional staircases, with a steep step up, or a pleasing curve. Each staircase is unique and together they make this my favourite ‘staircase arcade.’

I sincerely hope someone comes up with an idea of how to make use of this extraordinary space, with so much history attached to it.

My favourite shop today

There isn’t much to choose from these days, but I loved peering into all the empty shop units and choosing my favourite staircase (the spiral one of course).

My pick of the arcade’s past

The Royal Opera Arcade was built between 1816 and 1818, with designs by John Nash, who also created Buckingham Palace and the Brighton Pavilion. Ladies of the former opera house lived upstairs and the dandies and beaux of the era walked up and down in the arcade keeping their powdered wigs dry. It was known at the time as ‘Fop’s Walk.’

By 1912 the Royal Opera Arcade had one of the last remaining night watchmen in London. According to one newspaper these men used to be called “Old Charlies,” and would call out things like, “Two o’clock in the morning and a fine night, but it may rain.” But by 1912, the only tradition remaining for this nightwatchman was clearing up when prankster kids would upturn his boxes and seats.

In 1923, the Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and his Chancellor of the Exchequer used to get their haircut in the arcade barbers, Burgess, although the owners always called themselves ‘haircutters’ rather than barbers. Baldwin was a customer as early as 1899. Another PM to come regularly was Ramsay MacDonald. Newspaper gossip columnists speculated that you might get a better early inkling of the contents of the budget from this barber than from any member of parliament under oath to stay tight-lipped. The main hair cutter was Sam Lock, a man from Devon who worked in the arcade for over 50 years until it closed in 1948. Rudyard Kipling was another of Lock’s regulars.

Sources for these stories: ; The British Library Board. 1) Nottingham Evening Post, 13 September 1926, Reach PLC; 2) Leeds Mercury, 7 August 1912; 3) Dundee Evening Telegraph, 31 July 1948, D.C.Thomson & Co Ltd.

This arcade in films or books

The 1969 movie The Best House in London was part filmed in Royal Opera Arcade. Starring David Hemmings and Joanna Pettet, the film was about a government-organised brothel in Victorian London. Warren Mitchell also played a role, although by then he had been typecast as Alf Garnett in Till Death Do Us Part.

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 Royal Opera Arcade in any other film or book?

Is there a website for this arcade?

No, and nor is there any social media presence. But correct me if I’m wrong…

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