Secrets Of Burlington Arcade

Eleana Overett
By Eleana Overett Last edited 77 months ago
Secrets Of Burlington Arcade
Photo: Carlos

1. No oysters, please

The Burlington Arcade in one of Britain's longest shopping arcades — 196 yards long to be precise. It was built in 1818/19 at the request of Lord George Cavendish, later Earl of Burlington, for his wife so that she could shop safely amongst other genteel ladies and gentleman away from the busy, dirty, and crime ridden open streets of London.

Unofficially, the reason for the arcade's existence was said to be for use as a buffer zone as the Cavendishes were at their wits' end with the poorer folk who kept throwing rubbish — particularly oyster shells — onto their property.

2. Madam, whether you like it or not

The area was very female-centric, and as per the rules of the time, even the male milliners and corsetmakers who worked there were addressed as "Madame".

Bloody commoners with their oyster shells

3. No rest for the Beadles

The oldest and smallest private police force in the world can be found at the arcade. The Burlington Beadles were employed by Lord Cavendish from his regiment The Royal Hussars to protect his wife and friends from pickpockets. To this day they are easy to spot dressed in their uniform of Victorian frock coats, gold buttons and gold-braided top hats. Armchairs were once positioned at either end of the arcade for the Beadles to have a rest in, but no longer. They'd be constantly occupied by tired tourists and exhausted Londoners if they were anyway.

4. There may be two exceptions to the Beadles' no whistling rule

There are several old rules that you must abide by if you visit the arcade, as they are still enforced by the Beadles. Make sure once you enter that you aren't in a hurry to get somewhere, and you haven't got a tune stuck in your head that makes you want to burst out in song, for in the Burlington Arcade there shall be no humming, whistling, singing, running or even fast-paced walking, riding bicycles, opening umbrellas or behaving boisterously.

It's a well known rumour that Sir Paul McCartney is the only person in the world exempt from the ban on whistling (though we have not been able to confirm it with him).

However, the Spectator suggests that there are in fact two exemptions. The second is an 11 year old boy from the east end who was going through some tough times. The Beadles 'took a shine to him, and said that if he got a good report from school they'd issue him a permit to whistle.' And apparently they did.

Don't even THINK about singing. Photo: World of Tim

5. Ooh la la

Singing and whistling are banned due to the part that prostitution played in the arcade's history. The upper floors were at times used as brothels that even a respectable gentleman might find himself frequenting. But of course it wouldn't do to be caught there. Prostitutes and their pimps used songs and whistling as signals that the police or the beadles were around. The prostitutes would also use these signals to warn the pickpockets down below when they were in danger of being spotted.

6. Not so innocent

One quirky character that became infamous in the history of London's prostitution was Madam Parsons, who sold Paris-made guinea bonnets at 26-28 Burlington Arcade in the mid-19th century. Quite unbeknown to those who visited her shop during her lifetime, 'she' was actually a 'he', and the innocent looking bonnet shop was being used as a front for a scandalous brothel in nearby Regent Street.

Photo: richardbw9

7. Burlington's burning

The arcade has almost been destroyed by fire on several occasions, including 1836, 1871 and 1936.

On 26 March 1836, a fire had already consumed the Western Exchange, commonly known as Bond Street Bazaar, which backed up to No. 14 in the arcade. The fire then spread inside through an iron door accidentally left open and Nos. 12-15 and 58-61 were sadly reduced to rubble.

When fire broke out in 1936, the situation was made much worse by the tenants and visitors who flew into an extreme panic, causing chaos and confusion, and the shops were subjected to looting.

8. How do you make this mistake?

It is not only fire that has almost destroyed the arcade. At 2.55am on 11 September 1940, the corner of Cork Street and Burlington Gardens was hit by a bomb. Air raid wardens were soon on the scene, and mistakenly thought the bomb had not exploded, when in fact it had and had destroyed the arcade's north-eastern end. The beautiful glass walkway and many of the shops were once again a pile of rubble.

Burlington Arcade in its early days

9. Smash and grab

You'd be forgiven for thinking that the gates which stand at the entrances to the Burlington Arcade have always been there, as they work so well with the building. However, they were fitted due to one of the most outrageous and egregious incidents to occur at the Burlington Arcade. In 1964, six masked thieves scattered pedestrians as they drove a Jaguar Mark X up the pavement, through the entrance, and came to a stop outside the Goldsmiths and Silversmiths Association. They smashed through the glass shopfront, grabbing £35,000 worth of jewellery, and drove away never to be caught. The gates were installed so this could never happen again.

10. Royal seal of approval

Shops in the arcade have long been popular with the Royal family, with many holding Royal warrants (meaning they supply goods to either the entire family or a particular member).

Hancocks, a highly respected jewellers, was commissioned to design and make the Victoria Cross in 1856, the highest award in the UK honours system to this day. Queen Victoria presented 62 servicemen with a Victoria Cross for the first time in 1857, and even to present day the award has always been made by Hancocks from the same location in the Burlington Arcade.

11. Famous faces

As a quintessentially British venue, the arcade has seen fame in the form of celebrity visitors and as the backdrop to major Hollywood films, including Patriot Games starring Harrison Ford, and 101 Dalmatians.

Fred Astaire had received some uniquely designed gold and striped slippers from a fan or admirer, and came to the arcade to seek out the source. The designer of the slippers pointed them out, and Astaire bought several pairs at once.

In a wonderfully sweet story, the owner of a jewellery shop in the arcade, Richard Ogden, closed his store to the public for film star Ann Todd to visit without attracting a crowd. One of his staff was stationed outside the door to keep anyone else from trying to enter, but when an elderly lady arrived wanting to do a little shopping, he told her the shop was temporarily closed and couldn't help but add "Have a look, can you see who is in there?" The lady peered through her pince-nez and exclaimed excitedly, "of course I can see, it is dear Mr. Ogden".

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Last Updated 10 July 2017