Around this time last year, we ran an interview with the owners of London’s oldest businesses, reflecting on how they’d survived some of the toughest periods in the city’s history, only to be faced with a global pandemic. We spoke to cheesemongers and umbrella salesmen about how their shops had weathered floods, two world wars and global financial crashes.
One of those businesses was Arthur Beale, a West End nautical chandler that’s existed in London in different forms for so long, nobody knows exactly how old it is (it’s thought it be somewhere in the region of 520 years). At the time, Arthur Beale’s owner Alasdair Flint told us, ‘Ninety percent of our sales are through the shop, so the current crisis is having a devastating effect. But the shop was already quite old when the Great Plague of London struck. Some of the victims were buried in the church opposite. It got through that one and we plan to get through this too.’
Sadly, Arthur Beale has not made it through the most recent lockdown. On Tuesday, a Twitter thread by Londoner Dan Barker alerted us to the news that this eccentric sailing shop, which has existed in the capital for more than half a millennium, would not be reopening. In the thread, Barker followed up the news with snippets of archival research on Arthur Beale’s history, including a British Museum card from 1791 featuring the shop’s former mouthful of a name ‘John Buckingham, Hemp & Flax Dresser, Two-dealer & Rope-maker’. He also tweeted that the business provided the ropes used on early Everest expeditions by Tenzing Norgay and Eric Shipton.
Barker explains to me over the phone that he isn’t connected with Arthur Beale, he’s just a fan of the business who’s sad to see it go, ‘I go to the shop quite regularly and just love what they do,’ he says. ‘I’ve worked for a lot of retailers, so I am interested in retail generally. I think the history of what they do is super-, super-interesting. There are very few of those places left in the world.’
So how did a yacht supplier end up in the middle of London’s Theatreland? Barker says one theory is that the original location for the business around St Giles/Covent Garden was once surrounded by flax fields, flax which may have been used to make their rope. It’s details like that which make the closure of Arthur Beale’s feel like such a loss. It’s not just an eccentric shop, it was, until this month, a tangible link to pre-industrial London. Having this incongruous ancient business sat on a road beside an estate agent felt like a small sign of the city’s willingness to preserve its history. Also, we’re really going to miss its elaborate window displays, which convinced many a tourist they’d look good in a stripy pullover.
Arthur Beale confirmed news of the closure yesterday on its official Instagram account, stating that ‘The impact of Covid-19 means the company can no longer warrant paying the rents that a Central London shop demands so we have no choice but to move on to pastures new.’ The Arthur Beale team explained that they will be having a clearance sale at the shop until June 24 and will continue to operate online at www.arthurbeale.co.uk. They signed off with: ‘There’s still some life in the old ship yet!’