London's historic shopping arcades

Regency London flocked to Piccadilly‘s elegant arcades – the city‘s first shopping centres. Now these historic malls also have an exciting future.

  • London's historic shopping arcades

    Piccadilly Arcade

  • Home to more than 40,000 shops, London is not short on retail emporia. But long before they browsed the high-spec concept shops, superstores and sprawling suburban malls, the city’s consummate consumers flocked to the select tailors, corsetiers and jewellers around Piccadilly. This is where our love affair with shopping all began, commemorated in the street name itself, taken from a type of collar – the piccadill – that was sold in the area. It was here too that the city’s first shopping centres were built with their beautiful, genteel arcades, the oldest of which dates back to 1816. Today the shop signs that line their hushed interiors speak of a bygone era of nineteenth-century respectability: New & Lingwood, Hilditch & Key, Benson & Clegg.

    The best arcade shops around today

    The trouble is, these arcades are not museum pieces, they’re retail spaces in an area that commands some of the highest rents in the world, and they need to make money. Burlington Arcade, opened in 1819, is both the most famous and the most traditional. But change is afoot. An ambitious and, according to its tenants, long overdue renovation programme is about to commence. A private offshore family trust (which remains anonymous) bought the arcade from Prudential in 2005 and handed the reins over to property manager The John Baker Group, which immediately sought to improve the space’s fortunes, employing retail agent CWM (credited with transforming Marylebone High Street from a staid haunt of wealthy ladies with miniature dogs into one of London’s most profitable and popular shopping streets) to work its magic. The aim is to attract a younger, hipper customer by challenging the myth that the arcades are stuffy, snooty and overpriced tourist magnets (in fact, 75 per cent of their trade is from Londoners).

    Royal Arcade

    Thankfully, it won’t be a heavy-handed case of out with the old and in with the new. Heirlooms such as this are worth more money to London if they’re meticulously preserved, so English Heritage has been brought in as a consultant. Each shop is protected by the Realm as an antique and number 61 (part of the Mont Blanc shop) is designated an antique monument with no alterations permitted at all. In fact, by the end of the refurbishment programme next spring, the arcade will look more authentically nineteenth-century than it does now.

    Jeweller Sandra Cronan (number 18) is one of the many tenants who welcome the change and is a longtime fan of the arcade: ‘In my early teens I always walked along here and thought how wonderful it would be to have a shop here. What I remember is the exquisite detail – the moulding on the arches has since been whitewashed, but I remember it all in beautiful pastel shades of peach, cream and turquoise. I long for it to go back to how it was.’

    While the building itself will be returning to its grand old glory days, the atmosphere and merchandise will have to appeal to a broader range of customers. Nick Bond of leather goods shop Franchetti Bond says: ‘We have to make the arcade more accessible. The mutton chops have to go. It needs to be seen as somewhere less expensive, less intimidating and less olde-worlde.’ In fact, there is already plenty of great stuff to buy: traditional scents, exquisite antique jewellery, classic cashmere and tailored shirts – the problem is that people just don’t think to visit.

    Burlington Arcade was commissioned nearly 200 years ago by Lord George Cavendish who lived next door in Burlington House (now the Royal Academy). Fed up with local oiks dropping litter (mostly oyster shells) into his back garden, he came up with the idea of building a shopping arcade to block off access to his back wall, and commissioned his architect, Samuel Ware, to design one. Wanting to seem a philanthropic sort, Cavendish put his own spin on the planned arcade as being for the ‘gratification of the public and to give employment to industrious females’. In the event, most of the 47 original leaseholders and their families lived and worked in cramped conditions in the shops along with their stock. Of this 47, only six were ‘industrious females’, though archaic customs of the day meant the male corsetiers and milliners were also addressed as ‘madame’.

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