Inside the Secret Parts of Burlington Arcade

You know Burlington Arcade, right? It’s the gorgeously tempting corridor of luxury shops off Piccadilly.

I’ve walked past it countless times but I never knew about its secrets (including an underground passageway!) until I was invited on a special tour to celebrate their 200th birthday…

What’s Burlington Arcade?

Burlington Arcade

Next door to Burlington House (more on that later) this 180m long arcade of shops has been full of luxury brands for 200 years.

It was designed by architect Samuel Ware in 1819 as a place “for the sale of jewellery and fancy articles of fashionable demand, for the gratification of the public.”

Today it’s home to almost 50 shops ranging from household luxury brands like Chanel to pop-up cafes and smaller designers.

Why was it built?

Today Mayfair is a hub of well-heeled shoppers, browsing luxury shops. But in the early 19th century it was rather less salubrious, with pickpockets roaming the streets and hardly a place suitable for the well-to-do to part with their cash.

Commissioned by George Cavendish (Earl of Burlington and owner of Burlington House) in 1819, he wanted a safe place for his wife to shop.

Another version of the tale goes that actually he built the corridor alongside his garden to stop pesky passersby throwing rubbish into his garden!

(below) Martin, one of the small beadle security team, stands guard in his Victorian-style cloak.

(above) Ladurée cafe was the first store to have chairs outside their unit.

To ensure the protection of the 51 shops with luxury products, Lord Cavendish hired his own army regiment; the 10th Royal Hussars to guard Burlington Arcade. They were known as Beadles and today this still look after the arcade.

Burlington Arcade

Mark, Head Beadle (and our guide) who has worked at Burlington Arcade for 17 years

It wasn’t only the shopping that appealed to Lady Cavendish. She turned the arcade into a charitable venture, hiring widowed women whose husbands hadn’t returned from the Napoleonic wars as shop keepers. Indeed in the 19th century a large percentage of the owners were women.

Weird Rules

Urban legend decrees one cannot open an umbrella, shout, run or whistle down Burlington Arcade. The whistling at least has a historic reason; it was the way pickpockets would communicated and so the Beadles didn’t allow it.

But there was also a tradition that you couldn’t carry your own shopping down the arcade, it would be delivered to your carriage at the end of your spree.

Another tradition was calling every shopkeeper ‘Madame’ whether they were a female hat saleswoman or a male jeweller.

The Details

As you approach the arcade from Piccadilly, look up to spot the Cavendish coat of arms at the top of the entrance.

Part of their family iconography is also the Tudor rose which still appears on the Beadle’s uniforms.

But once inside the arcade you’ve got to look up (naturally!) to appreciate the details.

Particularly the individually carved flowers on the arches.

But look down too!

The floor is made from 68,000 pieces of english stone. Cut in Italy and then transported back in a huge jigsaw puzzle, it was installed in 2015 by Jamie Fobert Architects.

Taking in the length of the arcade, it’s easy to assume that all the shops are identical. However the opposite is true. Each has their own quirks and unique features.

One of my favourite features was the stained glass sweets shop decoration remembering a former occupier. Today it’s part of the listing and so can’t be altered.

Going Behind The Scenes

With one of the units currently unoccupied, we were able to ascend to get a better view along the arcade…

This isn’t totally unusual though, some shops do have an upper level open to customers, maximising available space and allowing anyone to get a good view!

Burlington Arcade

Upstairs in the pop-up cafe, The Hideaway

Below Stairs

But what I didn’t quite appreciate how much private space there is as part of the small shop interiors, including a basement with Victorian heaters!

In the picture above you can see the pavement level through a grille in the basement’s upper wall.

The lower floor acted as a storage unit with a controlled climate, heated in the Winter (many shop keepers actually lived on their premises) and used as a cool larder in the Summer.

These rooms lead into a tunnel that runs the 180 metres underneath Burlington Arcade, that’s how shop boys and girls delivered parcels to shoppers who were prohibited in carrying their purchases.

Colourful Characters

In its 200 years of history, Burlington Arcade has attracted its fair share of famous faces. Micheal Rose jewellers, below, used to be Jeff’s bookshop and was where George Elliot (the pen name of Mary Anne Evans) met her married lover George Henry Lewes. It’s said that between pages of books they’d stash love letters for each other to find.

Burlington Arcade

But the most curious persona has to be Madame Parsons, who owned a famous brothel at numbers 27 through to 29.

Burlington Arcade

Burlington Arcade reflected the London economy so when times were tough often shopkeepers would hire courtesans to bring in a little extra. No cash every changed hands though, male visitors were expected to buy gifts from the shops downstairs to exchange for services.

To advertise her services to potential clients below, Madame Parson would hang a silk stocking from the upstairs room, or make clicking sounds, luring potential clients upstairs. It was only after she had left Burlington Arcade that it transpired the ‘Madame’ was in fact a Mr Parson.

It seems cross-dressing was almost a theme of the arcade because in 1871 there was a court case concerning Mr Boulton and Mr Parke. They caused ‘an outrage on common decency, by appearing publicly in female apparel’ and received a 2 years suspended sentence and each had to pay £500. One of the people to give evidence at their trial was a former policeman and Beadle, George Smith.

Visit Burlington Arcade

Burlington Arcade is open Monday-Saturday 9am-7.30pm and Sunday 11am-6pm. It’s free to walk through and everyone is welcome! Find out more about the shops and other events from their website here.

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  • Frances Blackburn


    My mother bought her cashmere at N. Peal in the 60sand 70s. They had cardigan and skirt combinations which she loved. I went in once a few years ago but it was all beyond my budget. My father bought his shoes at Church’s. They lasted him for decades. There was a shop called Sulka which is now gone which sold beautiful silk dressing gowns. Interestingly both N. Peal and Church’s have moved location within the Arcade over the years.

    March 27, 2019 at 1:54 pm

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