Welcome Shoppers, But No Whistling Please

by Ray Setterfield


Event Date: March 20, 1819
Location: London, England, United Kingdom

One of London’s poshest shopping streets opened on this day – in a move to clamp down on litter louts and “undesirables”.

At the time Lord George Cavendish lived in Burlington House and was fed up with “ruffians” throwing rubbish – in particular, oyster shells – onto his property. He could, Trump-like, have built a wall, but decided on something far more ambitious.

He told his architect, Samuel Ware, to design a covered promenade of shops. This would not only solve the rubbish problem but enable Cavendish to enjoy the kudos of having created a development “for the gratification of the public and to give employment to industrious females”.

And so London’s famous Burlington Arcade was born. Linking Piccadilly with Bond Street in London’s exclusive Mayfair district, it was the world’s first shopping arcade and is now regarded as an architectural treasure.

The walkway was originally lined with 72 small two-storey units but mergers and changes of ownership mean that the opulent arcade now has only 46 shops. None of them are cheap.

Fancy a David Duggan Rolex watch or Manolo Blahnik shoes? They’re here. Or perhaps an exquisite Victorian gold-coiled snake bracelet, studded with rose diamonds and a pear-shaped sapphire from Hancocks the 150-year-old jewellery business? Yours for the asking.

Prices? As the old saying goes, if you need to ask, you can’t afford them.

But if you feel you would not be brave enough to enter a treasure house such as Hancocks, they would understand, knowing as they do, all about courage. During the Crimean War (1853 - 1856) Hancocks were asked to create designs for a new medal – the Victoria Cross. It would be the highest award in the British armed forces for gallantry “in the face of the enemy”. The final design was approved by Queen Victoria and Hancocks have produced every one of the 1,350 VCs that have been awarded.

There being no police force when the arcade opened, Lord Cavendish created his own – the Burlington Arcade Beadles. Recruited from his old regiment, the Royal Hussars, the earliest members included veterans from the Battle of Waterloo.

Charged with upholding a strict code of conduct dating from Regency times and dressed today as they were in 1819, the Beadles still patrol the arcade in traditional top hats and frock coats designed in nearby Savile Row. 

Pickpockets posed one of the problems that the early Beadles had to deal with and were sometimes thwarted when the thieves would whistle a warning to accomplices that a Beadle was close. Ever since, whistling has been banned in the arcade.

Today’s Beadles like to tell the story of an encounter in the 1980s when a Beadle was about to politely reprimand a shopper who started to whistle as he was gazing in one of the windows. The shopper turned around and was instantly recognised by the Beadle.

“Oh, Mr McCartney, I'm very sorry,” said the Beadle to the Beatle. “I didn't realise it was you. You are hereby given a lifetime exemption from the rule. You can whistle here any time you like.”

And so, the story goes, Paul McCartney is the only person allowed to whistle in Burlington Arcade.

Lord Cavendish’s former home, Burlington House, was sold to the British Government in 1854 for £140,000. The Royal Academy took over the main block in 1867 on a 999-year lease with rent of £1 per year.

And Burlington Arcade? In 2010 it was purchased for £104 million (130 million US dollars) by American property tycoon Joseph Sitt and European private equity firm Meyer Bergman. In January 2017, they put it back on the market with a price tag of £400 million (502 million US dollars).

Not bad for a development originally built mainly to deter litter louts.

Published: February 1, 2017

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