London Lantern

Putting the Spotlight on London

A History of Fortnum and Mason - Part 1

22/12/2002, By David McIntosh

Reader Rating: 2.9 from 18446 votes

Treating the customer with courtesy and respect will reap dividends many times over. That old saw is repeated by those in the retail trade time after time, but maybe a brief story and a look at the history of one of London’s most famous emporiums will help underscore how extending a bit of extra courtesy to a shopper really does pay dividends down through the generations.

London is truly one of the greatest, if not the greatest, cities in the world for shopping. And while Diagon Alley only exists in the world of Harry Potter, whatever it may be you’re looking for- from books to bespoke suits to cigars to china and silverware, there probably exists in London an establishment waiting to be of service. To this panoply of establishments add what might be one of the great collections of storied firms that bring to mind what a really great department store should be and once was in the United States before the advent of the "big box" retailers; world famous stores and truly incomparable stores such as Harrod’s, Selfridges, Harvey Nichols, Debenhams, and Marks and Spencer (or Marks and Sparks in popular slang). And then there’s Fortnum and Mason located on Piccadilly Street. Possessing a long list of Royal Warrants and known worldwide as the place where the Queen purchases her tea, Fortnum and Mason should be on anyone’s list of ‘must visit’ places in London.

A couple of Christmases ago we were fortunate enough to be able to spend the holiday season in London. Christmas Eve day we decided to do a bit of shopping so that morning we took the short walk down from Piccadilly Circus to pay a visit to Fortnum and Mason, known around the world as purveyors of fine foods and other luxury items to the Royal Family, the British carriage trade and a wide range Britons who simply desire the best in quality and a friendly atmosphere.

My brother, when he lived in England, was once heard to comment that the food hall at Fortnum and Mason might very well be the most impressive thing a person could see in London. Walk beneath the ornate four ton clock where four foot tall mechanical representations of William Fortnum and Hugh Mason bow and greet each other every hour, through the front doors and you find yourself greeted by a spectacle of all that is amazing and seductive in food. To give you an idea of what the food hall is like think of a very upscale grocery store in a trendy American suburb then multiply the size by, oh, let’s say two or three times.

My wife and sister-in-law decided they wanted to spend the morning becoming more acquainted with the tempting variety of teas, fruits, candies and fresh meats, poultry and seafood, including beautiful salmon on ice, all displayed in a way that highlighted not only its sumptuous appearance, but the talent of those who craft the displays. My daughter and I saw them vanish into a crowd of Christmas shoppers in search of gift sets of tea, so we decided to strike out on our own and explore the rest of the store.

Before we begin our tour of Fortnum and Mason, let’s take a few moments to become familiar with what started in the early 1700s as a shop owned by a footman in the household of Queen Anne and his landlord and how that shop became one of the most prestigious retail establishments in the United Kingdom.

As a footman in the royal household, one of the duties of William Fortnum was the replacement at the end of each day of candles that had been used by the royal family. After placing the new candles for the coming day Fortnum would take the old candles, which he then sold to the ladies of the household.

In 1707 Fortnum and his landlord, Hugh Mason, decided to go in together in a business and opened a grocers shop, a sort of commissariat for the carriage trade. Fortnum, retaining his position as a footman in the royal household, was not shy about using his royal connections to ensure the success of the grocery, but it was to be the grandson Charles Fortnum, who would also find himself in service to the royal household, in this case to Queen Charlotte, who would begin turning the store into one favored by London’s elite. Again, through his connections to the royal household Charles was able to secure business for the family firm.

Now remember we’re still dealing with the days of the British East India Company, a commercial enterprise that also conducted itself in a quasi-governmental fashion and was known by the nickname ‘John Company.’ It was during this time that Britons developed their taste for tea as well as a host of delicacies from the Indian subcontinent. As the end of the 18th century approached customers of Fortnum and Mason were able to purchase "boned portions of poultry and game in aspic jelly decorated with lobster and prawns."

The Napoleonic Wars would prove the next boon when officers serving beyond England’s shores felt the need for a bit of home. Officers fighting in some faraway land could dine on an attractively packaged box or basket from Fortnum and Mason. Favorites included preserves, dried fruits, cereals and honey as well as various spices.

(to be continued)

David McIntosh

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Re: A History of Fortnum and Mason - Part 1

By Lommaert Stéphane 01/01/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 17198 votes)

Fortnum and Mason is my favourite shop in London.The last time I went there was in August. I like this article, very interesting!

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Re: A History of Fortnum and Mason - Part 1

By Mary and George Rowbotham 02/01/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 17163 votes)

We liked this one very much Richard - interesting to hear the background of an old established business in England. Would like more of this kind of thing. Wishing you and your Staff a very Happy New Year for 2003.

<b>Editor: Thanks for your kind wishes, we'll keep trying.</b>

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Re: A History of Fortnum and Mason - Part 1

By Emily Lourigan, Connecticut USA 02/01/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 17246 votes)

My husband and I got to spend an afternoon at Fortnum and Mason when we were in London in 2000. It was one of the high points of our trip! We had high tea in the elegant restaurant on the fourth floor (I think it was the fourth floor) and then we went to the theater.

We can't eat sugar and when we saw all the wonderful treats on the tea tray, we asked if there was something that could be substituted for us. The manager went downstairs to the food court with me and let me pick out a fig cake and it was served with all the beauty of the other treats. We walked around the all the great displays and enjoyed ourselves tremendously. I would have given a lot to be able to purchase some of the fabulous bed linen.

Having tea at Fortnum and Mason was the one thing I insisted we get to do and I am so grateful we were able to fulfil that dream.

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Re: A History of Fortnum and Mason - Part 1

By Isadore Neurock, DDS San Antonio, Texas 04/01/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 16983 votes)

My wife and I would never think of a trip to London being complete without a stop at Fortnum and Mason. We also make sure that we leave enough time to enjoy a lovely afternoon tea. This article brings all of the warmth of the store back for us.

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Re: A History of Fortnum and Mason - Part 1

By Mary Stempinski 12/01/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 17073 votes)

My daughter and I visited London September of 2001 and 2002. We visited Fortnum and Mason and thoroughly enjoyed seeing all the good foods and how it was displayed. We also enjoyed afternoon tea. I made my purchases of the soothing teas.

We took pictures of Fortum and Mason and caught them coming out of their shelter. Enjoy reading about their history.

Mary Stempinski, Baltimore, Maryland

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Re: A History of Fortnum and Mason - Part 1

By Mark Gottlieb 27/02/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 17165 votes)

How can I get the e-mail address of Isadore Neurock?

An old friend of his living in New Jersey asked me to try to find it so he could drop him a line.

Please e-mail it to

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