Bees, boots and baked beans

It is one of London’s most iconic stores and its origins happened upon a chance meeting of two men – a shop keeper and a footman to Queen’s Anne’s household. The result in 1707 was the embryonic Fortnum & Mason with their famous eau de nil brand colour that you can find on many of their products.

Here are some rather curious facts that you might not know about London’s favourite grocer.

[H]ugh Mason ran a small shop in St. James’s Market and had a spare room in his house which he rented to William Fortnum. The Royal Family’s insistence that beeswax candles should be replaced every night allowed young Fortnum the opportunity to sell them, and the profits were sufficient to start in collaboration with his landlord Fortnum & Mason.

In 1794 anybody could set up a postal service (a bit like now) so Fortnums had letterboxes installed in the store for paid and unpaid letters which were picked up six times a day (unlike now). This lasted until 1839 with the founding of the GPO.

Honey, dried fruits, spices and preserves were the sort of vittles soldiers needed when fighting Napoleon. The army really did march of its stomach as was advertised in The Times.

Poultry, game in aspic, hard-boiled eggs in forcemeat (Scotch eggs), dry and green turtle, boar’s head, truffles were advertised as ‘all decorated and prepared so as to require no cutting’. By 1851 and the Great Exhibition convenience food was all the rage. All this evolved into their famous hampers.

Reports from hospitals tending the wounded in the Crimea led Queen Victoria to order Fortnums: “to dispatch without delay to Miss Nightingale in Scutari a huge consignment of concentrated beef tea”.


An unknown American going by the name of Mr. Heinz persuaded Fortnum & Mason to take five cases as samples of his canned food. In doing so Fortnums became the first store in England to sell Heinz’s new canned goods. Baked beans had reached London. Ironically their label nowadays sports a colour almost identical to Fortnums egg-shell blue.

It’s the sort of provisions that any self-respecting Englishman (or New Zealander) would take with him for an ascent of Everest. Sixty tins of quail in foie gras and four dozen bottles of Montebello 1915 champagne, all supplied by Fortnums.

A special officer’s department was opened during World War II to supply insect powder, exotic cigarettes and a silver plated ‘spork’, a fork and spoon, so that standards could be maintained when fighting Jerry.

They made headlines in 1984 when Fortnums sold Bob Geldof’s Do They Know It’s Christmas? raising money for Ethiopia.

When spending one’s weekend in the country no self-respecting Sloanie would go without their Hunters of course in Fortnum’s trade mark colour.

Bees When Steve Benbow started siting bee hives on London buildings, Fortnum and Mason was one of the first to offer roof space.

The hives are of a bespoke elegant Georgian design with gold finials completed in eau de nil. Situated on the roof is a bee-cam to watch the activity. The resulting honey may be purchased in their food hall.

It really is the bee’s knees.

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