Tag Archives: London shops

Finding Filofax

One of the symptoms of age seems to be cynicism. As a cabbie you get to see the best in people and unfortunately their worst side. Some fares don’t pay, these we call ’bilkers’; others treat you like an idiot; and others are just plain rude.

So after decades of dealing with the public, often against your better judgement world weariness and scepticism unavoidably just creeps in.

[S]o when recently I lost my Filofax (yes! I still own one), my reaction was to assume it was inevitably gone for good – that is to say stolen – never to be seen again. I resigned myself to having to stop my credit cards and re-writing my diary, notes and other ephemera picked up over the years.

By a simple deduction in Hercule Poirot mode I narrowed the loss to the counter at Waterstone’s in Bluewater.

Now if you have ever tried to contact a store by phone you will appreciate my trepidation. Usually you are kept on hold, cut off or redirected to the wrong department. My personal experience is that the phone just remains unanswered.

What a surprise, answered on the 3rd or 4th ring, by a person who listened to my tale of woe and then went off to make enquiries.

The Filofax was soon located deposited in a secure place at the back of the store.

“Would you like to pick it up, or should we leave it with the concierge?” was the polite enquiry.

I drove back to the store in a delirium of joy. Was reunited with all my possessions intact and treated with civility. Well done Waterstone’s.

Just one thing keep the apostrophe in the name when you re-vamp your stores, will you. Thanks!

As a footnote: 12 years ago I was ‘mugged’ in Bow Common Lane and had my bag snatched. The next day I received a phone call from a warden of the adjoining estate to say he had found my Filofax – devoid of money of course. We searched the estate and just as we were leaving somebody called out to us from the first floor to say that a bag was on the roof above the entrance. Both the warden and the kind woman who allowed us into her flat to retrieve the bag had little money that I could see. It just goes to show there are many decent people out there.

Subterranean shrine to silver

According to a 14th century law, all silver items over 7.78g must be hallmarked before sale to verify their purity, in those days forgers were hanged.

Originally known as the Chancery Lane Safe Deposit, London’s oldest safety-deposit, a subterranean store-house opened in 1876 comprising a series of rooms dug deep under Chancery Lane for the wealthy to safeguard their valuables.

[B]ut it wasn’t simply a reinforced basement. To defeat the determined Victorian burglar from tunnelling his way in, the armour-plated strong rooms sat on iron columns, isolated from the exterior walls.

This way a private army of gun-toting guards could patrol above, below and all the way round them. Entry was via a three foot thick door which is still in place. Impressed by the tight security, the silver dealers and jewellers of nearby Hatton Garden began using the string rooms to stash their precious goods overnight.

Before long shrewd dealers began selling silver directly from the vaults, which has evolved into a kind of discount outlet. Many a banquet has been served on a silver service purchased from these vaults.

During the Blitz, the reinforced steel protecting the treasure trove was tested when the building above suffered a direct hit. The vaults mostly survived but cracked water pipes meant they began to flood so clients were contacted and told to retrieve their valuables. Some owners couldn’t be traced so to save their boxes’ contents, they were forced open.

A window into a secret world was suddenly laid bare.

One box contained six live bullets with a note on the packet simply saying ‘One for each of the directors’.

Another contained a single pair of Edwardian ladies’ frilly knickers with a luggage label attached bearing the neatly written words ‘My Life’s Undoing’.

In 1953, a new building, adjacent to the original site, was completed with a system of specially designed secure underground shops – The London Silver Vaults. Today the vaults consist of over 40 shops open to the public containing the world’s largest retail collection of antique silver; London’s Silver Vaults are more like a museum than a shopping mall.

It’s still possible to rent a safe deposit box at Chancery Lane and the company boldly brag there’s never been a robbery.

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.

Sign of the silver mousetrap

When the traffic is bad there is a little cut through from Kingsway to Holborn via Lincoln’s Inn Fields. One passes the Seven Stars public house, always popular with the legal profession. It’s where barristers bring their clients for celebratory champagne or a stiff commiseratory short. Next door is one of London’s oldest jewellers; it’s not in Hatton Garden, but Carey Street just behind The Royal Courts of Justice.

[A]fter proudly proclaiming to have been in business since 1690 A. Woodhouse & Son have a sign above the door of a silver mousetrap.

At this juncture a little bit of French history is necessary. The Marquise of Fontange, a mistress of King Louis XIV lost her cap while hunting with the king. The lady tied up her hair using a ribbon in a manner that pleased him. This style of headdress became known as a fontange and the fashion quickly spread across Europe.

As with these things a simple ribbon became taller coiffure and infinitely more complex.

Despite its courtly origins fontanges were forbidden to be worn at French state occasions. But the English embraced the fashion. Georgian ladies had their hair piled up into vast sculptures built around wire frames.

A_Woodhouse_and_Son_-_The_Silver_Mousetrap_-_geograph_org_uk_-_1169610 Small pillows stuffed with wool were inserted and the assembly decorated with jewellery, lace ribbons, feathers, flowers, cow’s tail, horse hair and someone else’s human hair. The creation was rubbed with sticky pomade made from wax and beef-marrow then dusted with flour to disguise all the different hair and create a white, powdery look.

All this coiffure took a painfully long time so ladies tried to make the expensive handiwork last for as long as possible – a week at least.

But this caused particular difficulty when in bed. To begin with, ladies had to sleep sitting up and many complained of headaches from the constant weight.

But more distressingly, warm, dry unwashed hair combined with diverse vegetable and animal products was a mouse’s idea of heaven.

So every night before going to sleep, ladies placed elegant silver mousetraps around their bed and beside their pillows.

It is this fashion accessory that a little jeweller proudly advertises above their shop at the sign of The Silver Mousetrap.

Mice weren’t the only price to pay for making a fashion statement. Though silver mousetraps may have stopped small mammals, ladies simply had to endure the plague of lice and other bugs that took up residence on their head.

Photo: Sign for The Silver Mousetrap Mike Quinn (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Pundon Pride

Cabbieblog has scoured London for this, the second look at punning businesses in London.

Now I’ve started to look for them it is almost like I am being punished for something. Some are very clever while others, well are just pundamentally awful, in fact, they’re everywhere.

So here are even more hilarious and sometimes not so hilarious businesses.

Beddy Buys

Beddy Buyz – East Street. Situated at near the Elephant & Castle, if things couldn’t get any worst with a pink shopping centre along came Beddy Buyz. It might look like a closed-down ruin, but it’s still going strong. Note tiny ‘snores’ emerging from the Z. Photo from Shopfrontelegy.

Butty Boys

Buttyboys – Elm Street. This sandwich shop in Clerkenwell is opposite the Serious Fraud Office, need I say any more? Or is it Nightmare on Elm Street?

Cyclopaedia Cyclopedia – You can tell the Lycra Brigade are better educated than most with the name above this shop in Fulham. But a diphthong æ should really have been used chaps!

Deb-n-FairDeb-N-Hair – Upton Lane Forest Gate. Debby must be doing well with hair upmarket scissor shop in East London it now has a new shop front. I looked up the definition of debonair: Having a cheerful, lively and self-confident hair. That sounds about right.

Frame, set and match

Frame, Set & Match – Covent Garden. Not in Wimbledon this time but in the West End. I’m surprised they have the balls to give themselves such a name.

Rock & Sole Place

The Rock & Sole Plaice – Endell Street. This tourist trap near Covent Gardens is always packed with diners enjoying ‘authentic’ fish and chips. How many understand the fishy shop name I wonder.

Sam Widges Sam Widges – King’s Cross. Is this to mean Sam’s wedges or are his BLT’s more delicate?

Via-Agra Via-Agra – Clerkenwell. Forget Sam’s Widges these sandwiches will keep you energised throughout the day.

Past Caring Past Caring – Islington. When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life, as they say. This lot clearly have given up. Photo: Home Girl London.