Tag Archives: London’s shops

Takeaway Tales

You can always spot someone from Havering Park: They might be fat, but they have a great haircut. This was the conclusion of a customer of my barber.

The tongue-in-cheek remark had some merit. Once we had a fishmonger, 2 butchers, 3 hardware shops, more grocers you could shake a stick at, 2 greengrocers, chemists, a camera shop, library, jeweller, a plethora of banks and building societies, and even a pet shop.

Now, all we have is a dozen or more hairdressers and takeaways in every available shop unit.

Now thanks to Mercure Hotels we have the definitive list of takeaway names. Obviously, the mega-chains have been excluded: McDonald’s, KFC and Burger King. While some smaller outlets have been creative in finding a punning name: The Codfather, Fishcotheque, Wok-you-like or Nincomsoup, which have not made the list.

The top 10 are rather blander:

1 Charcoal Grill (yes we have one of those)

2 Morley’s (South London based)

3 Best Kebab (yes we also have one of those)

4 Perfect Fried Chicken (another one on our High Street)

5 Munchies

6 Favourite Chicken and Ribs

7 Tops Pizza

8 Chicken Express

9 The Grill

10 Sam’s Chicken (North London based)

An ice little earner

During the summer of 1844, a curious sight appeared in a storefront at 125 Strand, now curiously a Pret A Manger. Every day, shopworkers would put a large block of ice in the window, and since most Londoners had never seen a block of ice during summer it became quite a sensation. James I had commissioned the construction of the first modern ice house in Greenwich Park in 1619, but only for the hoi polloi’s exclusive use.

As a gimmick, a newspaper was placed on the other side of the block of ice enabling passers-by to read the print through the ice, from outside the store looking into the window.

Above the shop window, the sign read: ‘Wenham Lake Ice Company’. Many people supposed Wenham could boast of a huge volume of ultra-pure water. In fact, this little lake north of Boston has the same stuff that falls from the sky as everywhere else.

That didn’t detract from Queen Victoria and Prince Albert insisting on its use at Buckingham Palace and awarding the company with a Royal Warrant for supplying err…water.

Making ice a commercial proposition became an obsession with Wenham Ice’s owner, Frederic Tudor. The first shipment of 300 tons melted as customs deliberated on how to classify frozen water moored at a London dock. Shipowners were reluctant to accept what they expected to remain on the outside of their vessels, and not sloshing about inside making the ship unstable. He had to create a market when none existed, work out how to cut and lift the stuff, store it and secure trading rights.

For several decades, ice was America’s second-biggest crop, measured by weight. It would eventually make Frederic Tudor a wealthy man.

The English proved resistant to his commercialisation of frozen water, preferring to buy the Norwegian stuff, who even changed the name of Lake Oppegaard near Oslo to…Lake Wenham.

A comprehensive account of how ice was supplied to London in the years between the middle and end of the 19th Century can be found at The Canal Museum’s website.


Over the years Harry Gordon Selfridge has had many imitators: Swan &; Edgar, Dickens &; Jones, Bourne &; Hollingsworth, Marshall & Snellgrove but none have matched him for innovation and flair.

[H]ARRY SELFRIDGE was an American self-made millionaire and he did that by understanding how women shopped, he invented the phrase ‘the customer is always right’ and gave his iconic department store sex appeal when his competitors were still left in the Victorian era.

What the ITV drama, Mr Selfridge hasn’t dwelt upon, although it is loosely based on Lindy Woodhead’s biography: Shopping, Seduction &; Mr Selfridge is his early life.

Harry was born in Wisconsin 1856, but within months he moved to Jackson, Michigan where his father had acquired the town’s general store. At the outbreak of the Civil War, his father joined the Union Army rising to the rank of Major. When discharged from the army his father deserted his family when Harry was just five. Within a short time, his two older brothers died, leaving Harry and his mother to cope alone.

At 10-years-old he was delivering newspapers and by 12 he was working in a local store at the same time he created a monthly boy’s magazine.

After becoming redundant at 20 as a bookkeeper at a local furniture factory his ex-employer, Leonard Field, agreed to write Selfridge a letter of introduction to Marshall Field in Chicago where he started as a stock boy. Over the next 25 years, he rose to become a partner in the company and married into a prominent Chicago family.

He invented the phrase ‘Only – Shopping Days until Christmas’ and ‘The customer is always right’. Dubbed ‘Mile-a-minute Harry’ because of his tremendous energy and fountain of ideas, he was the first person to suggest lighting shop windows at night and the first to open an in-store restaurant. He then founded his own, rival store, which he sold for a huge profit.

At the age of 50, flushed with the success he determined to travel to London which, with its fusty and unwelcoming stores, was ripe for a retail revolution. On one visit to London, he had gone into a store and a snooty assistant asked what he wished to purchase. When Selfridge replied that he was ‘just looking’ the assistant dropped his posh accent and told him to ‘’op it, mate.’

Selfridge decided to invest £400,000 in building his own five-storey department store in what was then the unfashionable western end of Oxford Street. The new store opened on 15th March 1909, setting new standards for the retailing business.

Assistants were encouraged to help customers rather than patronise them, and goods were displayed so they could be handled. There were elegant restaurants with modest prices, a library, reading and writing rooms, special reception rooms for French, German, American and “Colonial” customers, a First Aid Room, and a Silence Room, with soft lights, deep chairs, and double-glazing, all intended to keep customers in the store as long as possible. Before Selfridge, cosmetics and toiletries had been hidden discreetly away at the back of the shop, considered too racy and taboo to be on display. Moving scents to the front entrance of Selfridge’s so that people entering were assailed by a cloud of sweet scents was revolutionary, and it worked like magic.


Selfridge also managed to obtain from the GPO the privilege of having the number ‘1’ as its own phone number, so anybody had to just dial 1 to be connected to Selfridge’s operators. He proposed a subway from Bond Street Station to his store that was squashed as was his idea of building as massive clock tower on the roof just like Wickhams department store on Mile End Road. His architect told him with its weight it would fall through the roof.

Selfridge was an innovator: the store sold telephones, refrigerators and in 1925 held the first public demonstration of the television. His attention to detail was legendary: he was known as The Chief and would patrol the floors every day.


Unfortunately his womanising would be his downfall. After installing his family at Highcliffe Castle near Christchurch in Dorset (the council and English Heritage have recently restored this magnificent building) he could pursue beautiful women. After his wife died in the influenza pandemic in 1918 along with millions of others that year his spending on women took on a whole new dimension.

Blue PlaqueHe also began and maintained a busy social life with lavish entertainment at his home in Lansdowne House located at 9 Fitzmaurice Place, in Berkeley Square. Today there is a blue plaque noting that Gordon Selfridge lived there from 1921 to 1929. By 1939, exasperated with his profligacy, the Selfridge’s board ousted him from the business he had created 30 years earlier. He owed £150,000 to the store and £250,000 to the Inland Revenue — around £8 million and £13 million in today’s money.

The Selfridges board removed the apostrophe when he left and cut his pension by two-thirds. He ended up in a rented flat in Putney and would often take the bus to Oxford Street to gaze at his creation. By then, his clothes were so shabby that he was once arrested as a vagrant.

In 1947, he died in straitened circumstances, at Putney, in south-west London. Selfridge was buried in St. Mark’s Churchyard at Highcliffe, next to his wife and his mother.

Blue plaque photographed by Simon Harriyott

Highcliffe Castle photograph by Mike Searle

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 12th February 2013

Cyber Satan

I think I might have sold my soul to the devil, or at least the cyber version of Satan for recently I’ve been given the latest version of Amazon’s Kindle the Voyage, instead of going to a local bookshop to be served by knowledgeable, honest staff I find myself ordering books at the touch of a button.

Possibly the most enjoyable read I’ve
had this year was Jessie Burton’s
The Miniaturist.

[I]t was bought on a whim after a friendly Waterstone’s shop assistant recommended it when I picked it up out of interest. Since then it’s been voted Waterstone’s book of the year.

Running CabbieBlog I get through a considerable number of books every year, and so with my new shiny Kindle in my hand I looked up Cross River Traffic by Chris Roberts, published in 2005 which retailed at £15. What price as the download version? Yours at the press of one’s digit – £1.02, and that includes 20 per cent VAT.

If my rudimentary maths is correct a 240 page book that has taken the author years of research to compile is now selling at 85p, that’s cheaper than my local charity shop sells Jeffrey Archer.

With that fierce level of competition it is hardly surprising that 67 independent bookshops closed last year, and today if you exclude outlets owned by large retailers we now have less than a thousand in the country.

The miniaturist While shops have to fork out ludicrously high rates and rents (unlike charity shops selling books), pay well-read staff to assist the public, heat and light their premises so customers are comfortable leafing through a volume that they will probably buy elsewhere, Amazon paid just £4.2 million in tax last year – J. K. Rowling probably paid more.

Evidence if any was needed of the demise of bookshops can be found down Charing Cross Road once the most bookish street in Britain. Feminist bookshop Silver Moon has been subsumed into Foyles, which itself has moved further south, presumably to avoid the higher rents now demanded to be near CrossRail; Murder One, once the UK’s only crime and mystery bookshop has been killed off; Art Specialists Shipley and Zwemmer have gone the same way; and Quinto’s is now a Patisserie Valerie.

Len Edgerly at The Kindle Chronicles podcast has been following the story of publisher Hachette. They had refused to give in to Amazon’s demands to supply heavily discounted books or face expulsion from the retail giant’s virtual shelves. Hachette – an appropriate name given their treatment – had the support of more than 900 authors, but to no avail. Apparently it has ‘come to an agreement’ with Amazon to have their titles featured alongside the bigger publishing houses.

All this might for the present be good for the consumer, but ultimately will anyone bother to write given their work is retailed at 85p?

Another downside of owning an e-book reader, and I bet Amazon know this, is that it’s more tempting to hit that buy button. The Japanese have a word for it – tsundoku – it means buying books and not reading them; letting books pile up unread on shelves, floors or nightstands.

Or nowadays piled up on one’s Kindle.

World’s most expensive teabag

. . . and other trivial facts about a Knightsbridge store that’s not in Knightsbridge but Brompton Road.
Harrods opens its doors to 100,000 shoppers a day rising to 300,000 at peak shopping for Christmas, it has 5 acres of floor space and employs 12,000 staff.
A Harrods male assistant is expected to look ’smart, sophisticated and debonair’, while female employees should present a ’timeless, sophisticated elegance’.

[N]ot an enthusiast of ‘ascending rooms’ in 1898 Harrods manager elected to install an escalator. The novel experience of travelling unaided forced him to engage the services of an attendant dispensing brandy to gentlemen shoppers and Epsom Salts to the ladies.

Rival Harry Selfridge (who did install a lift in his store for mistresses to arrive unobserved) made a bet with the Harrods managing director who would make the greater profit in 1917. Harrods won; Selfridge had a silver replica of the store commissioned. Its replica is on display on the ground floor.

Animals and their parts were once sold. One customer ordered a skunk for his e-wife. Noel Coward bought an alligator for Christmas. President Ronald Regan was given a Harrods elephant and a fossil found in Texas, imported to England, was bought by a Texan and exported it to – Texas.

Others would call them doormen but at Harrods they are ‘carriage assistants’. The seven of them opening doors, conveying packages to awaiting limousines and ensuring Harrods dress code is enforced by those entering its hallowed doors.

In 1959 some bright spark decided 1,100 bulbs could be used to decorate the store’s exterior for Christmas. Today their number has grown to 12,000; 30 bulbs have to be changed every day.

Its motto “All things to all people, everywhere” was once taken to its logical extreme when in 1916 they retailed a kit described as ‘A welcome Present for Friends at the Front’ containing cocaine, morphine, syringes and needles.

Deep pockets are needed for Ambootia Snowmist tea, picked before dawn to preserve their natural fragrance they retail for £4,800kg in Harrods food hall.

Probably the most useless beverage sold was PG Tips diamond encrusted tea bag. Created by Boodles Jewellers using Makaibari silver tips for the British tea brand’s 75th anniversary it was offered to customers at £9,300.