Fortnum and Mason's 300th
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Date: 23 October, 2007

Logo courtesy of Fortnum & Mason

 

'From 1794 to 1839, it even ran its own postal service, with collections up to six times a day.'

Andrew Chapman whets his appetite with a history of London's famous food and luxury goods store

"What are doing?" "I'm going, sir, to Piccadilly, sir, to start a provision merchant's. It isn't much, sir, but it's a cut above emptying p*ss-pots."

That little joke from Alan Bennett's play and film The Madness of King George is given to one 'Fortnum' - something of an anachronism, for Mr William Fortnum and Mr Hugh Mason founded their business several decades beforehand, in 1707.

William Fortnum was, in fact, a footman in Queen Anne's household rather than George III's, and began business in 1705 by selling used candles from the royal household (160 years later Fortnum & Mason (F&M) received a Royal Warrant).

Two years later he teamed up with his landlord Hugh Mason to set up a grocery aimed at the high-end clientele, remaining in the palace to cultivate potential clients - Mason's Yard in London to this day commemorates his colleague's stables, another 'revenue stream' for those early years.

Classes

The business quickly grew, along with the middle classes with greater disposable income, and with the help of close connections with the British East India Company.

In 1761, William's grandson Charles entered the service of George III's wife, Queen Charlotte, which might be how Bennett got confused.

Charles was recalled to the queen's service and handed on the business to be run by his son and the latest member of the Mason family, John.

From its earliest years the company proved highly adaptable to fashions of the time, and from 1794 to 1839, it even ran its own postal service, with collections up to six times a day.

Throughout the 19th century, F&M became a byword for quality provisions - not just food, but tea, spices, gifts and clothing. In the Napoleonic wars, the company sold dried fruits and spices to the soldiery, and the firm won first prize as an importer of dried fruits at the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Queen Victoria herself ordered a consignment of F&M's beef tea to be sent to Florence Nightingale at the Crimea.

In 1846 Richard Fortnum achieved recognition for leaving a huge bequest to his staff, and they were also openly allowed to join the new Shopworkers' Trade Union. Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Henry James all referred to the store in their writings.

Hampers

In this high Victorian era, F&M's famous hampers began, too, filling wicker baskets that had formerly transported bottles of Madeira with luxury goods to sell to theatre goers, who also used the baskets to sit on.

Today the top-range hamper costs £20,000 (which can be delivered by horse and carriage). Food such as poultry or game in aspic became the ancestors of the feeble ready meals we have in supermarkets today.

At the other end of the scale, the firm also introduced baked beans to the nation in 1886, via a consignment from one Mr Heinz.

In the 1920s and 1930s, F&M even had a special expeditions department, and supplied foodstuffs, cutlery and crockery to the 1922 Everest expedition and to Howard Carter before he was hit by the curse of Tutankhamen.

Departments for ladies' and children's fashions and perfume were also opened in this era, and for a few years before the Great Depression a store opened in New York.

Officers' department

An officers' department also opened during the Second World War. The store's famous clock - featuring its two founders - was installed in 1964.

In this era the company changed hands, going on the Stock Exchange just before the war, then being sold in 1952.

In 2001, it was taken private again, bought out by the Weston family of Canada which owned furniture store Heals and already had a 90% stake in Fortnum's.

The company was valued at £57.4 million. In recent years the firm has continued to be adaptable, with stores opening at Heathrow and in Japan, and a website set up in 1999.

Over the last two years F&M has spent £25 million on refurbishments, with a new layout being revealed on 29 October.

Visit www.fortnumandmason.com to find out more.