Fortnum and Mason’s department store is one of London’s most luxurious and oldest. It has survived over three centuries in its Picadilly location and its history is closely linked to London’s and indeed to England’s. Although nowadays only one floor of Fortnum’s is dedicated to food, the store is renowned mainly for its wonderful ground floor provisions department. 1999
William Fortnum began his career in 1705 as a footman in the Royal palace of Queen Anne. Part of his job was to replace the royal family’s used candles, which he then on-sold to other servants. In 1907, he persuaded his landlord, Hugh Mason to go into business with him and together they established Fortnum and Mason’s Emporium. The business ran successfully and profitably for almost fifty years. In 1761, William Fortnum’s grandson Charles became official Royal provender to Queen Charlotte. With Royalty behind it and with a new range of merchandise including, exotic teas and spices imported from the new colonies, luxury items and pre-prepared meals, Fortnum and Masons boomed and its reputation as prestigious, luxury establishment was forged. .
Royal and government patronage continued into the 19th century. Fortnum’s became the official supplier of preserved foods to British Officers during the Napoleonic Wars. It catered for state functions at the Court of Queen Victoria and during the Crimean war shipped beef tea to Florence Nightingale’s hospitals. At this time the store also began to deliver its famous luxury picnic hampers to Victorian high society at events like the Henley Regatta and the Ascot Races. Fortnum and Mason’s hampers feature in the works Victorian writers like Wilkie Collins and Henry James. Charles Dickens, writing of the Epsom Derby said “Look where I will…. I see Fortnum & Mason. All the hampers fly wide open and the green downs burst into a blossom of lobster salad!”.
Fortnum’s success continued as its fame spread into the 20th century. Its fare featured during the Great Exhibition at the beginning of the new age. During World War II, it supplied food to the British troops and furthermore guaranteed to hold open the jobs of Fortnum staff serving in the forces. In 1922, it supplied the first expedition to Everest. A refurbishment of the sore in 1925 saw new departures into a range of different stock, like ladies and children’s wear, kitchen wear and perfumes. In 1931, in response to a growing U.S. demand for Fortnam and Mason’s products, a branch was opened in New York.
Demand from visiting overseas dignitaries for King George’s jubilee in 1935, prompted Fortnum’s to begin importing the foreign delicacies which soon became one of its hallmarks. During the Second World War, the Officers department, selling anything an officer might require like special cigarettes and silver-plated sporks.
The twentieth century saw the end of the Fortnum and Mason family association with the store. The store was acquired by Canadian W. Garfield Weston, who became its chairman. In 1964, as a tribute to the founders he commissioned the huge four-ton clock which hangs above the entrance and from which four foot models of William Fortnum and Hugh Mason emerge at the chime of every and bow to each other. Currently, the Fortnum and Mason’s is run by Garfield Weston’s granddaughters Jana Weston Khayat and Kate Weston Hobhouse.
In 2007 Fortnum and Mason celebrated 300 years in business with a massive 24 million pound refurbishment. Today it is a thoroughly modern establishment offering all kinds of luxury services, including a Day Spa. There are four excellent and very popular restaurants, including the Diamond jubilee Tea Salon opened by the Queen in 2012
Although nowadays only one floor of Fortnum’s is dedicated to food, it is there in its food hall on the lower ground floor that a large part of Fortnum’s fame rests. Food at Fortnum’s is always fresh and always respects the seasons. It still stocks its famous teas, its foreign and exotic delicacies and pre-prepared meals.
Fortnum has famously joined the movement to “green” inner city London and established a rooftop garden, complete with bee hives. Fortnum and Mason’s bees are housed in a bespoke hive, made from English oak painted in the Eau de Nil Blue (the colour of the house) with gold leaf filials. The bees produce 400 jars of honey each year and each year it is awaited with great anticipation. There is a long waiting list. The quality of the honey varies from year to year. Sometimes it has a light floral tinge and sometimes it is rich and aromatic. Needless to say, it is packaged in exquisitely labeled jars. The bees also contribute to Fortnum and Mason’s famous Roja Candles, an initiative which would have warmed the heart of old Willaim Fortnum.
Fortnum’s still provides to Royals and caters to official and state occasions. It still stocks its famous teas, foreign and exotic delicacies and pre-prepared meals and it still delivers luxury hampers to every occasion from christenings and Christmas to historic races and regattas.
In a tradition dating back to the Napoleonic Wars, Fortnum’s continues to support the British Forces and every soldier on active service receives a service tin. It still has an expeditions Department.
There’s something wonderfully clean, fresh and wholesome about Fortnum and Mason, it’s that light, calming Eau de Nil Blue that follows you from the shop front, the windows, to appear in little touches on the staff’s uniforms, into the décor on every floor, into the china in the restaurants, the table linen, the packaging. There’s the aroma of exotic teas and coffee and the scent of fresh flowers of fresh flowers. There’s something in those exquisitely presented tins and hampers and packets of teas and jars of pickles jams and honey that makes you want to stock up or even inspires you to race home and launch into a frenzy of preserving.
Fortnum’s is a wonderful place to wander, browse, marvel, soak up the history and the atmosphere, people-watch and, yes, even take photos