I chose to explore Simon Popes expression, ‘Walk London and you get to understand the interconnectedness of its districts. Your movement less restricted, the zones that appear strictly demarcated by money, blood or tradition soon open to your interpretation’ (London Walking, 2000)
*Instructions: Primarily I chose my starting point as I was intrigued by themes of industrialisation and consumption combined with an interest in nineteenth century fashion, but, as is the fascinating nature of this city, I stumbled upon many other themes of history.Walk from the location of the world’s first department store at 89 Pall Mall in St James’ to Harrods department store on Brompton Road.
I had some knowledge of the area I was in, as quite frankly living in London I would be ignorant not to have. Number 89 Pall Mall is a remarkable Georgian structure inside and out. (Twenty windows along the face of the road) In 1796 it was the home of Howell, Harding and Co. The heart of the city’s consumption once upon a time, for the affluent middle class women of London. Here held opportunity to peruse and purchase a selection of consumer goods for her to wear. It was a drapers shop, women could safely and leisurely select contemporary fashions and fabrics for their personal dressmakers, out of the way of men in one place for the first time. Unquestionably it was a place of luxury (all one has to do is consider the size and the decorative architecture to understand this.) What was new about the ‘department store’ was that it resulted and benefited from many elements of industrialisation in England, such as free trade, cheap labour and steam and sail power. The transformation of this age shaped and nurtured the possibilities of commerce, just as it did the city of London. Number 89 is now home to the Royal Automobile Club which ‘is one of the foremost private members clubs in the world.’ I resolve that the history of this building (as I am concerned with it) has long been forgotten, a large flag flies outside and a smartly dressed door man greets the flow of important looking men who flurry in and out. For a moment I imagine the flood of well dressed women doing the same. This area is certainly has been defined by money and tradition.
So I walk, first in the wrong direction, then no more than twenty paces attempting to take in my surroundings as never before – when my eyes meet with someone I recognise. Once the milliseconds of adjustment are over it registers, bizarrely, that it is Nigel Farage. Immediately my thoughts are directed to reconsider the significance of the street I am walking and the area I am in. I understand the interconnectedness Pope talked of. Whilst the street may mark the many exclusive clubs it is home to and impressions of wealth, I realise many of the other buildings are six to seven story’s high and are now multi-purpose. Even more intriguing was that their purpose remained a mystery, doubled up blinds and curtains ensure no peering inside. Despite this, typically the first floors all had some kind of overpriced shop. I was reminded that when exploring this city you must not take it at face value. Wealth and tradition were obvious, but politics was not.
I snap out of this thought as I notice a plaque dedicated to A. Fredrick Windsor. According to the plaque he completed the world’s first demonstration of street lighting from coal gas at this very location. I attempted research this further, disappointingly, with no luck. However, in a space of one hundred yards there was so much unrelated history, but at the same time, stimulating history. My initial scepticism of this method of was moderated. Feeling confident that there is value in documenting the dissimilar history of London’s streets, (some might agree that it makes it all the more interesting) I cont
inued my route. Here I will admit that I failed before I even started with any attempt at wandering without a purpose by depicting and selecting a route with a purpose. However I failed once more when, distracted, I detoured down Marlborough Road. The street sign intrigued me here as it had not been replaced with a modern one, as had the rest of the area. An interesting discussion about the street sign history of London can be found here.
Once at St James’ I witnessed a changing of shift of the guards at Friary Court. The long history of the monarchy of the United Kingdom doesn’t have a place within this post, besides I do not have space to discuss as would be necessary, but it does however allow me to reflect that, I do not regret this detour as it has proved the concept that the districts of London are not as distinct as some would think. Tradition here obviously prevails and the popularised history of this country is clear. Next to me was a large group of foreign tourists having a guided tour of some kind. I got the impression the people surrounding me were much more fascinated than myself and I wished I could understand the language of the tour guide. A brief google as to the history of St James’ palace revealed it is one of very few Royal residences open to the public, was built in the mid-16th century by King Henry VIII and is still home to members of the royal family to this day. I was also curious now to find data related to London’s tourism figures, I was surprised that the Guardian recorded, ‘London attracted a record number of tourists in 2015, with 31.5 million people visiting the capital, a 20% increase on five years ago.’
As the black cabs with business men and women bundled in to the back fly past me I become familiar with my surroundings. The Mall doesn’t have a street sign, as with most things that are entitled to importance they need no marker. I turned right along the Mall and no doubt as it is designed, Buckingham Palace was dominating my view. The palace is the centre of the UK’s constitutional monarchy and dates back to 1791. I walk now to the right of the palace, up Constitution Hill – which confuses me profusely because it isn’t a hill by any stretch of the imagination. By now I had walked around three quarters of a mile, briefly I reflected on the several pillar stones of popularised history that I had come across but as well the hidden and forgotten histories I had discovered.
On the corner of Hyde Park, I was distracted by the Royal Artillery War Memorial. Fitting, given that this weekend is Remembrance Sunday. Having walked past this memorial before I was aware of its purpose. The history behind the memorial itself, I thought was really interesting, information can be found here. Once more I have been surprised by the way my movement across this district of London has revealed so much more than I had anticipated it could. Whilst the area still felt to be dominated by wealth, blood and tradition as Pope had spoken of – from my starting point there is no doubt that movement in this way allows room for captivating interpretations of history.
The destination in which I was aiming for was the department store – Harrods. The location in which was chosen for this world famous store was entirely based on hope of benefitting from passing trade from the Great Exhibition in 1851. The Great Exhibition was the first international exhibition of manufactured products and was enormously influential on the development of many aspects of society including art and design education, international trade and relations, and even tourism.
The destination in which I was aiming for was the department store – Harrods established in 1834. The location in which was chosen for this world famous store was entirely based on hope of benefitting from passing trade from the Great Exhibition in 1851. The Great Exhibition was the first international exhibition of manufactured products and was enormously influential on the development of many aspects of society including art and design education, international trade and relations, and even tourism. I continued to wander the long stretch of road that is Knightsbridge, the road then becomes Brompton Road. Here I felt the interconnectedness the most. The past few minutes revealed not much at all as I took in the pleasant environment on the edge of Hyde Park but as I turned the corner left, the street had unwillingly directed me in to a stream of consumption possibilities. My surroundings once more reveal the money in this area and is painfully obvious. The first shop in a notice is Ferrari, say no more. An economy that now relies on consumerism is best personified by this here street. I am now more aware than ever why department stores like that of Harding Howell and Co. were able to capitalise on this to evolve in to for example, Harrods. Opportunity for historical stimulation here is limited. However this thought is replaced by the impression that the Harrods architecture has given. The building is stunning.
This walk has proved several things to me. The first being that walking as a method of historical research is valuable if you are open to learning and piecing together unrelated histories. I feel refreshed in the new knowledge I have gained about this city and have enjoyed the experience. I believe it to be the truth that the districts do give an initial impression that they are defined by money, blood or tradition. But that it does not take long for an individual to make interesting interpretations of their location.
- Pope, Simon. ‘London Walking’ (2000)
- Royal Automobile Club – https://www.royalautomobileclub.co.uk/about-the-club/
- ‘The History of the Department Store’ –http://www.bbc.co.uk/culture/bespoke/story/20150326-a-history-of-the-department-store/index.html