Learn about London’s history with this fascinating selection of old, unusual and interesting shops. Find out what to see in London with our historical guide.
Every year millions of people come to London to shop. Oxford Street and Covent Garden are eternally bustling with tourists clutching shopping bags filled with the latest gadgets and fashions. But London’s role as a centre of commerce far predates its reputation as a shopping destination. While new shops in the city centre are constantly opening and closing down, there are a few valiant bastions of history that have been open, their products almost unchanged, for more than four centuries.
Many of the oldest shopping premises are devoted to clothing and accessories, but not as we now use those terms. Ede & Ravenscroft was established in Chancery Lane in 1689, and stands as the city’s oldest tailors. But they aren’t just known for their sharp suits - more for the wigs and robes they supply for local lawyers at the Inns of Court. They even supply garments to the royal family, furnishing royals with robes for the last twelve coronations.
If you’re interested in old accessories rather than clothes, James Smith & Sons is the place for you. Sitting in the middle of New Oxford Street, the shop sells umbrellas, canes and walking sticks, and its delightful interior has hardly changed since it opened in 1830. Older than both of these is Lock and Co Hatters on St James Street, established in 1676, who once provided headgear to Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin and even Admiral Lord Nelson.
Aside from garments some of the capital’s most impressive old shops are for food. In 1706 Thomas Twining opened Britain’s first known tearoom on the Strand. More than three centuries later it’s still in operation, marked out by the world’s oldest logo in continuous use. Nearby is Paxton & Whitfield’s purveyor of fine cheeses, who had a market stall at Aldwych before moving to their present site in 1797.
There are also impressive historic food shops with a little more range to their stock. W Martyn on Muswell Hill Broadway opened in 1897, and still piles its groceries high on the counter. They’re best known for the smell of roasting coffee which wafts out onto the high street every morning. That’s not to forget the big daddy of British shopping, Fortnum & Masons. William Fortnum was a footman at the court of Queen Anne and sneakily sold used candles from the royal candelabra to make money on the side. Using the money he made he set up a grocery store with his landlord Hugh Mason. The shop is the city’s oldest department store and is still best known for its food hall. Fortnum’s is a great stop for luxury retail therapy.
Food and clothes seem to account for most of the city’s oldest shops, but there are a few notable exceptions which can’t be categorised so easily. One of our favourites is Floris on Jermyn Street, a perfumer established by Spaniard Juan Famenias Floris in 1730. The gorgeous scents wafting from the shop announce that they’re still at it, and a trip inside reveals beautiful wooden counters and cases that were bought at the Great Exhibition of 1851. For a fragrance of a different sort, nearby James Fox Tobacconists is London’s oldest cigar merchants, supplying smokes to Winston Churchill once upon a time. If these aren’t quirky enough, Arthur Beale on Shaftesbury Avenue is a yacht chandler that has been in continuous operation since 1843. There you’ll find buoys, ropes and all manner of nautical equipment.
It’s wonderful to get a sense of London’s history, and these shops have gorgeous décor and ambience even if you’re only window shopping. You can even learn about some of our oldest crafts and practices. That being said, London is also known for it’s cutting-edge modernity. When you’ve had your fill of history, find out some of the amazing stories and constructions behind the capital’s striking modern architecture on our Modern Architecture Tour.