It all began with oysters. Londoners used to eat them as they walked along, throwing away the shells much as they do burger wrappers now. Lord George Cavendish, owner of Burlington House on Piccadilly (now the Royal Academy), was sick of shells littering his garden, and so in 1819 decided to open a shopping arcade down that side of his property to protect it from the ‘tossers’. Nearly 200 years later the place is thriving.
You can buy expensive watches and shoes, perfumes and scarves, wallets and pens. Fred Astaire would get ‘lost for days’ in the Burlington, having discovered it when an admirer bought him nine pairs of gold striped slippers there. In 1964 a group of masked men spent rather less time in the arcade, driving a Jaguar Mark X halfway along it, using sledgehammers to relieve the Goldsmiths and Silversmiths Association shop of £35,000 worth of jewellery, then reversing the car back out. Workers in a nearby office showered the robbers with flower pots and furniture, but the Jag did its duty and the gang were never caught. Elegant bollards were installed at either end to prevent a repeat.
Units 52 and 53 are occupied by Hancocks, makers of every one of the 1,358 Victoria Crosses awarded since the medal’s inception in 1856. The lump of metal they use (from an ancient Chinese cannon, which may or may not have been captured from the Russians during the Crimean War) is good for another 80 or so.
The arcade is kept in order by its sumptuously uniformed beadles. This private police force was instituted by Lord George himself, and originally drawn from his family regiment, the 10th Hussars. The famous ban on whistling in the arcade dates from the days when prostitutes occupied the units’ upper levels — seeing a beadle approach, they would whistle a coded warning to the pickpockets below. The prostitutes have departed, but the ban is still enforced.
Unless you are one of two people. In the 1980s a man whistled as he examined one of the window displays. A beadle politely requested that he stop, only to see as the man turned round that it was Paul-McCartney. The beadle granted the-Beatle a lifetime exemption on the spot, and to this day Macca whistles whenever he passes through. His third wife Nancy refused to believe him, so he got a Beadle to confirm it to her.
The other exception? He’s a schoolboy from the East End, aged about 11. A few years ago he was going through a tough time at home and misbehaving at school. His uncle treated him to a day in the West End, including a trip to Burlington Arcade, which the boy loved. The beadles took a shine to him, and said that if he got a good report from school they’d issue him a permit to whistle. It took a while, but last year the boy went back, and his uncle confirmed that things had improved. The beadles were true to their word — and even printed the boy a certificate.
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