Today (December 26) in London History – let’s fit the pieces together

A Boxing Day Anniversary. Charles Fortnum – of Fortnum and Mason’s – got married on Boxing Day. David explores the connections.


Boxing Day. The end of Boxing Day. Let’s give you a London Boxing Day historical event. 

December 26, 1767. Wedding bells at St. James’s Church, Piccadilly.

The bride is the delightfully named Mary Monday of Wendover, Buckinghamshire. The groom is Charles Fortnum, son of William Fortnum of Berkeley Street, Portman Square. Bride and groom are both in their late 20s. 

This was a sober, upright, hard-working, upwardly ambitious couple. 

And, yes, the groom’s name is the giveaway. Fortnum of Fortnum and Mason’s, the prestigious Piccadilly shop, the Queen’s own grocers.

All the pieces of this puzzle fit together. The church – it’s right next to the famous shop. And not very far from Charles Fortnum’s childhood home in Berkeley Street. And just a hop, skip and a jump from the Queen’s House as the future Buckingham Palace was known then. It was the private home of Queen Charlotte. Charles Fortnum worked there as a footman to Queen Charlotte.  

Those are the geographical pieces of the puzzle. The timepieces of the puzzle fit equally well together. The wedding was on December 26 – Boxing Day. In other words, after the last Christmas hamper of that year had been sent on its way.

The timing’s also right in terms of the bigger picture. It turns out that the phrase Boxing Day hadn’t been around all that long. Boxing Day  – the term – entered the language in the year 1743, when young Master Charles Fortnum and his future bride were all of five years old. 

And the other point is of course that Fortnum and Mason’s was famous – still is – for its hampers. Its packaging. Its boxes.You think Fortnum and Mason’s you think Hampers and beautiful boxes of gifts and lo and behold, just like that, Boxing Day comes to mind. 

Charles Fortnum was hard-working. But did he pull himself up by his bootstraps? Think about it for a minute. Has anyone ever pulled themselves up by their bootstraps? Have you tried it? It’s not possible. There’s something called Gravity that’s standing there shaking its head, saying, ‘uh uh, no you don’t – not on my watch.”

So the fact of the matter is, Charles Fortnum got ahead, so to speak, because of his accident of birth. Where he grew up. And his connections.

His story – like so many success stories – always reminds me of that old piece of Scottish wisdom: don’t marry money, go where money is.

Well, Charles Fortnum didn’t have to go far. He had ‘ins’, he had connections, he could look to his immediate family to see how it was done. His grandfather, William, had been a footman to Queen Anne. Now Grandfather William clearly had an eye to the main chance. And he was fully equal to some impressive moonlighting. At about the same time that he became a footman he also started a grocery business in Duke Street – again, right there, not a stone’s throw away from Fortnum and Mason’s famous shop today. He started it jointly with his landlord, Hugh Mason. Hugh Mason had retail experience – he owned another shop in nearby St. James’ Market. 

What did grandpa William Fortnum bring to the party. Well, it’s said that as a Footman to Queen Anne he was entitled to any candle ends and any candles left unburned in candle holders at the palace. And the point is that they were the very best candles. They were expensive wax candles. Had a sweet smell to them. Most people had to make do with candles made out of tallow. Animal fat. They didn’t give a good light. And worse, they stank. 

Those half-burned candle ends William Fortnum took possession of – there was a market for them. They were royal candles after all. 

So, Grandpa William Fortnum was the trailblazer. Grandson Charles Fortnum will have heard all about him. Maybe he was dandled on Grandpa’s knee. Heard all about grandpa and what he did. That’s how our shop got started. That’s how grandpa got on. That’s how it’s done. Bottom line, Charles Fortnum was to the manner born. 

So sure enough, when his time came what could be more natural than that Charles should become a footman. Different Queen – Queen Charlotte. But same rung of the ladder. And the same perquisites. Well, actually, the perquisites were significantly better in Charles’ case. Candlesticks were just part of his haul. He was also allowed to help himself to coal and house linen and food and wine. Not bad at all. More than made up for the meagre salary. 

It gets better. Charles didn’t just trade on his palace perquisites – he also traded on his court savvy and connections. Being a lowly footman at court – if you had your wits about you, that was an education. And Charles Fortnum certainly did have his wits about him. Charles Fortnum acquired taste. Taste reflected in what found its way onto the shelves of his shop. The articles his shop provisioned. His goods had the palace imprimatur all over them. Delicacies such as portions of poultry and game in aspic jelly, Scotch eggs – Fortnum and Mason’s pioneered Scotch eggs – mince pies, fresh fruit in season, and dried fruits during the rest of the year. Connections connections connections. Because Fortnum and Masons also had an inside track on the best tea, coffee and spices. Fortnum cousins were employed by the East India Company and a family nod and a wink did the needful for the importation of those rarities. 

The keystone to the arch: an extensive clientele of wealthy and influential customers followed as a matter of course. 

And today Fortnum and Mason’s is – as that smart phrase has it – the Queen’s own grocers. Can you hear it? It’s subtle but significant, that phrasing. The Queen’s grocers, that sounds, well, ordinary, common. But the Queen’s own grocers – putting it that way, well, it’s infinitely classier. Sounds exclusive. You know, picked out by the Queen herself. 

So, yes, Boxing Day – you have to think of Fortnum and Mason’s on Boxing Day. Boxing Day because of their boxes and hampers. And that it’s the anniversary of Charles Fortnum’s wedding – the anniversary because it’s boxing day. On boxing day – it’s worth repeating – the last Christmas hampers, the last Christmas boxes, were on their way, the Christmas work was done – Charles Fortnum could give his full attention to the matter of getting married.

Let’s end with a telling fact. And a good recommendation. Charles Fortnum died in 1815. He had about £3500 salted away. Our footman, who’d earned about £40 a year as a servant – just under £4,000 a year in today’s money – wasn’t a poor man when he died. His wealth at death – £3500 – would be worth a third of a million or so in today’s money. 

The recommendation is to go around to the front of the shop on the hour and look at the elaborate striking clock. The two liveried servants who come out on the hour are replicas of the founders of the shop. They’re taking survey. Making sure that Fortnum and Mason standards are being upkept.

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