Today (November 4) in London History – the Fortnum & Mason clock

The famous clock on the front of Fortnum & Mason’s was inaugurated on November 4th, 1964. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

This one looked like it was going to be jolly from first to last. Happy, cheerful, fun – and perfect for this time of year. A candle in the gloaming, a dab of light in the darkness.

Well, we should be so lucky. It’s London so there’s always a dark side.

Let’s get it over with.

It’s 181 Piccadilly. Fortnum and Mason’s. The Queen’s Own Grocers, as it used to be called. I was fond of that name. Wonder if it’s gone to its final resting place. The King’s Own Grocers doesn’t sound the same. Doesn’t sound remotely plausible. 

Anyway, it’s a fine spring day in 1927. It’s the new Fortnum & Mason’s building. The Mayfair firm of architects that designed it – Wimperis, Simpson & Guthrie – have a few more things to attend to. One of their young staff architects, 27-year-old E. Crutchley, is taking some measurements from a second-floor window. Sitting on it, leaning out I suppose. And then the terrible thing happens. The window sill gives way. The young architect falls to the pavement. He’s fallen 32 feet. His leg is broken. Worse, he’s suffered terrible injuries. He’s taken to Charing Cross Hospital, where he’ll die a few days later.

It’s a wretched thing, sometimes, local history. You find out things you’d not have known. For me, this one’s now a permanent blot on the Fortnum & Mason’s escutcheon, especially when I’m there looking up at the prettiest cherry on the Piccadilly Sundae. And sure enough, look what I’ve done – I didn’t keep it to myself. Now you know as well about that poor youngster.

Anyway, does time heal? Maybe. That was 95 years ago. At no little risk of incurring some disapprobation, I’m going to admit I can look at that long past mishap and not have my emotional equilibrium disturbed by very much. 

If we do this thing in rooms, Mr. Crutchley’s fall is a room in the Fortnum & Mason story. And we need now to open the door of that little room, step out of it, close the door behind us. Got to another room in the Fortnum & Mason story.

Go all the way back to the second half of the 18th century. George III is on the throne. Charles Fortnum is 23 years old. He gets a job at the palace. He becomes a footman to Sophie Charlotte, princess of Mecklenberg-Strelitz, shortly before she marries George III.

Chances are Charles Fortnum had an inside track. His grandfather, William, had been a footman to Queen Anne. William had clambered aboard the Good Ship Royal Duties in 1707.

Twenty-seven years later William’s landlord Hugh Mason scored a job as porter at His Majesty’s Royal Palace of Somerset House. Londoners all. And all well equipped with that beady London eye for the main chance. Hugh Mason was moonlighting. He had a little shop in nearby St. James’ Market. Meanwhile, yet another Mason was well set up as a gentleman of His Majesty’s Chapel Royal. And subsequently, he became a “gentleman sewer in ordinary” – that was the traditional job description of an attendant at the royal table.

So Charles was to the manor born. He learned at the knees of the older members of his family. Knew all the tricks of the trade. The salary wasn’t much – 40 guineas a year. But there were all kinds of perquisites. Perks.

Which brings us to candles. There were two kinds of candles. Ordinary people, poor people – if they could afford candles – had to get by with candles made from animal fat. That was all they could afford. And they were nasty. The light from an animal fat candle wasn’t anything to write home about. And worse, animal fat candles stank.

But the palace – that was a different story. The royals always had the very best candles. Very expensive beeswax candles. They gave a lovely light. And the smell was pleasing, sweet. Aromatically it was the difference between having your din dins in an abattoir and dining in a parfumerie.

Anyway, the story goes that Charles Fortnum noticed that the candles used for a royal meal were often only burned half down. And they were thrown away. The King and Queen weren’t going to sit down to a meal lit by candle stubs thank you very much. Charles Fortnum started retrieving the stubs from the bin. He’d get a batch of them together and on his monthly day off he’d go to the market with his royal candles and flog ‘em. It was a simple process: harvest, hoard, sell. He repeated it over and over. And of course he saved the money that he made. And in time he’d built up a good little stake. By this time Charles’ friend John Mason had a stables – in Mason’s Yard, very near where Fortnum and Mason’s is today. When Charles retired he and John Mason went into business together. It was a good fit. Basically Charles set himself up with a grocery shop. Years of working in the palace he was au fait with the needs of the Palace household – remember that name I’m so fond, “the Queen’s own grocer” – and Mason’s stables was perfectly positioned to deal with deliveries.

And they were on their way. That was 250 years ago.

And so we come to our anniversary. Come to Today in London history. It’s November 4th, 1964 and Mrs Garfield Weston, the wife of the Chairman of Associated British Foods – and more importantly, the Chairman of the Board, at the time, of Fortnum and Mason. Now, if you haven’t heard of the Westons they’re a ridiculously wealthy Canadian business family who came here in 1932. Said to be worth 8.7 billion dollars. Making them, according to Forbes Magazine, the 178th wealthiest family in the world. 

You might recall that they owned Selfridges for a while. Sold it for a cool 5.4 billion dollars.

Anyway, on this day in 1964 Mrs Garfield Weston inaugurated the new monumental clock on the Piccadilly front of Fortnum and Masons. Her husband, the Chairman of the Board, had commissioned the timepiece. If you can call a monumental clock that works all kinds of wonders, a timepiece. Monumental really is the mot juste, because the thing weighs four tons. And it’s a monument to the memory of Mssrs Fortnum and Mason. 

It’s very touristy but what a treat it is. It’s sort of a British commercial/shop version of a giant Swiss cuckoo clock.

Every hour on the hour Mr Fortnum and Mr Mason – dressed in their palace livery, complete with powdered wigs – come through those little doors that flank the clock and take the air. Indeed, they bow to each other. And the clock plays, after the hour is chimed, a number of 18th-century tunes on bells.

And be sure to notice, Mr Fortnum is carrying a candleabra. It’s utterly charming. 

And a Today in London recommendation – if you want to push the boat out, well, how about afternoon tea at Fortnum and Masons’. It’s their specialty after all.

Or indeed, if you’d rather, maybe a spot of tea shopping. Or even just buying a Scotch egg or two. Yes, a Scotch egg. Said to be their most famous culinary invention. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *