As a North American living in London you have a unique vantage point, you're able to see what is uniquely British AND what is not. While/whilst the Americans or Canadian's tend to look for the newest, biggest and shiniest next thing the British celebrate the oldest, dustiest and longest standing. It is proudly written in gold glided letters outside their store fronts "established in" or on a historical plaque telling you who was "nearly done in" at this place hundreds of years before you were even born. They are bragging telling you they are old, they are survivors and they have been here a hell of a lot longer than you... and will continue to be here well after you too are "done in".
As I went out and explored London (my favourite thing to do) I came back with an incredible sense of history. WAIT...not the churches, Churchill history (yawn) but rather the gritty, real people history. The average Joe or Josephine that started something hundreds of years ago and it is still going today. So I thought I would share my fascinating "on the street history lesson". You may notice I have not included any old pubs of which there are plenty. You can find them in my blog, London's Oldest Drinking Establishments, as they too have many a interesting tale to tell.
A BROAD IN LONDON's ~ 12 OF LONDON'S VERY OLDEST BUSINESSES STILL OPEN TODAY
1. Oldest Place To Buy Wine ~ Berry Brothers & Rudd Ltd.
3 St James Street Est. 1698
Might as well start here with something I really, really love...WINE! This oldest wine store was actually started by a single mother of two, Widow Bourne in 1698. Talk about a woman before her time. Originally founded as a grocery store in the upscale neighbourhood of St James it is still operating in the same location. It first supplied wine to the British Royal Family under King George lll and it also supplied all the wine for the Titanic. Some fine bottles lost at sea.
Over 315 years later and two royal warrants Berry Bros. & Rudd is run by a woman Lizzie Rudd (Chairman) as it remains owned and operated by the same family. That makes it one of the oldest running family businesses in the UK. Seriously why leave the family wine business to become a engineer? As one of the largest wine merchants in the UK Berry Bros. hosts incredible nights of wine tasting and also offers classes from the novice to the professional. Even if you are not buying wine it is a great place to poke your head in, look around and sample the goods.
Fun Fact: There are over 2 acres of wine cellars and tunnels underneath the store.
2. London's Oldest Hotel ~ Brown's Hotel
Albermarle St, Mayfair Est. 1837
So this one baffled me a little. Thinking of how old London is I was surprised to learned that the oldest hotel is less than 200 years old (still older than the country of Canada mind you). Hotels were virtually non-existent before the railways with people either staying in private houses or coaching inns. Brown's is the oldest existing hotel in London and with that distinction they have had their notable guests and infamous stories. Queen Victoria, Oscar Wilde and Bram Stoker all stayed at Brown's.
Fun Fact: Alexander Graham Bell made the first phone call in the UK from this hotel in 1876.
3. Oldest Theatre ~ Theatre Royal Drury Lane
Drury Lane Est. 1663
Talk about the show must go on... there have been four theatres built on this site dating back to 1663 all named the Theatre Royal making it the oldest theatre site in London still in use. The longest running production at the Theatre Royal was Miss Saigon that put on a total of 4,263 performances over 11 years ending in October 1999. The building that stands there today was opened in 1812.
Fun Fact: The theatre is now owned by the composer Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber.
4. Oldest Private Club ~ White's
37 St James St. Est. 1693
White's is the oldest, grandest and likely the snootiest exclusive gentlemen's club in London. Member Prince Charles had his champagne infused stag night there prior to marrying Lady Diana Spencer and we all know how well that turned out. In its 300 year history it has had its share of scandals, scoundrels and scallywags. The former Prime Minister David Cameron whose late father at one time was the Chair of White's resigned after White's refused to change their rules and accept women as members. David Cameron is thought to be the only member ever to have left voluntarily. Not that I guess they care too much as the waiting list to join is years, many are blacklisted and rejected and each applicant must be vouched for by a whooping 35 existing members. Women are barred from the club and the only woman to have been granted an exception was Queen Elizabeth and that was only to help mark White's 300th anniversary. Ironic that they asked a woman don't you think? Past members included George lV and Winston Churchill.
Fun Fact: White's was implicated in one of the most infamous spying scandal in British history. The Cambridge Five or known as The Cambridge Spies were ex-school mates turned KGB. During the Cold War they infiltrated Bristish Intelligence passing on secrets to the Soviets. They would hold their meetings at White's bar.
5. Oldest Bank ~ C. Hoare & Co.
37 Fleet St. Est. 1672
C. Hoare & Co. is a English private bank which is not only the oldest bank in the U.K. but the fourth oldest bank in the world. The oldest bank encase you are interested (and even if you're not) is Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, Italy, It was founded in 1472. Clients included Lord Byron, Jane Austen and Eton College. Ok, that is enough about a banking.
FUN FACT: C. Hoare & Co remains a family owned and managed company currently engaging the 10th & 11th generation of C. Hoare.
6. Oldest Restaurant ~ Rules
34 Maiden Lane Est. 1798
Rules in Covent Garden is the oldest restaurant in London. Its gilded decor and its red velvet and leather furnishings are very much what I expected from such a famous, elegant restaurant giving total credence to that particular slice of British nostalgia, the upper classes. I know this for sure as I had watched Lady Edith Crawley from Downton Abbey dine there. Known for their game and poultry (which may contain shot) and very traditional British fare I doubt much has changed in this restaurant since it first opened but that is exactly why you go there. Famous clientele include Graham Greene and Charles Dickens ...and of course the Crawleys.
Fun Fact: Edward V has a room named after him as it was there he would "entertain" his mistress actress Lillie Langtry.
7. Oldest Store & Family Business ~ Lock & Co.
6 St James Est. 1676
Locke & Co. Hatters are not only the oldest shop in London but the world’s oldest hat shop and 34th longest serving family company in the world. Talk about your pressure to stay in the family business. Lord Admiral Nelson, Winston Churchill, Oscar Wilde and Princess Diana all were customers. While poking around the salesman shared with me the most expensive hat they ever sold was for £10,000. In fairness there was some historical significance which was sadly lost on this Canadian.
FUN FACT: James Benning an eccentric member of the Lock Family was the inspiration for Lewis Carroll's character The Mad Hatter in his Alice In Wonderland classic.
8. Oldest Tea House ~ Twining's
216 Strand ~ est 1706
Founder Thomas Twining opened Britain's first known tea room at 216 Strand where it still operates today. Started as Tom's Coffee House where men (not women) would gather to drink, gossip and do business, Thomas Twining decided to turn his love of tea into a business going against the existing coffee trend. He came up against great opposition in the way of ridiculous taxes thus being a beverage only the upper classes could afford. His passion and dedication would turn a little-known drink into the nation’s "cure all" beverage of all time. Twining's also has the world's oldest continuously used logo.
Fun Fact: In 1707 tea was so expensive due to the insane taxes that some of Twining's tea sold for the equivalent in today's money of £160 per 100g.
9. Oldest Department Store ~ Fortnum & Mason
181 Piccadilly Est. 1707
Fortnum & Mason is one of London's most beautiful stores and has some of the most interesting history. William Fortnum started as a footman for Queen Anne. He made extra money selling partly used candles from the palace (wonder if the Queen knew). With his savings he ventured away from the palace and formed a partnership with Huge Mason a landlord who had a small room to let in the upscale neighbourhood of St James and thus this high-end grocery store Fortnum and Mason was born.
In its long history F&M were always leaders, inventors and modern thinkers. From introducing baked beans to the UK, something that the Brits still are obsessed with today (don't get it), to inventing the famous Scotch Egg for its travellers, they we always leading the way. Known as a great company to work for and humanitarians, F&M supplied their famous hampers to soldiers and even to the suffragettes imprisoned for breaking their store windows. The Fortnum family believed all employers had a responsibility to their employees. Richard Fortnum left a fortune of £1,500 in his will when he died, the equivalent of £500,000 today to his staff.
FUN FACT: There are four bee colonies on the roof of the Piccadilly store producing their world famous honey. At six feet high they are almost twice the height of a normal beehives, they harvest once a year and there is a wait list for their world famous honey.
10. The Oldest Book Store ~ Hatchard's
187 Piccidilly ~ Est. 1797
If you love getting lost in a good book than pack your S'well bottle and settle into Hatchard's who have been selling books since 1797. There are many nooks and crannies with well worn sofas where you can curl up and read. It is great to browse this store as their history is displayed proudly on the walls of their Piccadilly store along with their impressive 3 royal warrants.
11. Oldest House
41 Cloth Fair ~ Built 1613
At first glance there seems to be nothing remarkable about this house in London's neighbourhood of Farringdon. I seriously arrived and thought, "this is it???". But this house is over 400 years old which makes it the oldest house in the City of London. This house survived the Civil War, the Great Fire and the Blitz. In its lifespan it has had 30 different owners. Next time I am knocking on the door. Would love to see inside.
Fun Fact: This house was built 7 years before the Mayflower set sail to America (1620)
Oldest Intact Building ~ White Tower, Tower of London
One of the most visited and Instagrammed places in the world is the Tower of London and it oldest part is The White Tower. Built by William the Conqueror during the early 1080s, it is the site of some pretty bloody bad behaviour which includes 22 executions including Anne Boleyn one of King Henry VIII's "defiant" wives in 1536. If you visit The Tower of London I highly recommend the tour. You are given a glimpse of the bloodier side of London history as told by a colourful, entertaining Beefeater. These are not your summer school student kinda tour-guides. The Yeoman Warders as they are officially known are all real guards of her Majesty that must have spent at least 22 years of military service as a warrant officer and hold the London Service and Good Conduct medal.
Fun Fact: Spot the ravens. Tower of London is residence to seven ravens (6 plus a spare). Superstition dictates that the ravens are housed at the Tower of London and if all six escape, "the Tower and Kingdom will fall". Of course they have one wing clipped so they don't go far. A few have fled the coop but rest assured the Tower and Kingdom are still standing.
As great fortune would have it I did stumble upon something that I think may be the oldest establishment known to mankind. Though not officially recorded with any historians this group has been in existence since man walked upright and could hold a pint of ale. Could not believe my good luck finding their local London chapter as I secretly took a photo (see below).