Not long after having acquired Burlington House, Lord George Cavendish felt the need to do something about the footpath running along the west side of his property. Legend has it that he was much annoyed by the fact that people threw oyster shells over the wall into his garden. Oysters at the time were the ‘fast food’ of the lower classes, which reveals something about the people who frequented Mayfair. The area had a somewhat disreputable reputation, which is well conveyed in James Gillray’s cartoon ‘High Change in Bond Street’.
The rowdier elements of Mayfair were discouraged from moving into the arcade by the Beadles, former non commissioned officers from the Hussars. Rules against whistling and opening an umbrella in the arcade may seem rather strange today but at the time, these by-laws were established to prevent pimps and pickpockets from signalling to each other. Even to this day there is no right of way through the arcade. Despite these rules and the presence of the Beadles, it took quite a while before the Burlington Arcade became the respectable shopping precinct that it is today.
In 1862 Henry Mayhew remarked on the use of the upper chambers over a ‘friendly bonnet shop’, and stated that men who wished to avoid ‘publicity in their amours’ dreaded being seen in the vicinity of the arcade at certain hours. He may have referred to Madam Parsons who, in the middle of the 19th century, sold her Paris made guinea bonnets at no 26, 27 & 28 Burlington Arcade, using the upper floors as a meeting place for clandestine liaisons between gentlemen and their lady friends. It was only after her death that it became known that ‘she’ was a man, and the only authentic aspect of the title ‘Madam’ was that her innocent looking bonnet shop was used as a front for a sumptuous brothel in nearby Regent Street.
Not only has the arcade survived in all its Regency splendour, it has also managed to maintain its original purpose, which was ‘for the sale of jewellery and other fancy articles’ and ‘for the gratification of the publick and to give employment to industrious females’ (The Gentleman’s Magazine). In today’s age of equality one would want to amend this slightly to include also industrious males...