1860 - Victorian Taste

Charles Dickens observed the 'epidemic' of changes in the shops around him. The primarysymptoms were an inordinate love of plate glass and a passion for gas lights and gilding. Quiet, dusty old shops in different parts of the town were pulled down; spacious premises with stuccoed fronts and gold letters were erected instead; floors were covered with Turkey carpets; roofs supported by massive pillars; doors knocked into windows, a dozen squares of glass into one, one shopman into a dozen. Suddenly it burst out again among the chemists; a strong desire to stick the Royal Arms over the shop door, and a great rage for mahogany, varnish and expensive floor cloths. Then the hosiers were infected and began to pull down their shop- fronts with frantic recklessness.' What was Dickens really objecting to?

James Smith & Sons, Umbrella Makers. All the confidence and extravagance of the Victorians are expressed in this majestic shop front, dating from around 1860. It is believed to have been the work of the firm's own joiner, and at one time a member of staff was employed full-time simply to keep the exterior gleaming. Such elaborately decorated frontages were once commonplace in our towns and cities; now theyare a rarity, especially in such near-original condition. The lettering is hand-painted on the back of the glass panels, and the capitals are decorated with flowers identified as tradescantia. A polished brass plate runs below the display windows and beneath it, on the riser or stallboard, there is more lettered glass. Amid such elaboration room has still been found for a row of Gothic decorative ironwork above the fascia. Passing through the doorway- actually a cast iron and mahogany gate -the interior is revealed as a splendid cavern of lettered glass and lovingly polished mahogany, perfectly in keeping with the front. Here again, most of the original fittings are intact. Of particular interest is the balcony office positioned so that the manager can see all parts of the shop with the aid of angled mirrors. Umbrellas, canes and walking sticks are still made on the premises and above the display windows are itemised some of the firm's specialities, past and present. Life preservers (a kind of cosh), dagger canes and swordsticks were carried by many nineteenth - century gentlemen, for crime and violence were never far from the surface in the Victorian city, and effective policing was in its infancy. Today, mindless vandalism has become a constant threat to the fabric of the shop itself, though it stands on New Oxford Street in a busy part of Central London.



1828 - Going Upmarket

1875 - The Food Chain