A modest house attached to his one-roomed grocer’s shop in the Knightsbridge area of Central London was the place where Philip Burden brought Mary after they were married in early 1850. Mary may have paused at the entrance taking in the aromas of the neighbourhood outside. The smell from the cheesemongers next door was, perhaps, a reminder of her father’s Hill Farm in Herefordshire where she could watch the servants making the cheese.
But one step into the shop and everything changed. The assortment of items in the shop represented her new life with Philip: bars of soap, ready for cutting, signalling a fresh start; barrels of vinegar, the pungent odour giving a sense of urgency, as well as a hint of perspiration; and the exciting aroma of spices, with a faint suggestion of the unknown. The little shop typified the path of self-reliance they were embarking upon.
Philip Henry Burden, the fifth son of an affluent draper from Ledbury in Herefordshire, had a lot to measure up to. His two eldest brothers, James and John, had stayed in the drapery business, John on his own and James with their father. Thomas had his chemist shop in London, and Stephen, also in the capital, was a silk merchant. Philip’s somewhat shaky foray into the business world (he had already encountered some financial difficulties) was his grocer’s shop facing Brompton Road at No. 8 Middle Queen’s Buildings.
UK, City and County Directories, 1851 Post Office Directory.
One hundred years earlier, Brompton Road was a rural lane fronting market gardens and nurseries. Some inns and a few stately country homes were the only substantial buildings in the district. Later, unlike the haphazard growth of other regions in London, houses were built on several estates so that the region became a planned settlement. With its two to three storey Georgian terraces, it became a high-class residential area in the 18th century.
But after about 1830, the locality began to change somewhat. Flat roofs were erected over the front gardens of the houses to form single storey shops housing vendors and artisans such as drapers, bootmakers, cheesemongers and grocers. The houses became multi-tenanted and the disrict not so salubrious.
I can visualise the shop and its activity: shelves lining three walls, boxes and barrels on the floor, and an officer from the nearby Hyde Park military barracks coming in.
He was closely followed by a woman, their entrance heralded by the tinkle of the bell over the door. The soldier walked across the room, his boots on the wooden floor a big bass drum, left, right, left, right to the counter. Mary straightened her position from where she had been bending over, tending to the fire in the corner. She was glad of its warmth as the days were getting shorter, and she was facing her first, full winter in the shop. Philip looked up from behind the counter, where he had been perusing the business accounts with his friend, Charles Harrod.
“Sir, what can I get you?” asked Philip.
“Hmm, well let me see,” said the man.
The Officer’s eyes had not yet adjusted to the gloom, despite the light from the display windows and the paraffin lamps.
Philip served the customers, retrieving items, either from the shelves or from the boxes and barrels on the floor. Mary moved over to the counter and spoke quietly with Charles.
“I don’t like those types,” she said, with a barely discernible flick of her head towards the pair Philip was serving.
She was referring to the officers and their mistresses who lived in some of the houses on Brompton Road and nearby Trevor Square, frequent patrons of the shops in the area.
“But Mary, they are your bread and butter. If it wasn’t for them, these would be much worse,” replied Charles as he gently tapped the pages of the accounts book in front of him.
Charles Harrod was a wholesale grocer and tea merchant from Central London. Tea had become one of life’s essentials for most people in Britain, and since the abolition of the East India Company’s monopoly on the importation of the product, businesses like those of Charles’s had become more lucrative. He was able to provide some of the capital Philip needed to pay his lease. Things were improving for Philip and Mary.
The new year was soon ushered in and with it renewed hope for the viability of the little grocer’s shop. It was an exciting time in Knightsbridge. Mary and Philip welcomed Philip Henry, his father’s namesake, into the world. And London hosted the Great Exhibition of 1851.
Story to be continued
1. “UK, City and County Directories, 1766 – 1946” [database on-line]. Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2013. [back]
Note: Thomas Burden, Chemist, in this directory, is Philip’s brother.