On 20th March, London’s Burlington Arcade turns 200. Adam Hay-Nicholls goes undercover with its private police force, the Beadles.
With headlights flashing and its horn blaring, a dark blue Jaguar Mark X saloon tore up the Burlington Arcade. Halfway along this pedestrian-only Mayfair retail corridor, the car screeched to a halt. Five masked men burst out, wielding sledgehammers and iron bars. As shoppers scattered, the bandits smashed the windows of the Goldsmiths and Silversmiths Association and made away with a huge jewellery haul.
Saturday the 27th June 1964 was eidetic in the 200-year history of the Burlington Beadles, the arcade’s private security team. Hefty bollards and gates now protect against ram-raiders, and CCTV monitors every nook and cranny 24 hours-a-day, but the Beadles remain in their Victorian frock coats. They are the smallest and oldest police force in the world.
Mark Lord, 54, is the chief Beadle today. When he’s not on foot patrol with the other seven Beadles, he’s to be found underground; through an unmarked door at the Piccadilly end of the arcade, down steep and narrow stairs to a corridor that, in the 19th century, would have seen dozens of Oliver Twists sprinting past with parcels. A door on the right opens into a tiny grey security room. Lord leans back in his office chair as he surveys 23 cameras across a bank of computer screens.
Originally, at either end of the arcade was an armchair where a Beadle would sit and decide who could come in. Fittingly, the portly Lord has the air of a jolly East End bouncer. He says the Savile Row-cut uniform – designed as an amalgam of a soldier’s and a footman’s – make the Beadles “feel ten feet tall, even though my dad warned me when I took the job that I’d look like a chocolate button.”
The Burlington Arcade was established by the gentry for the gentry. It is the antecedent to the ‘shopping mall’, though, the head Beadle warns, “some elements of London society will tar and feather you for saying that”. Everything about this place is Dickensian. Some of the characters may have departed but the spirit remains. Serious crime is still a threat today, with the arcade’s 40 shops stocking inventory worth many many millions. In the late 1800s, though, ‘lemon and lime’ was omnipresent and the Beadles were in a constant battle stance against ne’er do wells. This is why, famously, whistling is banned from the Burlington Arcade because it was used as code between pickpockets. Clucking, too, is not allowed after prostitutes rented the rooms overhead and used the sound while waving red handkerchiefs to attract the attention of men below. Singing or any kind of ‘merriment’ – i.e drunkenness – was and remains a definite no-no. Even today, the Beadles regard maintaining Regency decorum to be their responsibility.
Very occasionally, Beadles have failed to meet the standards they enforce. In the 1960s a Beadle named Jock was made to stand in the middle of the arcade while he had the gold buttons snipped off his claret-coloured waistcoat because he’d turned up for work sozzled. Another, George Smith, was found to have taken money from cross-dressing louches Thomas Boulton and Frederick Park, turning a blind eye to their more bohemian activities. These revelations, in 1871, shocked high society.
Up until WWII, the Beadles were all seconded from the 10th Royal Hussars, the regiment of the 1st Earl of Burlington who established the arcade. Today, three are ex-military and another has worked in counter-terrorism. In general, the Beadles have become a reflection of the cosmopolitan capital.
Lord, as you would imagine, knows absolutely everyone who works here, and everyone before them. If you’re a recurrent shopper or take a shortcut through the arcade with any regularity, the Beadles will always give you a smile.
After taking me for a tour of the shops and the cellars where Victorian shopkeepers would cook, craft and wrap gifts, Mark returns to his operations base for an undertaking of vital importance; to be fitted for a new goss-bodied hat. Evoking Oddjob, Auric Goldfinger’s valet, Mark tells me they’re designed so you can slap someone around the face with it. The hatter from Cooper Stevens has brought a steampunk-looking conformateur to take the sizing. Lord looks wary, as though it might be a Victorian instrument of torture, despite doubtless getting through a few hats during his 17 years’ service.
He considers the headgear and Henry Poole threads a perk, and there are others that come with the job. On the occasion of his daughter’s 18th birthday, he was able to give her a pair of heels signed by Manolo Blahnik. Unsurprisingly, she’s never worn them.
An instinct for body language is a Beadles’ most vital tool. They’re always on the look-out for anything suspicious. “If we see someone who looks like a thief,” says Lord, “we give him a nod and a wink and he knows he’s burnt. One time a guy came rushing through (you’re not allowed to run in the arcade) and he said: ‘Sorry, is it okay to come through? I think I’m being followed by the Old Bill’. So long as they leave the tenants alone…”
The shop that the Jaguar gang raided, number 44, is now Michael Rose Jewels and its windows are just as busy and expensive. Fortunately, in 1964, no one was hurt, but the thieves were never caught. Lord doesn’t think they’d have got past him now. “I can take a man down with one arm,” he says, and waits a beat… “but what if he’s got two?”
BURLINGTON ARCADE FACT BOX
It was built to the order of George Cavendish, the 1st Earl of Burlington, who lived alongside at Burlington House. It was established as a safe place for his wife and her peers to indulge in retail therapy, and it would also prevent people from throwing oyster shells over his garden wall – oysters being the fast food of the day.
The idea for the arcade was first raised by Cavendish during the Battle of Waterloo. Many of the original 72 shopkeepers were war widows. The two-storey units were Cavendish’s gift of condolence.
The marble floor has a slight incline so ladies didn’t need to raise their long skirts.
Hancocks, at numbers 52-53, fashion the country’s highest honour, the Victoria Cross. The bronze, from an ancient Chinese cannon, is kept in a safe in the basement and there’s enough left for another 80 or so gongs.
Mary Anne Evans, aka George Eliot, and her married lover George Henry Lewes used to leave love letters to each other between the pages of French literature in Jeff’s Bookshop, at number 15.
While directing The Prince and the Showgirl in 1957, Laurence Olivier would banish Marilyn Monroe to the Burlington Arcade to get her out of his hair.
Fred Astaire was a regular shopper and once danced down the arcade in a brand new pair of carpet slippers.
Hurrying, opening umbrellas, and singing are strictly banned. Officially, the only person who is allowed to whistle in the Burlington Arcade is Sir Paul McCartney.