Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Turn Back Time: The High Street & Eric Ravilious, part 2

How has the British high street changed over the years? Here are two of the shops illustrated by Eric Ravilious in 1938, and notes on their subsequent history. These extracts are from 'Eric Ravilious: The Story of High Street' (Mainstone Press, 2008):


A sense of timelessness pervades Jermyn Street, where Paxton and Whitfield still sells its fabulous cheeses from the shop depicted in High Street, but this belies a turbulent history. A combination of trust ownership and planning restrictions has made change to the built environment difficult since the eighteenth century, but there are no rules to protect a small family business, and the famous emporium has known its hard times.

Winston Churchill summed up the shop’s significance when he remarked that, “A gentleman buys his hats at Locks, his shoes at Lobbs, his shirts at Harvey and Hudson, his suits at Huntsman and his cheese at Paxton and Whitfield.”

It was no coincidence that these businesses could all be reached on foot from St James’s, since it was the emergence of the streets around Piccadilly Circus as the locus of fashionable society that attracted their founders in the first place. The men who established Paxton and Whitfield were, as current Sales Manager Jeremy Bowen puts it, barrow boys from St Paul’s, and they seized the opportunity to trade “within the gaze of the Prince Regent.”

Handy for Boodle’s and White’s, and with Buckingham House nearby, this was the place to be in 1797 when Harry Paxton and Charles Whitfield opened their shop at 37 Swallow Street. Unfortunately this first shop was demolished to make way for the magnificent new Regent Street, and the move was made first to 18 then to 93 Jermyn Street.

The shop today
The future looked bright as the twentieth century dawned, but economic depression and war almost proved disastrous for the shop; during the nadir of World War II it was unable to offer the exiled French leader Charles de Gaulle anything more specific than ‘cheese’. That it survived is perhaps because it has remained, through numerous changes of owner, a private, family-run business. Retired businessman Fred Moore saw Paxton and Whitfield through the crises of mid-century, then his son Archie took over, passing the business in turn to his partner Dermot Adamson.

In 1992 the Adamson family sold the shop to the current owner, Arthur Cunynghame, who already owned thriving cheese shops in Stratford upon Avon and Bath. Nowadays the nerve centre of the business is its national distribution centre in Gloucestershire, from which fine cheeses travel to shops, restaurants and markets around the country, and direct to the homes of online customers. The company links expert producers and discerning consumers with an efficiency unimaginable before the Digital Age.


Although advertising itself as ‘Baker and Confectioner’ this shop only seems to be selling bread, and indeed Ravilious includes in an early list of shops, ‘Soho baker (bread only, no cakes)’. This being said, an independent bakery that only sold bread was an unusual find in the mid-1930s.

By the end of the Victorian age mechanization was already enabling wholesalers to produce cheap bread on an industrial scale, and over the following decades production massively outstripped demand. So much of this bread was delivered direct to the customer’s door that most shops diversified into cakes, pies and other baked goods (which put pressure on specialist cake shops like Buszard’s), and for an independent baker to make a living selling only bread he must have enjoyed the support of a large local population. In Soho, with its eclectic pre-war population of Italians, Greeks and Jews working close to home in the clothing trade, this baker evidently found his market.

Change of use... the building today
Considering Soho’s more recent history it is not surprising that the bakery has gone, taking with it late-night warmth and light and the smell of baking bread. However, we do know where it stood, and its fate. Derick Martin, CEO of Cooks the Bakery, remembers the shop from his boyhood. He told us that the business remained independent until the 1960s, when it was acquired by Clark’s, a division of RHM Retail. It survived almost until the century’s end as a retail operation, and when it finally closed the brick and coal ovens were still in the basement. Today, however, the scene is rather different.

Occupying a prime site on the corner of Brewer Street and Walkers Court, the shop now lies near the heart of (the late) Paul Raymond’s empire, and the basement store is strictly for adults only.


  1. The Eric Ravilious drawing of the bakery I think is way way better then the corner shop in which it is now.