5th April 2016
Words by Josh Sims
Images by Getty images / Alamy
It’s not a long street. It’s not even a particularly old street, at least by London standards. This is Jermyn Street, that rather innocuous parallel to the grand thoroughfare of Piccadilly. It is a street known neither especially for its architecture nor its bustle, but rather for its being a rather esoteric coagulation of makers ready to service the needs of the comfortably off, initially just of St James, latterly the world over. Indeed, it is telling that, even when such services are now available the world over too, Jermyn Street has its own unique pulling power. Its very iconography is magnetic.
“We have customers in New York who could easily go to Madison Avenue to have a shirt made, but instead get on a plane to be fitted for one on Jermyn Street,” notes Dean Gromilsek-Cole, head of design for Turnbull & Asser, one of the street’s many prestigious makers. “Why? It’s because it’s the birthplace of the shirt, just as Savile Row is for suits. Coming here is like a pilgrimage. I remember first visiting when I was 12. It was Christmas and I was with a friend and his father and we were going to Hamley’s. But, on the way home, we had to come to Jermyn Street so he could buy his shirts. I didn’t know then, of course, that I’d be here 30 years later.”
Shirtmaking is just one of services that Jermyn Street has had on offer: wines, cigars and hats; potions and lotions, care of RD Harris, London’s oldest pharmacy; exotic perfumes and — smellier still — rare cheeses; beers and wines, not least in the Red Lion, which arguably has the city’s best interior; theatres and art galleries; Turkish baths and barbers and gentlemen’s clubs. Once upon a time, it was all here and, crucially, much of it still is. The street was where gentlemen of the court acquired their necessary provisions, whatever they might be. Far from being as salubrious as it is now, Jermyn Street was once much more reckless and freewheeling, its lavish expenditures overseen by Christopher Wren’s beautiful church, one of the few to be given sufficient land for it to be constructed exactly as the architect had wanted. Perhaps this is why, even for those without the money to enter any of its shops, that walking along its pavements is still a treat for Londoners and tourists alike. It is a glimpse into a slice of life in the capital that feels increasingly bygone, of a time when its shops “were intimidating because they were steeped in so much history, which is an air some of them still have”, as Gromilsek-Cole notes. “In fact, some of the men working in some of the stores still play up to that pomp and ceremony, only becoming more welcoming when they realise you’re serious [about wanting to buy].”
Perhaps this is why the late, great critic Roger Ebert, writing in 2010 on his long and loving relationship with the place he dubbed Ampersand Street — for all its retail partnerships, from Hilditch & Key to Paxton & Whitfield, Fortnum & Mason to Reed & Fogg and Crockett & Jones — also bemoaned the inevitable, unstoppable change it had undergone even over the time he frequented it. “Piece by piece, this is how a city dies,” he lamented. “How many cities can [as Jermyn Street did] spare a hotel built in 1695, the year James II inherited the crown?” As we often feel with a cherished place, he wanted it to stay the same even as he changed himself. All London evolves, but certain places, he argued, deserve preserving against being smothered by a tide of homogeneity.
After all, as Dr Cindy Lawford, Jermyn Street’s leading historian and tour guide, has noted, this is a street on which people have experienced the real nitty-gritty of life — they have had sex on it, notably at Rosa Lewis’ Cavendish Hotel, or, as Rock Hudson attempted in 1952 before being ejected, at the Savoy Baths; they, like Isaac Newton and Walter Scott, have slept on it; and many, including the music hall singer Al Bowlly, thanks to a Luftwaffe sortie in 1941, have died on it.
There is still an understated British machismo to the street — this is the male bastion to which one goes to become well-dressed
All men, one might notice. Lawford contends that the street is an inherently male one — a product, it’s been suggested, of the area’s reputation as an upscale red-light area until the 1960s. By then, it was a long-held idea that a respectable woman on Jermyn Street was somewhat off reservation or not respectable herself. That was the case even when shirtmaker Emma Willis opened on the street in 1999. “I think I’m accepted in this very male world now. Or at least I hope so,” says Willis, “but certainly I had some very wary customers at first, with people asking me what I was doing there and what could I possibly know about men’s clothes. What’s different now is that while it still may be a street for men, it’s one for younger men, too.” “There is still an incredible understated British machismo to the street,” argues Lawford. “It’s not a street that is all that well known, especially to women. That it’s not easily known either is, of course, in large part what makes it special. It’s all part of an insider knowledge that is handed down — this is the male bastion to which one goes to become well dressed.”
Or to be male among other men busy with men’s business. Spy stories alone abound on Jermyn Street. During the Second World War, an intelligence officer named Ian Fleming met at the Cavendish Hotel with the mystic Aleister Crowley — who lived on Jermyn Street — to convince him to lure Rudolf Hess to Britain by using mystical spells and astrology; Churchill, who like James Bond bought his Cuban cigars at Davidoff on Jermyn Street, quickly scotched the plan. In a French restaurant that once stood on the site of the current Church’s shoe shop, journalist Chapman Pincher had sotto voce conversations with sources that helped him reveal the Cambridge Four spy ring of the 1950s and 1960s — only for the later removal of the restaurant’s banquettes to reveal that the eatery was being bugged by MI 5 and by the KGB. In Hey Jo/Abracadabra, a private members’ club on Jermyn Street, the fugitive Russian security officer Alexander Litvinenko received one of the doses of polonium-210 that was used to assassinate him in 2006…
“People love all the scandal,” says Lawford, yet at Jermyn Street’s heart is something much more sedate, “the craftsmanship and the courtesy” as she puts it. Chairman of the Jermyn Street Association Ciarán Fahy, who was managing director of the Cavendish Hotel for eight years and is now based at The Ritz, notes there are not many places left in any city in which a community is founded on the idea of craftspeople still making on the premises. “I’m not sure it was ever true, then or now, that if you went to the right boarding schools, it was where your father took you to learn to be properly attired, but Jermyn Street remains a place to celebrate bespoke craftmaking and a particularly authentic British type of making, which increasingly people are coming to recognise. The street’s appeal is actually very low key.” That is mimicked in the pace of the street today, even if the shops no longer close at 1pm on a Saturday. David Fryman, manager of the Tricker’s shoe store, has worked on the street for 25 years. “I love it here still because it’s this oasis away from the bustle of Regent Street,” he says. “Yes, it’s a man’s street, in terms of what’s available and the people who generally come here. But it’s also London’s best kept secret. A visit rewards anyone.”
“It’s this archive of skills and stories, but it’s also quiet and reserved,” Lawford adds. “There may not be many who can spend £300 on a shirt, but money here isn’t in the headlights in the way it is so brutally on, say, Bond Street around the corner. Here the money is in the work. It’s not all about profit. Jermyn Street is still ultimately a very human place, which perhaps makes it all the more surprising that even people who have shopped on it all their lives seem to know little about its history.”
That might be summarised thus. Before Henry Jermyn there was little in the area. After, there was much. Jermyn was a close companion of Henrietta Maria of France, Queen consort of King Charles I. To add to the scandal, he may have been the father of Charles II , but whatever the truth, the Queen granted him a large parcel of land in the early 1660s, north of St James’s Palace. It was on this that he then built St James Square as the epicentre for the surrounding streets. Indeed, so fantastically well-off was Jermyn — and all the more so after the Queen’s grant — that he was easily able to brush off any hint of impropriety that wafted around him, commission Wren to build his church — which in turn hosted the most fashionably dressed congregations in London — and work his influence to give his new patch of London an enduring cachet and a certain classy cosiness. Maybe this is why, for Ebert, the best time to visit the street was always “during cold and rainy January days when, in the early dusk, the lights from the shop windows reflected from the pavement”.
This Dickensian vision is partly true, for as Willis points out, many of the stores on Jermyn Street are true one-offs, the companies behind them understated to the core, unblighted by anything as horribly modern as marketing or the internet; but it is also partly a vision that belongs more in storybooks. The Crown Estate, the primary owner of property in the St James area has, over recent years, been all too aware of the need for the street to get an injection of more directional businesses that can sit comfortably within Jermyn Street’s emphasis on heritage and traditionalism, without turning it into yet another big-name shopping destination. It is not an easy line to walk. “My father would talk about Jermyn Street and the area as being part of this magical place for gentlemen called the West End, but I think even then that was probably a rather sentimental view,” says Andrew Rowley. And he might know. As general manager of Budd’s shirtmakers on Piccadilly Arcade, he has seen the changes on the street in all weathers and all times of day.
“I only came here [from working on Bond Street] for six months and, 35 years later, it seems like I’ve been here rather longer than that,” he laughs. “Of course, there have been many changes since then. As a young man I remember walking down Jermyn Street and seeing how each shirtmaker had its own feel and way of doing things, which is less the case now. There were more smaller, independent traders, too. It was less corporate. “But the fact is that Jermyn Street has always been a product of the people working and living on it, whoever they may be,” he adds. “And, in fact, I think there’s a resurgence of people who want to be here, who want to be part of it, who want to learn the crafts the street embodies, too. I’d even say that it’s as exciting a place to be again as it was when I first came here. Actually I feel rather paternal — and I didn’t ever expect to enjoy feeling that.”