Writing in 1836 for the weekly newspaper Bell’s Life in London, Charles Dickens sketched an atmospheric scene of life in the capital that included a “little chandler’s shop with [a] cracked bell behind the door”, closing for the evening.
“The brilliantly-lighted shops [are] more splendid . . . from the contrast they present to the darkness around,” he wrote approvingly.
Nearly two centuries later, some of the very same shops the Victorian novelist would have walked by are switching off their lights for the last time, as independent retailers succumb to central London’s sluggish recovery from the pandemic and its high rents and rates.
One such closure is that of Arthur Beale, a 500-year-old chandlery — a boating equipment supplier — that will shut its West End store in June. Across the city, jewellers Searle & Co will also close their shop after 128 years of trading next to the Bank of England, while fellow Victorian-era jeweller George Attenborough & Son has said it will not reopen its Fleet Street site until the end of the year at the earliest, citing low footfall.
“When the pandemic dust settles, the City will be a very different landscape,” said Nigel Bird, Searle’s managing director. “From the reaction I’ve had to our announcement of closure, it’s not going to return to the former way of doing things, with no semblance of normality.”
Despite restrictions on retail businesses having eased in mid-April, footfall in central London remains down almost two-thirds on pre-pandemic levels, recovering considerably slower than other high streets across the UK, according to data provider Springboard.
Bird told clients that, given a lack of family successors, the original plan had been to sell the business but that “the Covid-19 situation has accelerated our plans, and, very sadly, we have no option but to close the business”.
Arthur Beale, which supplied rope for Ernest Shackleton’s expeditions to Antarctica and whose origins date back to a shop established around 1500, is also pulling down the shutters. Co-owner Hugh Taylor said the pandemic “merely sped up” the trend towards independent shops being “made to feel unwelcome” in the capital.
“Shops like ours have been and will continue to be squeezed out of business by cash-rich chains and aggressive landlords,” said Taylor. “And London loses out as a result. What would you prefer: a branded coffee chain or a charming old cobblers as the backdrop to your city?”
Taylor estimates that business is up tenfold since the closure was announced a fortnight ago, adding that while it is “too little, too late” to save the bricks-and-mortar shop, he plans to launch an online business.
Kilgour, a 140-year-old tailor, shuttered its Savile Row store just before the UK’s first nationwide lockdown in March last year after struggling to extend the lease and has since tried to build a digital business, along with pop-up shops.
“It doesn’t come naturally to our industry, which is a very physical enterprise,” said brand director Alex Lamb. “Obviously people buy into our history so as soon as you lose the physical presence you are rooted in, it puts you into uncharted waters — but we still have a brand that our customers trust and like.”
Other businesses have managed to weather the pandemic but suspect it will not be long till they have to say goodbye to their central London homes.
Phil Naisbitt, manager of 164-year-old umbrella shop James Smith & Sons, told the Financial Times the pandemic had been the “biggest challenge” for the business since the great drought of 1976, the driest 16-month period in the UK in more than 200 years.
During the second world war, the business had to shut because of steel rationing rules, but was able to hold on to its West End shop because of a long leasing arrangement.
Now they are taking their landlord to tribunal as they seek to extend this without the price being raised. “The pandemic has cost us an awful lot of money,” said Naisbitt. “But we’ve got no God-given right to be here — we’re not a museum, we’re a business.”
“The area is filling up with Gucci stores who are competing with us for space, and you can only sell an umbrella for a certain amount of money,” he added. “I think we’ve only got 10 years left at most before we have to sell up.”