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Ship Ahoy! in Shaftesbury Avenue?

“….that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” I believe is a lyric by Joni Mitchell and very succinct when applied to the rather tatty looking shop premises in the picture.

Shaftesbury Avenue, which is where this shop is located slices diagonally through the fringes of Covent Garden, Soho and Chinatown to end at Piccadilly Circus and is synonymous with West Ends theatre. It’s starting point to the north is the junction with High Holborn and it is yards from this junction that the shop is located. Also, and this may seem like a random fact (but will become clear later) it is approximately 1.6 miles (2.5 km) from the River Thames, and around 50 miles (80 km) to the open sea.

If you look closely at the picture above you will see the ghost sign of Arthur Beale above the front window. This shop closed in February of this year after trading in the same location for 150 years, but the roots of the business stretch backwards even further. Around the early 1500s John Buckingham opened a business at 12 Middle Row in the parish of St Giles in the fields and later moved to Middle Row which stood at what is now the top of Shaftesbury Avenue.

The business was still trading under the Buckingham name as shown in an 1843 trade directory and as you will see their business was listed as Flaxdresser & Ropemaker. At the time of the establishment of the company in the 16th century the surrounding fields were growing flax which was used for the manufacturing of hemp rope, and sails.

The company continued to make maritime rope but started to develop specialist mountaineering rope and were apparently the go to shop for rope when in London and were used as suppliers for expeditions to the Antarctic by Ernest Shackleton and to Everest by Sir Edmund Hilary.

It appears that Albert Beale joined the company in 1890 as an office boy and by 1900 was running the business (and this is where the distances to the Thames and the sea come into play) which was by then a Ship’s Chandler. There are some rather odd shops in central London, but few would beat the surprise factor of finding a yacht chandler in Shaftesbury Avenue.

It also supplied ice axes to polar explorers, Shackleton and Scott, the flagpole for Buckingham Palace, specialist rigging for escapologists and many window displays of Selfridges department store.

Sadly the impact of Covid-19 meant the company could no longer warrant paying the rents that a Central London shop demanded and although still trading under the same name have moved away from the capital.

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