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History of Retail - Knightsbridge

This elegant enclave in London’s West End has a reputation for its famous department stores, boutiques and hotels, but that wasn’t always the case…

History of Retail - Knightsbridge

Today, Knightsbridge might be one of London’s most swish shopping districts, but it wasn't always quite so fashionable. Once, it was a sleepy 10th century hamlet that served the religious community of an Anglo-Saxon church. The parish’s name comes in part from its proximity to a medieval stone bridge that used to straddle the river Westbourne, which now runs underground.

The first half of the name is even more intriguing. Legend has it, it comes from a bloody folk tale in which a knight called Sir Knyvett was jumped by thieves, whom (unfortunately for them) he subsequently overpowered and slew on the spot. This self-same spot is recorded as the meeting place of Queen Matilda and a deputation from the citizens of London in 1141, during the civil war now known as cheerily as ‘The Anarchy’. Quite the colourful past.

Thankfully, by the 16th century, the place had shed its reputation as a site for feuding and conflict, and started to move up in the world thanks to its proximity to St James’s Palace. By the mid-19th century, the affluent folk of burgeoning St James’s had spilled out into Knightsbridge, and in 1849 a savvy shopkeeper called Mr Charles Henry Harrod opened a green grocer and tea merchant to cater to the area’s wealthy residents. In the 1860s, his son (also called Charles) took over the reigns and built the giant department store that still stands there today, albeit in different hands.

Just up the street from Harrods, another bastion of British retail took root at more or less the same time. In 1831, the influx of wealthy West Enders inspired one Benjamin Harvey to establish a linen shop in a terraced house on the corner of Knightsbridge and Sloane Street. He employed an industrious chap called Mr Nichols, whom he evidently took a shine to. Nichols was promoted to a director in 1845 and in 1848 he married Harvey’s niece. In 1889, the company’s modest space was demolished to make way for a new department store capable of competing with neighbouring Harrods, which was going great guns just up the street. The building was designed by C.W. Stephens and by 1894, the Harvey Nichols we know today was likewise open for business.

Of course, Knightsbridge is also home to a fair few luxury hotels; the Mandarin Oriental with its superb afternoon tea, the Wellesley and our personal favourite, The Berkeley, to name a few. The Berkeley is part of the trio of London hotels owned by the Maybourne group, the other two being Claridge’s and The Connaught – easily three of the best hotels in Europe. The Berkeley opened in 1897, and has kept pace with the times ever since. Today, the hotel’s iconic Blue Bar is known for impeccable service, award winning bar staff and an inventive cocktail menu, which changes seasonally with the passing of each new trend in the mixology world. It’s the perfect recuperation point following an afternoon’s shopping.

Speaking of which, we opened our own shop in 2012 to better serve the well-heeled inhabitants of this elegant enclave, and the well-shod businessmen who work in the locale. Today, our Knightsbridge store is always a-bustle with sharply suited professionals in search of Hand Grade cap-toe Oxfords or Burnished Monk Shoes, and louche locals in search of rubber City Sole loafers and relaxed styles to wear about town. Every now and then, our team might welcome a military man into store too – visiting us from Hyde Park Barracks nearby, home of the Household Cavalry.

We might not sell knee-length cavalrymen’s boots over the counter today, but our Knightsbridge store nevertheless stocks many of our most ‘dressy’ models – perfect for residents who want to wear in fine English shoes that are as stylish as they are practical. Elegant shoes are a fitting choice for such a sophisticated part of town, after all.