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At Arthur Beale

February 14, 2016
by the gentle author

Did you ever wonder why there is a ship’s chandler at the top of Neal St where it meets Shaftesbury Avenue in Covent Garden. It is a question that Alasdair Flint proprietor of Arthur Beale gets asked all the time. ‘We were here first, before the West End,’ he explains with discreet pride,‘and the West End wrapped itself around us.’

At a closer look, you will discover the phrase ‘Established over 400 years’ on the exterior in navy blue signwriting upon an elegant aquamarine ground, as confirmed by a listing in Grace’s Guide c. 1500. Naturally, there have been a few changes of proprietor over the years, from John Buckingham who left the engraved copper plate for his trade card behind in 1791, to his successors Beale & Clove (late Buckingham) taken over by Arthur Beale in 1903, and in turn purchased by Alasdair Flint of Flints Theatrical Chandlers in 2014.

‘Everyone advised me against it,’ Alasdair confessed with the helpless look of one infatuated, ‘The accountant said, ‘Don’t do it’ – but I just couldn’t bear to see it go…’

Then he pulled out an old accounts book and laid it on the table in his second floor office above the shop and showed me the signature of Ernest Shackleton upon an order for Alpine Club Rope, as used by Polar explorers and those heroic early mountaineers attempting the ascent of Everest. In that instant, I too was persuaded. Learning that Arthur Beale once installed the flag pole on Buckingham Palace and started the London Boat Show was just the icing on the cake. Prudently, Alasdair’s first act upon acquiring the business was to acquire a stock of good quality three-and-a-half metre ash barge poles to fend off any property developers who might have their eye on his premises.

For centuries – as the street name changed from St Giles to Broad St to Shaftesbury Avenue – the business was flax dressing, supplying sacks and mattresses, and twine and ropes for every use – including to the theatres that line Shaftesbury Avenue today. It was only in the sixties that the fashion for yachting offered Arthur Beale the opportunity to specialise in nautical hardware.

The patina of ages still prevails here, from the ancient hidden yard at the rear to the stone-flagged basement below, from the staircase encased in nineteenth century lino above, to the boxes of War Emergency brass screws secreted in the attic. Alasdair Flint cherishes it all and so do his customers. ‘We haven’t got to the bottom of the history yet,’ he admitted to me with visible delight.

Arthur Beale’s predecessor John Buckingham’s trade card from 1791

Nineteenth century headed paper (click to enlarge)

Alasdair Flint’s office

Account book with Shackleton’s signature on his order for four sixty-foot lengths of Alpine Club Rope

Drawers full of printing blocks from Arthur Beale and John Buckingham’s use over past centuries

Arthur Beale barometer and display case of Buckingham rope samples

Nineteenth century lino on the stairs

War emergency brass screws still in stock

More Breton shirts and Wellingtons than you ever saw

Rope store in the basement

Work bench with machines for twisting wire rope

Behind the counter

Jason Nolan, Shop Manager

James Dennis, Sales Assistant

Jason & James run the shop

Receipts on the spike

Arthur Beale, 194 Shaftesbury Avenue, WC2 8JP

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13 Responses leave one →
  1. February 14, 2016

    Fascinating. I’ve always wondered how they could make enough money to afford the West End rent. Enjoyed the ‘Only Fools & Horses’ visual pun.

  2. February 14, 2016

    What a wonderful place! Valerie

  3. Annie G permalink
    February 14, 2016

    Walked there so often, never noticed. Must remedy very soon. But I still don’t know how one ended up there in the sixteenth century. Need to look at an old map, I think.

  4. Rosamund permalink
    February 14, 2016

    Thank you – I really enjoyed their Christmas window display with the seal breaking through ice! I also remember they had a branch in Mayfair, Albemarle Street I think, and was devastated when it disappeared. Long may they go on.

  5. Emma permalink
    February 14, 2016

    Another wonderful curious find gentle authour. One of my favourite shops in the world is the ships chandlers in Bembridge, Isle of Wight. They are a satisfying as a really good old fashioned stationers. This one looks marvellous. Part shop selling useful things and part museum. Ideal. I shall definitely pay a visit.

  6. Linda Granfield permalink
    February 14, 2016

    A magical place—love the computer on the worn counter and the old clock on the wall.
    Time has stopped for no man (person).
    Here’s to another 400 years!

  7. Ros permalink
    February 14, 2016

    Great story and pictures. Good for Alasdair Flint! Long may he and the shop survive, barge poles at the ready against developers and other untouchables.

  8. Roger Carr permalink
    February 14, 2016

    * * * * * Five stars!

  9. Sue permalink
    February 14, 2016

    An amazing place. Glad somebody else thought of Fools and Horses too.

  10. February 14, 2016

    LOVE the photos here. it’s always so cool to find such places of such purpose and utility. makes a person dream of other very hands-on lives.

  11. February 15, 2016

    Having had several broken lines, I bought rope for a washing line here about 30 years ago and it is still going strong! though has unfortunately lost its colour.
    I also bought soap for use in sea water.

  12. February 19, 2016

    A brilliant write up?

    It’s one of those shops you can just enjoy being in even if you don’t want to buy anything … Not that I’ve ever been able to do that.

  13. March 20, 2016

    What a wondreful trip down memory lane,as a child my mother would take me into a similar shop in Dartmouth,she was skipper of the local sea rangers and we would spend days aboard the sea ranger MTB moored by Old Mill Creek.That was in the days when boats smelt of varnish and rope,bet this shop smells just the same

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