112, Jermyn Street

I was going through my photographs of our London trip last night, and remembered I hadn’t told you about 112, Jermyn Street. One of the things I enjoy about London is the way that, simply wandering about, one encounters places with interesting associations. Inevitably, my touchstones are eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ones, but I’m sure it is the same for those with knowledge of earlier or later periods. This means that my sense of metropolitan geography is rather idiosyncratic – in Soho, I think of Angelica Kauffman; in the City, the spire of the church of St Stephen Walbrook reminds me of 1760s radicalism. On this occasion, I became very excited when, as Tom and I were on our way to have a reccy at the marathon’s finish line arrangements, we happened upon an address with woolly associations.

This fine stone building, where you can now buy Jones’ boots or Emmett’s shirts, was once the home of Edward Standen’s Shetland Warehouse.

Edward Standen was a mid nineteenth-century merchant with a Shetland wool obsession. In some poorly-researched sources, he is credited with ‘encouraging’ or even ‘inventing’ Shetland fine lace, but, as any early nineteenth-century Unst knitter would tell you, this is pure bunkum. What can be said of Standen is that he was the first merchant to popularise Shetland lace in England (fine Shetland shawls were already being worn by fashionable women in Edinburgh and elsewhere in mainland Scotland). With a background in farming and the linen trade, Standen first visited Shetland in 1839, and, like many a visitor before and since, seems to have taken the islands to his heart. He was motivated by profit too, of course, and found a niche for himself importing large quantities of quality hand-knitted goods, which, like most other merchants (despite the 1831 act outlawing such exchanges) he acquired from knitters through truck. Enthusiastic about many aspects of island life, he visited annually, and also seems to have had a sideline importing Shetland sheep and ponies to the home counties – a rather less successful venture than his knitwear business, which thrived from its premises at 112, Jermyn Street, Mayfair.

Here is one of the many advertisements which Standen placed in The Morning Post in 1843:

It is interesting to note the sheer variety of knitted goods that were being sold at 112, Jermyn Street: by the 1840s, one generally thinks of shawls and veils as dominating Shetland’s knitterly output, but Standen was clearly doing a roaring trade in undergarments, gloves, and traditional stockings as well. Two types of shawl are mentioned here — decorative fine lace and the warmer, more workaday hap — but neither is prioritised. By the following year, however, the text of Standen’s advertisements had altered, with the fine lace shawls receiving special mention as gifts that might be ordered and shipped all over the country. The Shetland Warehouse had clearly found its feet in fine lace’s luxury market.


(Here are the upper stories of 112, Jermyn Street. In my imagination, that turret is stuffed with shawls!)

While the labour of Shetland’s knitters enabled his London business to thrive, in some ways the islands were not kind to Edward Standen. While on his annual visit to Shetland in 1844, he was the sole survivor of a terrible boating accident. Then, the following year, he collapsed while walking the 24 miles between Sumburgh Head and Lerwick, and suddenly died, after developing pneumonia. In his posthumously published Paper on the Shetland Islands Standen praised the islands’ craftswomen, celebrating their “exquisite knitting,” and “great variety of original patterns”, suggesting that “the habitants of . . . Shetland, deserve credit and encouragement for their taste, skill, and industry.”

After his death, Standen’s family continued to promote and profit from that industry. The Mayfair Shetland Warehouse’ remained, selling fine hand knits to London’s fashionable elite throughout the 1850s. In 1851, Standen’s sister, Sarah, commissioned the famous madder-dyed bridal veil which was displayed to great acclaim at the Great Exhibition. And at some point over the next century and a half, this intricate and typically gaudy example of mid-nineteenth century fashion made its way back North from 112, Jermyn Street. It can now be seen on display in the wonderful collections of the Shetland Museum.

Further reading, Linda Pryor, Knitting by the Fireside and on the Hillside (1995)
Edward Standen A Paper on the Shetland Islands (1845)

23 responses

  1. Yes, really interesting- the family’s “promoting and profiting from the industry” and the ongoing use of the truck system must have made the relationship between them and the knitters a complex one.

    What a great find- you must have been very excited!

  2. I am intrigued by the line in the advertisement that says “…(they) are considerably cheaper this season than they have been.” Wouldn’t you love to know the price?

    Thank you for educating us, once again!

  3. Kate,

    I love this. It’s so interesting to hear the history of these fibers, and I love hearing about the intersection of pony breeds and fiber historiesl. I know that Shetlands became popular in the 19th Century (mostly for pulling carts in mines)- I’m surprised his pony importing wasn’t more profitable. Do you have any sources with more information on this? (sorry, there’s no quashing academic curiosity).

    (That said, I prefer Connemara ponies. Taller and more athletic, and with better dispositions. Then again, the Shetlands I’ve worked with were particularly adept at things like “stopping short and dumping small riders,” and “galloping around at reckless speeds when asked to do anything beyond walk.”)

  4. So Tom’s marathon plans led to an encounter with 112 Jermyn Street – what serendipity.

    Is that last photo a close-up of the bridal veil?

  5. Kate, I always enjoy all your blogs, and this one reminded me of being there! I also loved reading the previous on climbing the mountain, and what a challenge and accomplishment that was! This is also interesting to me, as with all your posts, and am glad I stumbled upon you while in Ravelry, and from there, I’ve been reading ever since!

    Cheers!

    Martha

  6. As a genealogist and family historian, this kind of story about a place is one of my favorite reads. Thanks, Kate!

  7. Love this post, and the history lesson along with it. Finding these little places with such treasures and history in the midst of a busy city must be fascinating and exciting. I think I was born in the wrong place.

  8. Love this post, and the history lesson along with it. Finding these little places with such treasures and history in the midst of a busy city must be fascinating and exciting. There are such treasures in fabrics and notions on the lower east side of New York, one of the best browsing walking trips in that city.

  9. You put me in mind of a seventeenth century lass, needing one thick plain shawl for warmth and a fine lace one for Sunday best. I could read your writing ’til the sheep come home. Thanks, Kate

  10. Your blog is always so interesting and your writing is excellent. I look forward to your posts with pleasure. Thank you.

  11. Interesting post, thank you! I like the implication that you’d have to be an invalid before being allowed to complain about the itchiness.

    • Yes, that’s right, Susan – the original 1840s “warehouse” stayed in the Standen family, and the present building was extended and re-designed by Standen’s nephew in 1900. It was still a woollen shop then, I think.

  12. So very interesting, and I want the turret stuffed/ and stocked with the shawls also. lol
    Oh to be back in those times.
    In a little country town where I grew up there were a couple of quaint old fashioned shops with beautiful old brass/glass cabinets, and plain wooden floors, long oval mirrors on stands, and drawers and boxes which slid and fitted into the shelves behind the counters. I imagine that 112 Jermyn street would have been somewhat like this, but stocked with those gorgous shawls. Lucky you to see all these types of places.

  13. Fascinating :-). I wonder why they were ‘considerably cheaper this season than they have been’. That’s the trouble with history, it only leads to more questions!

  14. How interesting – I had absolutely no idea, though I worked just around the corner for years – and I was working on London history, too…

    (Mind you, I wasn’t quite as obsessed with all things woolly then, ahem.)

  15. very interesting! thanks for sharing. how great is jermyn street? i often have to go with my boyfriend to d.r. harris so he can stock up on old man shave cream and brushes.

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