Buried behind Berry Brothers

LONDON’S NOOKS AND crannies are often worth exploring. One, which I must have passed often but of whose existence I only became aware in April 2022, is Pickering Place, a narrow, covered passageway between numbers 5 and 3 St James Street, close to St James Palace.  Immediately on entering this timber lined alleyway, I noticed a metal plaque, which commemorates the short-lived Legation of the Republic of Texas to The Court of St James. The legation existed from 1842 to 1845, whilst the Republic existed from 1836 to 1846. It rented the premises from the property’s owner, Berry Brothers.

Pickering Place was in existence by 1690, when it was then known as ‘Stroud’s Court’.  Prior to that date, the site was:

“… once home to the medieval maidens’ leper colony of St James, before playing host to King Henry VIII’s royal tennis court.” (https://blog.bbr.com/2015/04/10/the-other-no-3/)

 The alleyway leads into a small open space, a courtyard that is believed to be Britain’s smallest square. The name Pickering relates to the company of Berry Brothers and Rudd (‘Berry’s’) that occupy most, if not all of the buildings around the courtyard and on the south side of the alleyway. In 1698, a widow with the surname Bourne began the business, at first a grocery shop, now known as Berry Brothers & Rudd. Her daughter, Elizabeth, married William Pickering (died 1734). They continued the business, supplying the coffee houses of St James with coffee. The company adopted the coffee mill as their symbol. The shop at number 3 St James Street and Stroud’s Court were then rebuilt by the family. William and Elizabeth’s sons, John and William Junior, continued the running of the firm. After John died in 1754, William Junior brought a relative, John Clarke, to be a partner in the business.

George Berry, John Clarke’s grandson, joined the business in 1803 and by 1810, his name became the firm’s name. George moved the firm’s activities into focussing on wine and spirits. In 1845, his sons, George Junior and Henry, took over the firm, hence the ‘Brothers’ in the company’s name. Hugh Rudd, a wine merchant with a keen interest in the wines of Bordeaux, joined the firm as a partner in 1920. His arrival in the company greatly increased its expertise in the wine trade. In 1923, the company created a new whisky which they called Cutty Sark Scotch. Its label was designed by the artist James McBey, whose studio was at the top end of Holland Park Avenue. The firm is still run by the Berry and Rudd families and flourishes.

Immediately after leaving the covered alleyway, you will see an orrery and beyond it, a carved stone portrait of a man with his head facing towards his left. Nobody we asked seemed to know whom it portrays. Various websites suggest it depicts the politician and former Prime Minister Lord Palmerston (1784-1865), who lived in Pickering Place for some time. The author Graham Greene also lived in Pickering Place for a while.

Doorways in the courtyard lead to various underground rooms including the Pickering and Suffolk Cellars. Once used to store wine and other products sold by Berry’s, parts of them are now also used as a wine school, as well as for banquets and similar gatherings. One of the cellars is named The Napoleon Cellar, after the exiled Napoleon III (1808-1873), a friend of George Berry Junior. In 1846, fearing assassination, the exiled Frenchman hid in the Berry Brother’s cellar, now named in his memory. Number 3 Pickering Place, built in the 1690s, is a well-preserved example of a William and Mary era townhouse.

Part of the tiny courtyard has outdoor tables and chairs. These can be used by patrons of the St Jacques restaurant, which occupies number 5 St James Street whose southern wall forms the northern wall of the alleyway. The southern wall of the passage is part of the wall of number 3, which houses the original Berry’s shop. This well-preserved historical shop is lined with wood-panelling and contains much of the old shop fittings.  These include old desks, shelving with old bottles, and a large hand-operated coffee grinder. Suspended from the ceiling, there is a large grocer’s weighing scales. According to Berry’s detailed company history (www.bbr.com/about/history):

“It was in the time of William Jr. and John Clarke that the famous grocer’s weighing scales began to be used to weigh the shop’s many notable customers, a fashionable pastime that continues to this day.”

Had it not been for noticing the alleyway which I have passed often without noticing it, and then spotting the portrait in the courtyard, I doubt we would have ever entered the old shop at number 3. Incidentally, if you wish to purchase wines or spirits from Berry’s, you will need to walk around the corner into Pall Mall, where the company has a newer shop … or, less interestingly, you can make purchases online.

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