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 Fryer, Knitting by the Fireside and on the Hillside (1995)
Edward Standen A Paper on the Shetland Islands (1845)