"Look where I will.... I see Fortnum & Mason. All the hampers fly wide open and the green downs burst into a blossom of lobster salad!" Charles Dickens
The Fortnum’s hamper must be the world’s best-travelled tuck box. Over the course of nearly 300 years, it has been dispatched to every possible location, from the slopes of Everest to the Epsom Derby and the battlefields of Iraq to the grassy lawns of Glyndebourne. Mentioned by writers as far apart as Charles Dickens and Max Hastings – the latter ordered a Fortnum’s hamper to accompany him as he set off to report tensions between India and Pakistan in 1971 – it must be doing something right to enjoy such a long history. The fact is that the Fortnum’s hamper has a reputation that is hard to beat. That famous logo, stamped boldly on to a sturdy wicker basket, has been a welcome sight all over the world for hundreds of years, whether delivering tea and biscuits to war-weary soldiers or strawberries and cream to Wimbledon. But this reputation is no accident; it is the result of centuries of hard work, high standards and the ability to deliver a hamper to the furthest and most unreachable corners of the world.
Fortnum’s first hampers were created to meet the demands of well-heeled travellers, journeying to their country estates, to see their families and friends or to take the waters in Bath. In the late 1730s, many of Fortnum’s customers used coaches that began their journeys at the many coaching inns placed along Piccadilly. The food at coaching inns en route could be quite poor, so customers asked Fortnum’s to prepare travellers’ baskets for them. These first versions of our famous hampers held delicacies such as game pies, fresh bread, West Country butter, our own scotched eggs, cheese, hothouse fruit and rich fruit cake, with mineral water, small beer and hock to drink.
At the end of the 18th century, the Romantic Movement encouraged enjoyment of the English countryside, and picnics (known as fêtes champêtres) quickly became fashionable, creating a whole new demand for the Fortnum’s hamper. In the Victorian era, the ‘London Season’ consisted of as many outdoor events as indoor – Harrow and Eton cricket match, Henley Regatta, Cowes Regatta, the Epsom Derby – and Fortnum’s supplied picnic hampers for these occasions, too. Derby Day was a particularly important day in the calendar, with carriages queuing up from 4am to pick up the Fortnum’s picnic basket.
But our hampers were not all about leisure; many were a vital lifeline between soldiers abroad and their home comforts. Fortnum’s sent provisions to Wellington’s soldiers as they fought Napoleon in 1815; the packages containing honey, preserves and dried fruit were gratefully received, though often plundered thanks to the enticing F&M logo. (When Wellington’s officers later begged for ‘hams, tongues, butter and cheese’, these were sent in plain boxes to discourage pilfering.) During the Crimean War, Queen Victoria sent Fortnum’s beef tea to Florence Nightingale to nourish her patients; and First World War troops (including Winston Churchill, serving on the Western Front), prisoners of war and Red Cross outposts received all kinds of parcels, including one of 500 Christmas puddings.
Fortnum’s continued its military deliveries during the Second World War, opening a special officers’ department to cater for servicemen and women. Even today, troops in Afghanistan and Iraq receive consignments of biscuits, jam, chutney and marmalade, and of course tea – one delivery of which was especially requested by a Captain Lipton, who felt that without a decent cup of tea, his troops’ morale might slip.
Fortnum’s hampers have often been the choice of the intrepid explorer; during the 1920s and 1930s, demand was so great that Fortnum’s set up an Expeditions department within the store. Generous consignments of home comforts regularly accompanied the British explorer into the heart of Africa or up the Himalayas. The 1922 Everest expedition deserves a mention for the 60 tins of quail in foie gras and four dozen bottles of champagne (the appropriately named Montebello 1915) that were thought essential to fuel its efforts. The 1924 expedition went further, requiring dessert knives and forks, full carving sets, down-filled mattresses, hot water bottles and clockwork lanterns – along with foie gras, asparagus and lobster, of course. In the 1870s our hampers accompanied Henry Morton Stanley’s travels into the Congo; more recently, for a 2005 expedition to find the source of the Nile, we arranged for hampers to be delivered to various spots along the route to help boost morale in what proved to be an extremely hazardous – but ultimately successful - quest.
This most recent intrepid delivery proves that the Fortnum’s hamper is not merely an historical fancy; we dispatch close to 120,000 packages around the world each year, which could be anything from a box of champagne and truffles right up to our Belgravia Hamper, currently the king of our hamper range. Our hampers find their way into every nook and cranny of the globe, from Belarus to Bangladesh and Taiwan to Tanzania. It seems there are few places a Fortnum’s hamper has not yet been – except, perhaps, to the Moon. But given the recent developments in space tourism, even that may one day be on our inexhaustible list.