During the Great War, Fortnum’s sent a taste of home to thousands of men and women serving in France and beyond – including their favourite things, such as boiled sweets, tinned fruit cake and chocolates. We even sent out 500 plum puddings to one regiment for their Christmas dinner in 1915.
Earl Haig requested bespoke hampers, designed like panniers, to straddle a camel and, of course, we obliged. In 1914, we set up a dedicated ‘Officers’ Supply Department’ to provide food parcels for the Western Front, Gallipoli, Russia and North Africa. Winston Churchill complained bitterly by letter when his wife Clemmie sent him upmarket provisions because what he really desperately wanted was a hot-water bottle.
It was after the Great War that Christmas gifting, especially our hampers, really started to take flight, as fewer people were inclined to make their own Christmas cakes and puddings. There was a demand for gourmet foods in pretty jars and canisters, and Fortnum’s started using wicker baskets made by Lord Roberts’ workshops, which were set up to give employment to war-wounded soldiers. Although the Christmas hamper is quite a recent invention, our hampers began in the 1730s as travellers’ baskets, for people making journeys by public coach.
Our iconic store was on the alert for the royal family to come and do their Christmas shopping – we supplied woodcock pies to Edward VII and George V for many Christmases, and the Queen Mother used to insist on wrapping up her own presents in the store, oblivious to the crowds of amazed shoppers around her. In November 1929, the Prince of Wales caused a stir by visiting the Gift Department during ordinary opening hours to do his Christmas shopping.
Some of Fortnum’s Christmas customers have included luminaries such as Oscar Wilde and Emperor Haile Selassie, whose hamper was festooned with the red, green and gold Rastafari colours. Frank Sinatra and Marlene Dietrich were also fans, and a weekly order (quite probably crammed with aphrodisiacs) was sent to Rome while Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were filming Cleopatra in 1961.
In November 1984 Fortnum's made national news when staff requested we sell the “Do They Know It's Christmas?” single in Piccadilly. We naturally took up the idea with gusto - helping spread the charitable message far beyond its traditional audience.
In the 1960s, it wasn’t unusual for shop floor staff to hang up their red coats at six o’clock in the evening, spend all night making up orders, have a shower and a cup of coffee in the morning, and start all over again. We don’t do that today – although sometimes it can feel like it.
For many of our customers, over the centuries and across the generations and the miles, from the wonderful windows to the best mince pies in the world - Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Fortnum & Mason. It is a huge privilege, and quite a responsibility, to be such a historically important part of Christmas for people all over the world.