The History of the Fortnum's Hamper

Our most famous offspring, examined

From early Georgian coaching inns to troops serving in Afghanistan, the original Fortnum's hamper is still the 'ne plus ultra'.

The Fortnum’s hamper is the world’s best-travelled tuck box. Over the course of nearly 300 years it’s been dispatched to every possible location, from the slopes of Everest and the battlefields of Iraq to the more welcoming lawns of Glyndebourne, Twickenham, Henley and Epsom. It’s a by-word for portable pleasure.

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 logo, stamped boldly on to a sturdy wicker basket, has been a welcome sight all over the world for hundreds of years; so much so that we’ve often been asked to leave it off to discourage pilfering. This reputation is no accident. It is the result of centuries of hard work, unparalleled standards and a determination to deliver defiantly elaborate tucker to the most theoretically unreachable corners of the world.

These days 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 Emperor of our hamper range. Our hampers find their way into every corner of our corner-free globe, from Bulgaria to Bangladesh, Taiwan to Tanzania, America to… you have the idea.

Fortnum’s first hampers were created in the late 1730s for well-heeled customers journeying to their country estates or to take the waters in Bath. Many began their journeys at the coaching inns placed along… Piccadilly! The food at the inns en route could be quite poor, so people asked Fortnum’s to prepare travellers’ baskets for them. These proto-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. No wonder they took off.

Hamper in small fishing canoe

At the end of the 18th century, the Romantic Movement encouraged enjoyment of the English countryside, and picnics (first known by the less catchy name of 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 and Cowes Regattas, 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; 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.

What's In A Name?

From the Burlington Hamper, named after the third Earl of Burlington, to our Beemaster Hamper that was inspired by the bees we keep on the roof, below offers an explanation of the names of our portable provisions.

The Burlington Hamper
The Burlington Hamper

The Burlington Hamper

Richard Boyle, the third Earl of Burlington, was also known as the 'the architect Earl', as he was instrumental in the revival of Palladian architecture throughout Great Britain. By the early 1730s Palladian style had triumphed as the generally accepted manner for a British country house or public building, and Burlington had received acclaim as 'the Apollo of the arts' with projects such as Chiswick House Villa and Westminster School.

In honour of his impressive works of architecture, we have named this equally impressive after him. Packed with an array of delights, from Akbar Coffee to our famous Chocolossus Biscuits, the hamper is truly a work of art.

The Piccadilly Hamper

Piccadilly is where our legacy began in 1705, by Hugh Mason and William Fortnum. Finding itself perfectly placed in London for travellers heading west, our young enterprise set itself the task to capitalise on creating food that was easily portable for long distance journeys –along with a means to carry it, namely the hamper.

From our famous teas and mouth-watering chocolates to our spectacular preserves, the Piccadilly Hamper is inspired by our fine offering and provides a taste of what Fortnum’s does best.

The Blenheim Hamper

Blenheim Palace, one of England's largest houses, is a monumental country house situated in Oxfordshire and is a breath-taking sight to behold. The principal residence of the dukes of Marlborough, the palace was built around 1705, the same year our founder Hugh Mason opened his first small store in St James Market.

In keeping with the grand theme of the palace itself, our Blenheim Hamper is just as breath-taking with a fine feast of treats such as Sir Nigel's Vintage Marmalade and our sublime Queen Anne Tea.

The St James Hamper

Named for St James' Palace, the official residence of the sovereign and the most senior royal palace in the United Kingdom, our St James Hamper is of equally palatial proportions.

Beginning with Royal Fillet of Salmon and a magnum of vintage Champagne, the excitements of this impressive hamper continue with our Foie Gras, Caviar and Black Truffle Oil, as well as some superb British delicacies such as York Ham, an amphora of our Strawberry & Champagne Preserve, and a selection of excellent cheeses.

The Beemaster Hamper

First things first, did you know that we keep bees on the roof of our Piccadilly store? Four colonies of Fortnum's famous bees have been living on the roof since 2008. Every year they produce a truly delicious honey, with recent harvests, gathered every autumn, hinting at the bees' journeys through London’s nearby parks and gardens, including Buckingham Palace, Clarence House and Green Park. The result is a honey of depth and freshness, with subtle traces of chestnut, lime and garden flowers. Read more about the bees on the roof here.

Inspired by our rooftop bees, our Beemaster Hamper is practically buzzing with a delightful array of all things sweet, from Welsh Heather Honey Thins to three of our most distinctive honeys.
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