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The History of Halloween at Fortnum's

Join our archivist Dr Tanner once again for another tale through the annuls of Fortnum's frightening past as we explore our history with the spookiest time of the year: Halloween.

Hallowe’en as it is enjoyed in Britain today is predominantly a fairly new American import, although it has a long history that predates the Reformation.


The tradition originated with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. The day marked the end of harvest and the beginning of the cold months, and Celts believed that, on the night before the New Year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred and the dead returned to earth for that night only. In order to keep them at bay, bonfires were lit, animals were sacrificed, and people dressed up in animal costumes, so that the spirits would not realise that the revellers were human and would not claim them for the Underworld. With the conquering of Celtic lands by the Romans, Samhain was combined with Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead, and with the feast of Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees, whose symbol was the apple. This is probably the origin of the Hallowe’en tradition of bobbing for apples.


In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as All Saints Day, and the old Samhain traditions became incorporated into this. The All Saints’ Day celebration was also called All-hallows or All-hallowmas (from Middle English Alholowmesse meaning All Saints’ Day) and the night before it, the traditional night of Samhain in the Celtic religion, began to be called All-Hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween. By the 9th century, the expanding Catholic Church made November 2 All Souls’ Day, as a day to honour the dead – in part attempting to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a Christian holiday.


All Souls’ Day was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels and devils. By the early 20th century, throughout Britain, Halloween was a children’s affair, and celebrated with children’s games, telling ghost stories and the carving of faces into hollowed-out vegetables such as swedes and turnips. These faces would usually be illuminated from within by a candle, the lanterns displayed on window sills to ward off any evil spirits. In some parts of Northern England, 4th November was designated as ‘Mischief Night’, when children moved things in the wrong place in neighbours’ gardens, then knocked on their doors and ran away.


In recent years, Halloween at Fortnum’s has been the domain of the Confectionery and the Wine and Spirits departments, where the buyers’ imaginations run riot to chill and thrill children and adults alike. The black Wicked Wicker Hamper has become a favourite, filled with all manner of decadent treats.


In Scotland, there was a variation on the American ‘trick or treating’, called ‘guising’. Children dressed up as ghosts, and knocked on the doors of neighbours. On being invited in, the children would sing a song, dance or recite a poem, for which they were rewarded with nuts (mostly ground nuts and hazelnuts), oranges, tangerines, apples, and – if they were lucky – a penny sweet. Clever ones came armed with their mothers’ shopping bags, to hold more loot. On going home, they would count their winnings, feast on baked potatoes, ‘dook’ for apples, and eat vast quantities of Hallowe’en cake – bright orange in colour, and chock full of E numbers.


The North American traditions of Hallowe’en have taken over in Britain in the past forty years, perhaps because our own autumnal tradition – Guy Fawkes’ Night – is not only politically suspect today (burning an effigy of a Catholic seeming a strange thing to do these days – unless you live in Lewes), but the regulation of the sales of fireworks mean that informal Bonfire Night parties are dying out.


The current use of pumpkins is a relatively modern innovation imported from the United States, for which I, for one am grateful. As a child, I had many a bloodied finger trying to carve a swede, and the smell of that vegetable burning from the inside is not easily forgotten.


At Fortnum’s, Hallowe’en was largely ignored until after the refurbishment of the Piccadilly building in 2007. It was seen as largely a domestic celebration for children, and had little or no commercial value until such recent times. With the new space, October demonstrations of all things chocolate related were held in the demonstration kitchens – including finger pies, worm cakes and an amazing graveyard cake. The Biscuiteers held children’s workshops on decorating gingerbread men, and two hugely successful annual Pumpkin carving competitions were inaugurated in 2009 – one for children, and one for adults. The children’s event also had a prize for the best fancy dress, with a toddler dressed as the cutest bumble bee winning one year. At the end of the adult competition, (during which many blood red cocktails were drunk) the entries were placed in the corner window overnight (with battery-operated candles inside!) for the passing public to enjoy.


In recent years, Halloween at Fortnum’s has been the domain of the Confectionery and the Wine and Spirits Departments, where the buyers’ imaginations run riot to chill and thrill children and adults alike. The black Wicked Wicker Hamper has become a favourite, filled with all manner of decadent treats.


The Piccadilly building has also been the inspiration for Halloween products and customer engagement in recent years, as it is home to a selection of spirits and a gathering of ghosts. Every floor in the shop has its spectral story, so, if you are sitting comfortably, and you believe in ghosts, grab your teddy bear, and let me begin our terrifying tour of 181 Piccadilly:




The 2nd Floor is home to a Poltergeist, who moves heavy objects around. He (or she, or it) is always moving the soaps overnight, much to the annoyance of the staff. A few years ago, Security showed us on CCTV a shape of a figure (male) at 3 am, on the Floor. On one occasion, he threw a large and extremely heavy large crystal globe across the floor. This pest has been doing his night time moving since the 1950s. New staff don’t believe old timers when they first start working on the floor, but after a few weeks of having to put everything in its right place in the morning, they are convinced.





The floor boasts the spirit of a chef, and – in the days of the Demonstration Kitchen - reputedly – cutlery, pots and pans flew about in the night. Perhaps this is the spirit of  Marcel Boulestin, who was the first person at Fortnum’s to give cookery lessons, and whose life came to a tragic end?





The Ground Floor has one night-time spectral visitor, who either re-arranges goods not set out correctly, moves them to another part of the floor, or dashes them to the ground to be found in the morning. After much head scratching, I think that this might be the spirit of Gaius Backholer, the head grocery shopman from 1909 until 1946. He was beloved by the King of Norway, who came to see him when he retired, but he was reputedly a real martinet with his staff.





The Lower Ground Floor is a veritable Pandemonium. There is ‘The Pushing Ghost’, for a start. Those susceptible to spirits report that they have a sensation of being pushed out of the way, towards the Crypt. It seems especially to dislike the cleaning staff, and can exert a considerable amount of pressure on them. Small members of staff are especially wary of this one.


Next, come the ‘The Typists in the Cupboard’. In what was the archive artefact cupboard, behind the Deli Counter, conversation and typing can be heard after 10pm. When the door is knocked, they carry on talking and typing. The room was used during WW2 as an office – so maybe these are the ghosts of those sheltering from the Blitz, or still rushing to get out orders ?


VM have a tale about the night around the time the Wine Bar was installed in 2007, when the floor was completely revamped. The story goes, that the new floor had been laid along with the big wine fridges and shelves. When the staff came in one morning there was a bottle of red wine smashed all over the new floor. They couldn’t work out how it had happened and spoke to Security to look on the cameras in case there was a problem. The CCTV is said to show the bottle of wine move to the front of the shelf and tip off the edge completely on its own and no other bottle moved. The staff speculated that maybe there were spirits who didn’t approve of the refurbishment, and wished to have their displeasure known.


Finally, we have the experiences of the Security Guards in their domain in Jermyn Street. One night guard said that, sometimes when they are in the security office at the back door, they could hear the metal product cages being moved up and down the corridors above them. They have apparently become accustomed to blocking the noise out, as often it would happen only when there was no one else in the store.


So, there we have it. When it comes to Halloween at Fortnum’s, you can choose your poison: spectral or sweet. Have a frightfully good time.

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