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The History of the London Picnic

Ah, the London picnic, the definitive outdoor dining experience. But yours would have looked a little different if you were having it 300 years ago, partly because it would have been taking place in France… indoors. Fortnum's archivist Dr Tanner talks us through the history of the picnic, charting its journey from aristocratic pastime to national fixture.

The picnic is not a British invention, and the word itself remains a bit of a mystery. It may derive from the French verb piquer (‘to peck’ or ‘to pick’) allied to the noun nique (‘a small amount’), but no-one can be sure sure. Its first appearance is in a 1649 satire, in which the principal character, ‘Pique-Nique’, is portrayed as a hero and a glutton. By the late 17th century, fashionable Paris had adopted the pique-nique, which was now described as an indoor feast at which each guest brought a dish.

The aristocracy and gentry continued to have the monopoly on these democratic feasts until the French Revolution, when the aristos who managed to flee to London brought the concept with them, albeit in a rather vulgarised form. In 1801, a group of 200 wealthy Francophiles founded the ‘Pic Nic Society’, which were held in rooms in Tottenham Street at which each attendee was required to bring a dish and six bottles of wine. This lubricated the post-eating entertainment of gambling, music and a play.


While the French tradition blazed briefly, the London middle classes – influenced strongly by the Romantic Movement – decided that eating alfresco was a rather smart thing to do, and – thus – the name was adopted. In English hands, picnics became strictly outdoor events, and with no associated music or theatricals, it acquired an air of wholesome innocence that their French counterparts had lacked entirely. By the time Jane Austen published the infamous Box Hill picnic in her masterpiece Emma, it was an established part of the English summer.

Soon, the requirements of the London Season included many opportunities for a glorious picnic. The Harrow and Eton cricket match, Henley Regatta, Cowes Regatta, the Epsom Derby. But for Londoners, one of the most important opportunities to picnic was provided by the Epsom Derby. The race, which was first run in 1780, had, by the mid 19th century, become the day out sans pareil for all of London, and demanded sustenance on a grand scale. From the beginning, it attracted hawkers, peddlers, entertainers and gypsies, and it was perfectly possible to buy a pie or a tart from one of these. However, if you wanted to enjoy the Derby to the full, you needed a picnic basket filled to the brim with delicious food and drink.


Fortnum & Mason became the ‘go-to’ store for these picnic baskets – if you wanted a fully-stocked picnic for the Derby, it had to come from Fortnum's. By the 1860s, the shop opened at 4am on Derby Day, with a slick operation to make sure that the correct hamper went into the right landau or barouche.

The Derby Hamper became a thing of magnificent conspicuous consumption. For 12 people, Fortnum’s packed 12 bottles of champagne; six bottles of French white wine, six bottles of German white wine; two bottles of brandy and six bottles of seltzer. To soak up some of that liquid, there were 12 lobsters – one each for the attendees – alongside lobster salad; pigeon pies, a jellied boar’s head, a boiled ham, bread rolls, cheeses, butter wrapped in lettuce leaves to keep it fresh, and hot house peaches.


It may also have included a certain speciality of ours you may recognise – the Scotched Egg – which predates the fashion for picnics in Britain by nearly a century. Created in the 1730s as a traveller’s snack, this pocket sized handful of satisfaction has been a feature of outdoor eating ever since.

Dickens ordered a few of these in his time, claiming that if he owned a race-horse he would call it Fortnum & Mason, as it would be sure a win. About Derby Day, Dickens wrote: "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!"

The hamper itself had begun life as a travellers’ basket, and was adapted over the centuries to suit the means of transport by which the London picnicer reached the desired bucolic paradise. While most Londoners made up their own picnic fare, grocers offered ready-made solutions for your picnic, whether you walked, bicycled or drove to your destination.

Metropolitan picnics today have evolved into whatever the picnickers wish them to be. From Glyndebourne clones at Holland Park to Kenwood music lovers, from new Londoners having a taste of home in their local park, to mums and toddlers by the playground. It is easier than ever to have an instant picnic, or to create something at home, put into beautiful bento boxes, with wooden cutlery and wine in screwtop bottles. The Chelsea Physic Garden hosted a Japanese picnic day last summer, with specialists demonstrating beautiful lacquered picnic boxes, hand-made giant cushions, exquisite saki containers, and some of the most beautiful and delicious finger food on the planet. It was so different, and so exciting, it was certainly something wonderful for London to chew on.


Throughout the London picnic's history and evolution, we've been there stocking our signature wicker hampers full with perfect al fresco delights. So if you're looking for a parcel of picnic pleasure, you can't go wrong with a Fortnum's hamper. We've only been making them for almost two centuries.  

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