No 19 Hanover Street – A retrospective by James Sherwood

No. 19 Hanover Street was home to the great Mayfair tailoring firm Davies & Son between 1804 and 1979. Established in 1803 on Cork Street, the company moved to a five-storey Regency palace of bespoke tailoring a year later when Thomas Davies inherited his late brother’s business. At the time, the four-acre Hanover Square was fashionable London’s pre-eminent stage and was dominated by Harewood House. On the corner of Hanover Square and Hanover Street were the Queen’s Concert Rooms; until 1875, the principal concert hall in London. It was here at the Dandy’s Ball hosted by Lord Alvanley that George ‘Beau’ Brummell insulted his patron the Prince Regent enquiring within royal earshot ‘Alvanley, who’s your fat friend?’

The Queen’s Concert Rooms were demolished in 1900 and Harewood House in 1908. Davies’ former premises on Hanover Street are all that’s left of this glittering Regency age. The few surviving grainy black and white photographs of No 19 devoid of staff or customers are haunting but do not convey the lost grandeur of Davies & Son’s home for 175 years. Like miniature models of the gentlemen’s clubs in and around St James’s, the tailoring townhouses of Mayfair were furnished to make royal and aristocratic customers feel entirely at home.

The soaring ceilings of the ground floor showroom were decorated in Regency fashion with stucco like royal icing from which velvet curtains fell. The fitting rooms alone were larger than most bespoke tailors’ showrooms on the Row today. A vast arched, etched glass skylight poured what little sunshine London had to offer down onto the customer admiring his frock coat in mahogany-framed mirrors.

Royal Warrants of appointment for the Kings of Spain, Norway and the Hellenes as well as our own King George V and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia hung in heavy gilt frames topped with crowns and insignia. The warrants stared down at less high-born customers reminding the stockbrokers and bank managers who made-up the lion’s share of the firm’s 20th century trade that a firm like Davies & Son tailored suits for emperors, kings, princes and grand dukes. Only a photograph in the archive of an elegant staircase gliding sinuously from the showroom to the first floor conveys the hauteur of this bespoke house that had been on the premises since King George III was on the throne.

No images survive of the private cabinet dedicated to King George V with its speaking pipe to the cutting rooms although the original mirror from the king’s private room is now in the fitting room at Davies’ current premises No. 38 Savile Row. Nor is there evidence of the fifth floor boudoir where Queen Victoria’s grandson Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale and his peers would entertain ladies and gentlemen on call in the 1880s and 1890s. Accounts do exist for port, brandy and cigars that were prerequisites that Davies & Son’s gentlemen expected. At the peak of Davies & Son’s trade by appointment to European and Russian royals before the Great War, No. 19 rivalled Henry Poole’s Italianate Savile Row showrooms that stretched from No. 36-39 Savile Row or Hawkes & Co’s 18th century townhouse at No. 1 Savile Row.

Tragically, a pub chain has done to No. 19 Hanover Street what Crossrail has to Hanover Square and obliterated its historic architecture. The showroom staircase appears to have been ripped-out and the ceilings lowered with plasterboard leaving it impossible to tell whether anything remains beneath or not. The arched marble doorframe is still recognisable but one suspects the Davies & Son signage carved into stone was smoothed over with concrete.

The closure of Davies & Son was announced in a letter dated August 17th 1979 that advised, ‘Dear Sirs, after 175 years as Court Tailors at this establishment, we have to advise you that due to ever increasing property costs we have been forced to move from our historic building to smaller premises (on Old Burlington Street)’. The letter continues with a plaintive ‘Many would feel sympathy for us in our plight to make way maybe for another fast food outlet or boutique’.

Davies & Son wasn’t the only casualty on post World War Two London’s bespoke tailoring landscape. Poole’s was demolished in the early 1960s to make way for a municipal car park and temporarily forced off-Row until 1981 when the firm returned to No. 15. The stark economic reality was underlined in the mournful 1979 letter:

‘Our business was built on the clothing requirements of the aristocracy of Europe and Great Britain. Today our business is mainly with the affluent and famous abroad: an ideal commercial profile we are advised in times when exports are of prime importance’.

Should devotees of tailoring history wish to form an impression of Davies & Son’s tenure at No. 19 Hanover Square they need only look at the exterior of Gieves & Hawkes at No 1. Savile Row and the interior of Browns restaurant on Maddox Street in W1 which was, until the 1990s, home to Wells of Mayfair. The high Victorian interiors are preserved in their entity including the oak cabinet fitting rooms now used for private dining.

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Though most of the shop fittings were sold for architectural salvage, Davies & Son’s present chairman Alan Bennett saved the frosted glass door advertising the Royal Warrants of King George V and HRH the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VIII). A small cameo of Thomas Davies also hangs in Davies’ Savile Row showroom and has since been revived for the company letterhead and signage.

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Once an English tailor’s castle has been captured by avaricious landlords who see only profit rather than the preservation of what makes London men’s style lead the world, the firms can never reclaim that past. Like Poole’s, Davies & Son was fortunate to return to Savile Row albeit in more streamlined premises appropriate to the times we live in and the reality of the reduced (if refined) bespoke trade. Post World War One, bespoke orders at all Row firms were culled by an average of 50%. That figure was halved again after World War Two.

Whereas in the 1970s Davies estimated 90% of its bespoke customers were international rather than British, that figure has levelled at an average of 60% for most of the tailors currently on Savile Row. The theatre of grand Mayfair townhouses is much to be missed but now only the likes of Ralph Lauren and Victoria’s Secret can afford such prime square footage in the West End of London. Turning Mayfair into a facsimile of any other world retail capital such as New York or Singapore is not only unwelcome but also ill-advised. We have seen in the Burlington Arcade what happens when ‘retail engineering’ forces independents to flee leaving empty shop fronts for the first time in the arcade’s almost 200-year history. Long live survivors such as Davies & Son.

C 2016 James Sherwood/Davies & Son