Review: Tea with ‘Mr Jenners’ *****


Tea with ‘Mr Jenners’

Valvona & Crolla Scottish Food Hall@Jenners, v42

13.00, 15.00 (ends 25 August, not Sundays)

***** (5 stars)

What a positively splendid afternoon I have just had in the company of “Mr Jenners” and the lovely Miss MacDonald, taking afternoon tea in the company of good folk from Aberlady, Edinburgh and Essex. The spread was delightful – four types of sandwiches, Dundee and cherry cake, shortbread, small fruit tarts, macarons, and delectable scones with cream and jam accompanied a seemingly unending supply of Mr Brodie’s special blend tea [available to purchase from Mr Jenner’s remarkable ‘department store’ – such a novel innovation!].

During our time together we were regaled by Mr Jenner with the history of the store and its development from humble beginnings. He and the more mature Mr Kennington travelled to Scotland from Kent with the idea of starting a drapers’ business in Edinburgh, and a lucky bet on a horse at the Musselburgh races enabled them to set up their first store on the corner of Princes Street in what was then a residential district of the city. Despite a disastrous fire in 1892 which almost completely destroyed the building, the store continued trading, all the 120 workers [none of whom was harmed in the fire] being housed in Duddingston Lodge, Mr Jenners’ own elaborate mansion in Portobello past which I have travelled so many times on the no 44 bus, unaware of its history. The new building that arose like a Phoenix from the flames was designed to be the first thing that visitors saw when they emerged from Waverley Station – and indeed, the fame of Jenner’s store brings visitors to it, even today, from the far-flung corners of the earth.

From Miss Macdonald, who continually replenished our cups with more of that delectable tea, we learned what it was like to work for Mr Jenner – how the women were housed on the top floor of the building, while the men lived several floors below; how fraternising between the sexes was strictly forbidden, except in the case of siblings or other relatives; and how the women worked far longer hours for half the money the men earned! But by all accounts it was a good place to work, with Mr Jenner fully aware of the value of keeping the business in the family from the point of view of staff as well as owner: if a female employee left to raise a family, their name would be note and their children guaranteed a job at the store when they reached the age of thirteen or so, at which time it was customary for young people to start work.

It was under the influence and advice of his female staff [and, no doubt, that of his wife Louise] that what had begun as a draper’s store, selling fabric and haberdashery items, gradually became one of the first of the newly-emerging “department stores” in which one could buy anything one fancied or needed without the inconvenience of leaving the premises. What with electric lighting, air conditioning, and pneumatic lifts, Jenners was the place to go shopping – why, they even had chairs on the shop floor so that one could rest while waiting for other members of the party to conclude their purchases!

All credit to Valvona & Crolla’s Elm Street premises for the scrumptious baking, to Mary Contini for devising another excellent, and congratulations to Finlay Watt and Bronte Fraser on their performances as master and maidservant – particularly Bronte, who was able to keep us well-informed and well-fed during our delightful hour in the impressive surroundings of the original board room of Jenners.

Mary Woodward