There’s a small shop in St James that’s said to be the oldest cigar shop in the world, and it houses its own museum, that’s also open to the public.
The cigar shop at 19 St James’s Street is thought to have been here since 1787 when it traded as Robert Lewis. A separate cigar dealer, James J Fox was set up in Dublin in 1881, and opened their first store in 1947. In 1992, the two firms merged, and the store was renamed James J Fox, but only the name above the door changed, everything else is the same.
To push open the old wooden doors of a shop in the poshest of posh London can feel daunting, but it’s just a shop, and one where polite customer service is King, so expect a friendly greeting, and if asking for the museum, to be directed to the stairs and down you go.
If you’re not a smoker, you might be a bit taken aback by something you might not expect in a modern shop – the strong smell of, and sight of people smoking indoors. This is because James J Fox is one of the few places in England where it is still permitted to smoke indoors – a special exemption was made when indoor smoking was banned in 2007 for shops that get at least half their sales from cigars and pipe tobacco. Apart from puffing in the shop, they also have a dedicated sampling lounge to relax in.
So walking into the shop is a heady waft of cigar smoke wisping around the place. It feels correct that an old shop should also smell old, and also a smell that brought back memories.
Until a decade or so ago, I was an occasional cigar smoker. Nothing too grand, but a nice Villiger Export at the end of the workday to say “today is ended”, or sometimes something larger when out for a nice long walk. I never smoked indoors though. It was always an outdoor thing, and eventually, my doctor grudgingly accepted that as my evening cigar required me to walk home, which took 40-minutes, and without a cigar, I might tend to catch the bus, the cigar was being offset by the exercise.
Or something like that – I think I tried to use logic to justify a gentle pleasure.
I only really stopped when prices rose and income fell, and I never restarted. Hang on, back in a minute.
Now, where was I? Oh, yes, heading downstairs to the museum.
It’s a small room, and with a large table in the middle one that’s occasionally used for meetings, and lined with glass cases filled with a mix of either general cigar and pipe smoking heritage or documents and items from the shop’s own long history.
They’ve had eight Royal Warrants over the decades, with several on display in the museum. King Edward VIII’s humidor is here, donated by the then Duke after the abdication. A letter from the Queen Mother confirming payment of £261.73 for cigars. She was also a regular customer buying gifts for guests.
Almost royalty, Sir Winston Churchill was a customer for over 60 years, having been introduced to the shop by his mother, who presumably considered getting the newly elected MP to start puffing away would help his political career. The museum has a lot of Churchillian memorabilia as you might expect, from the smallest – a cigar piecer through lots of letters and ornaments, to the largest, the chair he used to sit in when visiting the shop. He placed his last order with the shop on 23rd December 1964, probably topping up for Christmas. He died a month later.
More sombre is the purchase ledger for Oscar Wilde, a customer who the firm ended up having to sue for unpaid bills after he was jailed. The bankruptcy document is on display.
Even the cabinets are museum items, with one of them being made for the Great Exhibition of 1851 and said to be the oldest such cigar display box in existence. It also has some very old and very long cigars in there. Surely for exhibition displays than to smoke though.
A cabinet is full of some very exotic looking pipes, and one case has boxes of cigars and cigarettes from recognisable brands. But mainly it’s cigars, lots of cigars, cigar history and cigar accessories.
Even if you’re not a smoker, the museum is a delightful little place to spend 20 minutes or so.
The museum is free to visit and open when the shop is open. Although there is a large table and chairs in the middle, they confirmed that they don’t really use it as a meeting room that often so you shouldn’t have a problem just turning up to visit.
That said, they will hire the room out, should you be planning an office away day and fancy somewhere different from the usual hotel conference rooms.
This is not a museum that’s advertised outside to the passer-by, so take a walk down St James’s Street with a friend or companion and drag them protesting into the shop for a wonderful surprise and bask in their amazement of your incredible knowledge of quirky things to see in London.
The shop and museum are currently open Mon-Sat 11am-7pm.
Oh, just outside in the pavement is a smoke outlet from the basement. It’s for the fire brigade to break if needed, but it made me smile to see it outside a cigar shop.