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James Leavey's Corner
James J. Fox
The Civilised Heart Of The Cigar World

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by James Leavey, editor, The FOREST Guide to Smoking in London
and The FOREST Guide to Smoking in Scotland


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James Leavey
If you sit long enough on Sir Winston Churchill's favourite chair in the Fox Museum you will eventually see most of the most famous cigar lovers in the world wandering in to pay homage to Britain's oldest established tobacco shop.

For if anywhere can claim to be the civilised heart of the cigar world, it is James J Fox at 19 St James's Street, which first opened for business in London as Robert Lewis in 1787, originally at 14 Long Acre, Covent Garden.

The following year, its enigmatic founder, Robert Lewis, of whom little is known, was joined by John Harrison and they set up another shop near Tower Hill, a few hundred yards from the spot where Sir Walter Raleigh, the Elizabethan adventurer who popularised tobacco in England, lost his head.In about 1834, the tobacco firm opened for business in St James's Street, transferring its entire business there a few decades later.

St James's Street came into existence shortly after Henry VIII acquired St James's Hospital, on whose site he built St James's Palace.It began to be built up at the beginning of the 17th century and soon became celebrated for its coffee and chocolate houses and clubs.Famous residents over the centuries include Sir Christopher Wren and Lord Byron; and everybody who is anybody has shopped here over the years, from Dr Johnson to Demi Moore.

Today St James's Street has an international reputation not only for the pomp and pageantry of the Royal palace that graces its southernmost tip or the distinguished gentleman's clubs such as White's, Brook's and Boodles that discreetly reside at its northern end, but also as a centre of excellence.

For example, it is the home of eight retailers within 100 paces of each other, who have a combined total of over 1,700 years of traditional service.

At No. 3 St James's Street, since 1698, is Berry Bros & Rudd, the wine merchant, several of whose customers, including Napoleon III, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, have been weighed there over the years.

James Lock, the 300-year's-old hatters who invented the 'Bowler' (named after John Bowler but originally called a 'Coke' after the man who commissioned it, Sir William Coke.Later, the hard hat became better known in America as the 'Derby'), have been measuring famous heads at No.6 since 25 June 1765.

John Lobb, the shoe and boot manufacturer whose museum contains the prototype of the Wellington boot, is at No.9 and was founded in 1849.Further along, D R Harris, the chemist and perfumiers who have long specialised in a morning-after Pick-Me-Up known as the 'Original', have been at No.29 since 1790.

Justerini & Brooks, wine merchants at No.61, was founded in 1749; William Evans, gun maker and outfitter at No.67a, first opened its doors in 1883; and Truefitt & Hill, gent's hairdressers at No.71, was founded in 1805.

Last, but not least, the first Cuban 'segars' as they were then known, arrived in London at Robert Lewis in 1830.It was this momentous event in the history of smoking which heralded the rapid introduction and popularity of fine cigars throughout the British Empire.

Over the years, 19 St James's Street's extensive selection of smoker's accessories and fine cigars from Cuba, Dominican Republic and other parts of the world has attracted the international superstars of business, politics, films, theatre, art and music.This hasn't stopped it's friendly staff giving equal attention to the ordinary smoker, including a local policeman who keeps his Havanas under his helmet, which he swears is a natural humidor, and who pops in occasionally for a quiet smoke.

"I think the reason people like our shop so much is because they feel relaxed here and they're fascinated by our history," explained Robert Emery, director, JJ Fox (St James's) Ltd, who was nominated by Habanos s.a. as one of the world's top three retailers of Havana cigars last year. "Also, James J Fox is the easiest club in the world to join - all you need is a fine cigar."

The shop at 19 St James's Street was recently renamed after James J Fox, who was born in London in 1842 where he developed a flair for selling cigars.One of his customers sowed the seed of settling in Dublin and Fox moved there in the 1860s, opening for business in Grafton Street on 12 December 1881. By the time of his death in 1916, James Fox had become the most important tobacconist in Ireland.

In 1947, the Dublin company opened its first shop in London, and on 14 September 1992, it acquired the business of Robert Lewis, uniting two of the most respected names in the cigar world.Both companies now trade as JJ Fox (St James's) Ltd and run the Benson & Hedges shop at 13 Old Bond Street, and the cigar departments of Harrods and Selfridges.

The company's flag-ship is 19 St James's Street, whose former customers include at least seven descendents of Queen Victoria: Edward VII, Princess Beatrice, George V, Edward VIII, George VI, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, and Britain's present reigning monarch, Elizabeth II.

Oscar Wilde purchased his cigarettes from Robert Lewis and once said, "A cigarette is the perfect type of perfect pleasure.It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied.What more can one want""Alas, the great wit rarely smoked cigars.

Another old customer was Winston Churchill, who opened his account with Robert Lewis on 9 August 1900.Unusually, the already well-known war correspondent was introduced to tobacco not by his father, but his mother, Lady Randolph Churchill.The former Jenny Jerome, a famous American beauty, had a taste for Robert Lewis's hand-made, gold-tipped Alexandra Balkan cigarettes.

Some biographers estimate that Churchill smoked between 3,000 and 4,000 cigars a year.His favourite was a seven inch by 48 ring gauge Romeo Y Julieta, immortalised by the Cuban cigar company who named it after the British statesman. Former Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill placed his final order with Robert Lewis on 23 December 1964.His account was settled and closed after his death a few weeks later.

About six months ago, the Fox Museum moved from the basement of 19 St James's Street to the specially designed Freddie Fox Room at the rear of the shop.Among its unique exhibits are the two oldest boxes of Havana cigars in the world - both produced for the Great Exhibition of 1851, and the original box of 50 Churchill Don Joaquin cigars that Sir Winston returned to Robert Lewis because he thought they were too green.

American aficionados like green cigars but their British counterparts don't, although the colour is cosmetic and doesn't affect taste.Sir Winston passed them on to Lord Soames and swapped them for something else.

Whether he would have exchanged them for an Internet connection if he was still alive today is debatable but Churchill would have been intrigued by recent research published by Cable & Wireless Communications which showed that the average British adult spends at least three working days a month stuck in a queue and that around 80 per cent of the 100 households quizzed would prefer to shop without moving from their armchairs.

Either way, a good cigar will help to pass the time more pleasantly while you sit back and check out the new Fox website at www.jjfox.co.uk/cigars, which was launched quietly last autumn and has since received nine Internet awards and a growing number of daily hits.

You can even read on-line back issues of Fox's cigar newsletter, The Humidor (which I write and edit on their behalf) - just as well as all the printed copies have long been snapped up.

"The website has certainly spread our reputation even further," said Tim Cox, who has been manager of James J Fox since April 1997, six months before the shop was granted the Royal Warrant as Cigar Merchants to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.

"Like me, some of our older customers are bemused by all this hi-tech," admitted Cox, who is renowned for his enthusiasm for fine cigars, "but they understand we've got to be ready for the new challenges of the next Millennium.Apart from that, James J Fox won't change."


Copyright James Leavey, 1999.All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the Author.

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