Think of London, think of the Blitz, and you are likely to think of Herbert Mason’s much-published photograph of St Paul’s Cathedral, proud and defiant amid the dust and smoke of a city in flames. It’s a stirring image for anyone, but more so for the Brooke family, purveyors of Grossmith Perfumes, for that night marked a turning point in their family history.
“Those are our buildings going up in smoke,” says Amanda Brooke, over tea and milkshakes at the Fortnum & Mason café, downstairs from their boutique in the second floor fragrance hall. “Our factory and offices were in Newgate Street, by St Paul’s. Everything was lost: all our company records and formulas, for the most part.”
This story has a happy ending, but let’s scroll back a decade or so to the day when Amanda’s husband, Simon Brooke, ensconced in his career as a chartered surveyor, sat down with a book entitled Government Upon First Principles, published in 1860. A gift from his father, it was written by his great-great-grandfather, John Grossmith. Ever curious about his genealogy, Simon dug deeper, and learned that John Grossmith was not only a social reformer, but a farmer and a philanthropist as well.
“We think he grew peppermint and lavender, and then, we think, he must have supplied essential oils to perfume houses in London and the rest of England,” says Amanda. “Then he seems to have decided to import materials from overseas, so he had a warehouse, and built the factory and offices in Newgate Street.”
Keen to know more, they kept digging and discovered that Grossmith was once a thriving perfumery that supplied the royals. It had been sold out of the family in 1970 and bought by someone who collected failed companies, who then sold novelty soap under the brand name. “Muppet soap,” says Amanda, wincing. “They made quite a lot of money out of it for about ten years then lost interest and stopped trading.
“Simon met the owner and the man named a rather high price, which we couldn’t afford. We went away and explored the possibility of a revival and what the world of perfume was about – we knew nothing. I read archeology at university and was working in the research and engineering group at Unilever. After about 18 months of research we went back. We had to pay what he asked, but we thought there was something in it. It wasn’t just a sentimental gesture. We are not a family of rich dilettantes.”
While their lawyers beavered away in the background, the Brookes attended a lecture given by Roja Dove in 2007, as part of the V&A’s Haute Couture exhibition. Amanda recalls: “He is evangelical about perfume and can tell a great story, so you can’t fail to be interested. We introduced ourselves and Simon handed over his first Grossmith business card and said we’ve got the company. Roja knew it. Because the perfumes had largely been made with natural materials, he recommended that we work with Robertet, a fragrance house specialising in high-quality natural materials.”
At that stage they still didn’t know the original formulas for even the three original fragrances, Phul-Nana, Hasu-No-Hana and Shem-el-Nessim, and they reckoned they’d have to source antique samples – Simon had already started collecting them – and scientifically assess their composition. But their luck held.
“Simon tracked down a third cousin, and we visited him down in Devon where our holiday home was. He said, ‘I have a few things about Grossmith that you might be interested in.’ It turned out that he had some funny little bottles and old bars of soap. And then he got out three really old Harry Potter-style books. The first was a ledger full of information about how to run a farm, a hand-written book about cows sold and acres tilled. The other two were formula books, dated from 1904 to 1907, again, all hand-written.
“Our cousin was such a nice man that at that first meeting he said, ‘Would you like to take the formula books with you?’ We said no, we’ve just met you and we might be robbers. But we returned about eight weeks later. I can still remember sitting on the train with Simon and looking at these amazing books. We discovered that they had 300 formulae in them, for hair oil, sachets, talc, face creams, and about 100 perfumes.”
They handed the list to Robertet, along with the samples they’d collected, instructing them to recreate the scents as close to the original as possible within the new IFRA guidelines.
There were more happy surprises in store, says Amanda. “We saw some of them had the word Baccarat, so we contacted the crystal makers and asked, ‘What does that mean?’ They said they’d probably made crystal for the family, and searched their records until they uncovered an order from 1919 for 1,000 flacons. And then, because they never throw anything away, they went off for another couple of months and found that they still had the original mould and the stopper. We were given permission to reinstate the mould – after paying to refurbish it – and were allowed to reuse it to make modern crystal.”
Let it be said that the crystal decanter sets, while utterly gorgeous – etched in pure gold and filled with perfume extrait – are also extremely dear, and sell mostly to wealthy customers from the Middle East. On the other hand, I joke, they make the regular bottles of scent look a bargain by comparison.
To finance the business, in 2008 the couple sold all their stocks and shares and their holiday flat in Devon. By 2009 they were ready to launch. “We manufacture in Tiverton, in the West Country, and have a very secure, very clean warehouse in east London. But when our first batch of product was delivered, the edges of the pallet hadn’t been protected enough, so the product was quite badly damaged. Simon and I were faced with seven pallets of damaged goods and thought: there’s our flat; there are our shares; there’s all our cash.”
Painstakingly, and by hand, they sorted the broken from the sellable, and were able to launch on time in Fortnum & Mason and at Harrods. “Everything else had to go back to Tiverton to be repacked. We work very closely with our manufacturers and often visit. Robertet has an operation just outside Guildford where it has perfume chemists. We started work with Trevor Nichol who recreated two of the classics. As I said, their brief was to make the fragrances as close to the originals as modern regulations will permit. We know they’ve done a good job because a lot of people recognise the old scents from when their mothers and grandmothers wore them.”
That brand recognition and abiding affection is nothing to be – forgive me – sniffed at. When Amanda and her younger daughter Kate launch into a series of stories, we’re momentarily overcome.
“Kate met a lady who worked for Grossmith in 1938 and then moved to Australia. Her daughter had written to us saying, ‘My mum is always talking about Hasu-No-Hana because she used to work in the factory making it, how can we get her some?’
“At the moment we’re not stocked in Australia, but Kate was travelling last year and brought them some bottles. She met Edith and they reminisced.”
Kate takes over the story. “She worked in the factory on the floor where they bottled Hasu-No-Hana and she was describing how she used to hold the bottles in her hand.” Kate holds her hands aloft as if holding a clutch of bottles, and then swirls them around.
“She made a motion like it was under a tap. Her daughter worked out that because she was filling tiny bottles, she used to cluster them together and fill them in a hurry under this tap, and get a lot of it on her skirt. After work she and her friends would travel on the train back to Essex and they’d scent the carriage. She worked in Newgate Street and when war got bad her mother forbade her from travelling to London – which is lucky, because that saved her life.”
Amanda resumes the tale. “We’ve also had a letter from a lady saying, ‘My mother used to work for Grossmith in 1947, in your shop at 45 Piccadilly. I’m bringing her to England for the first time in 40 years. She wants to know if Grossmith still have a shop and can we come and see you?’ She brought her mother around by telling her that she didn’t think there was a shop anymore, but why not go to Fortnum’s to see what’s there? She came into the perfumery and Simon, Kate and I greeted her by our counter. We saw her looking at everything – the perfume, the display of old advertising and packaging – and her eyes began to well and she went all red as she realised what her daughter had arranged, and that we did still exist, in a slightly different form. We had a lovely tea together and she told us about looking after the shop.”
Initially they thought about using that old packaging, but too many people told them it felt dated, like a funny foodstuff and not a sophisticated luxury brand. “That was another coincidence,” says Amanda, laughing. “Simon was reading a trade magazine and found an article called What Makes a Brand Precious? He rang the author and introduced himself. The man said, ‘You tell me your Grossmith story and I’ll tell you mine.’ It turned out that this chap’s first job was designing for Grossmith – some of the Muppet soap. He said, ‘You’ll have to kill me to stop me working on this project!’ That’s why we have such beautiful packaging now. And it’s important to use that our product is totally made in England. Our bottle manufacturer is in Yorkshire and the caps are put together in Exeter. The only thing not made here is the Baccarat crystal, but that’s part of our story as well, and it’s a great talking point for customers.”
Nostalgia only goes so far, though. They do not want to be a house solely known for its heritage perfumes. “When Grossmith was making those amazing perfumes, they were actually quite forward-looking and ground-breaking. They were modern. We have the permission to make modern fragrances or to look back at the formula book.” To that end they’ve introduced the Black Label collection – Amelia, Golden Chypre, Saffron Rose and Floral Veil – of brand new blends.
So what does the juice smell like, you’re wondering. In a word: fantastic. There are fragrances here for just about everyone, from deep, rich orientals to lighter florals, and the knockout (for this Fumehead) that is Golden Chypre. Here is a link to The Silver Fox’s blogpost (A Scent of Elegance) about Saffron Rose. It’s a gorgeous piece of prose about an exceptional fragrance: http://www.ascentofelegance.com/2015/02/a-haunting-of-absence-saffron-rose-by.html.
For now, Grossmiths don’t sell online but you will find a full list of stockists at www.GrossmithLondon.com. There you’ll also find a wealth of information about the different perfumes and their notes.
What’s left to say but Welcome Back, Grossmith!