One of the more intriguing things I discovered when researching What Kitty Did Next (published by Red Door Books on 28 June, in just three weeks’ time!) was that early 19th-century London was quite a menagerie. Not only was there a zoo, housing “four lions, a panther, a leopard, a tiger and a grizzly bear called Martin” at the Tower of London in 1821 (this collection would later expand and become the nucleus of today’s London Zoo), and Joshua Brookes’ menagerie at the end of Tottenham Court Road, which specialised in “exotic birds, but also offered antelopes, lions, monkeys and porcupines”, there were all manner people dealing in wild and exotic animals to excite Londoners, rich and poor. (And just let me say, I am not condoning this exploitation of animals, just saying it happened. )
One thing I did not expect was to find a bear in a perfume shop! But when looking into the colognes that a Mr Darcy or a Captain Wentworth (or, to be fair, the real life Beau Brummel) might dab on by way of a floral pick-me-up back in the early 19th-century day, I discovered there was not only Floris in London’s fashionable Jermyn Street, but also a rival establishment nearby called Atkinsons, a “marvellous perfume shop with the most terrifying bear".
Yep, as publicity goes, you couldn’t do much better than having a real life bear tethered in your perfumery. Floris, eat your heart out. (Except that Floris is still there, without a bear the last time I looked). And I really don't know what Winnie-the-Pooh, Rupert Bear and Paddington would have to say about any of this!
Anyway, to get back to 1799: “James Atkinson, an enterprising young gentleman from the wilds of Cumberland, set forth by carriage for the glorious city of London. In his suit pocket were recipes for fine scents and toiletries of his own devising. Next to him sat a sizeable quantity of rose-scented bear grease balm. Next to the balm sat a growly bear.”
Within mere days, so the story goes, the "utterly fantastic balm" became indispensable to London’s most uppity crust, who braved the bear at the door “to procure sufficient stock for the social Season”.
The following year, the entrepreneurial Mr Atkinson hit upon his most startling creation, an English eau de Cologne, stronger and more prepossessing than its weaker continental cousins, until then in vogue. It and all things Atkinsons became such a sensation within the royal ranks that when George IV caught a whiff of it in 1826, he proclaimed Atkinsons the official perfumer to the Royal Court on the spot. Scent-sational, you might say.
Unlike Floris, Atkinsons and its bear went into hibernation for some time, only emerging a few years ago with 21st-century editions of its traditional scents, among them White Rose, English Lavender, Royal Briar and the British Bouquet. I had the pleasure of sniffing a few of them when they were relaunched in Sydney, Australia. I didn’t have to brave a bear though, unlike my lovely heroine Catherine Bennet in What Kitty Did Next.