Anyone who is familiar with Regency romance will recognize the name “Pantheon Bazaar.” This location was used several times in Georgette Heyer’s works, and subsequently in the works of hundreds of her contemporaries. Unfortunately, Georgette got it wrong; the Pantheon was not a bazaar until 1834, well after the time period about which she was writing. And since she was the Queen of Regency romance, everyone just followed suit.
Setting aside the fact that she did not have the internet, or access to half the number of historical documents we have today, it is easy to see why she could be confused. The Pantheon was a destination for members of London society from its inception in 1772, and from a clause in the deeds, it retained its name no matter what its purpose (even now, though the building houses Marks & Spencer, it still has the name “Pantheon” over its door). Built by James Wyatt to house the “nocturnal adventures of the British Aristocracy,” it was a hot spot for balls and masquerades for almost three decades.
Two separate fires, resulting in expensive restoration projects, endangered its financial viability, however, and in 1811, its popularity had declined so far that it was sold to the National Institute to Improve the Manufactures of the United Kingdom (don’t you love the awesome names these old societies gave themselves? I wonder if they went by NIIMUK.). Despite a complete renovation, after which it was still called the Pantheon, it enjoyed only three years as a theater and opera house, but simply couldn’t come up to snuff. The building was abandoned, the innards sold to pay off creditors, and it stood empty until 1831, when it was finally purchased and remodeled over the next three years into the Pantheon Bazaar.
The Pantheon Bazaar was not the first of its kind, by a long shot. The Exeter Change, which was built during the reign of Charles II, is often referenced in historical fiction for its menagerie, which boasted several wild animals and birds, as well as colorful performers. But the Change also housed “shops being furnished with such articles as might tempt an idler, or remind a passenger of his wants,” according to Robert Southey in 1807.
The Change does not seem to have had much competition until 1816, when the Soho Bazaar, occupying three adjacent buildings in Soho Square, was opened by Mr. John Trotter. The warehouse was donated “to encourage female and domestic industry,” with the more specific purpose of providing an inexpensive venue for those adversely affected by the Napoleonic Wars to make a living by selling such useful articles as could be made by hand at home. The business was excellently and fairly managed, and prices were set competitively enough that no bargaining was allowed. This bazaar enjoyed incredible popularity, its square often blocked by three rows of carriages waiting for their owners to finish their shopping, until it finally closed in 1885.
It seems fair to assume that the Soho Bazaar was most likely the shopping place Georgette Heyer meant in her excellent novels, but who can blame her for getting confused? I certainly don’t dare.
Shops and Shopping: 1800-1904, by Alison Adburgham, Barrie and Jenkins, 1989.