Stanfords established 1853 crop

A spotlight on: Stanfords

Lesley Williams
By Lesley Williams
4 minute read

Stanfords Map and Travel Bookshop has a remarkable 167-year history and is an essential first port of call for many adventure and armchair travellers. But in 2020, travel has been all but impossible and its future is under threat. Luckily, the mayor of London has thrown it a lifeline.

Stanfords is the UK's leading specialist retailer of maps, travel books and other travel accessories. Its association with Cicerone has been strong throughout the past 50 years, with both long-established businesses sharing understanding and respect.

It is one of London’s best known specialist shops and customers have included famous names such as Amy Johnson, David Livingstone, Captain Robert Falcon Scott, Ernest Shackleton, Florence Nightingale, Ranulph Fiennes, Bill Bryson and Michael Palin. It is even mentioned in a Sherlock Holmes story!

The story begins

In 1848 Edward Stanford began selling maps and charts and in 1853 became the sole proprietor of a shop and printing works, the only map maker and seller in London. When business boomed he moved the shop to larger premises in Charing Cross, and established a print works at 12-14 Long Acre, the location of the Stanfords’ flagship store for 118 years until 2019.

Stanfords 1901
Stanfords 1901

In 1882 Edward Stanford ll joined the business and took over from his father three years later. The business continued to grow and develop, becoming the sole agent at the time for Ordnance Survey Maps in England and Wales. In 1893, Edward Stanford ll received a royal warrant as Cartographer to the Queen. The honour continued into the reign of Edward Vll.

World War 1 brought opportunities and sadness; Stanfords took on the role of integral publisher for the War Office, but the war also took the life of Edward Stanford ll. The business passed to his son, Edward Fraser Stanford.

There are some interesting stories from the early 1900s, including the production of the world’s smallest maps in 1922 for Queen Mary’s dolls house, and special maps created to aid Amy Johnson’s solo flight to Australia in 1930.

The shop was hit by an incendiary bomb in 1941, but most of the stock was saved in a bizarre fluke. The tightly packed stacks of Ordnance Survey maps created a barrier to the flames, and the store continued to sell the maps, complete with charred edges!

Recent history

More recent stories include Michael Palin and other notable explorers sourcing mapping and travel information in preparation for their adventures, and then becoming authors themselves to join the ranks of accomplished travel writers among the extensive collection of books found in the store.

Over the years Cicerone authors have delighted in being able to source specialist mapping for their research and have equally enjoyed opportunities to launch their books to the London audience, giving evening talks and slideshows. We fondly remember an alpine evening that featured French baguette, cheese and wine, and the time we worked with the Swiss Tourist office to promote Kev Reynolds’ mountain guide to the Swiss Alps – that involved Swiss wine and chocolate, I seem to remember!

As Kev says: ‘Stanfords has always been my place to go to escape the chaos of London. Turning my back on the crowds, in moments I’m in wonderland – whether in the Arctic, Amazon or the Peruvian Andes. Sanity, and dreams of escape, pack the shelves as a world of adventure is exposed among books and maps. For me, Stanfords is the first step to adventure.’

In 2003 the Long Acre store enjoyed a major refit to celebrate 150 years of Stanfords, including the iconic floor maps – a map of the world, a map of the Himalaya and a map of London – featuring on the three floors of the shop. Stanfords is completely unique, and the expertise of the staff is mirrored only by their standing in all things to do with travel.

Stanfords presents a number of annual Travel Writing Awards and have also recently worked with the Royal Geographical Society to digitise the Society’s historic archive collection.

After 118 years at the Long Acre address, rising costs associated with their central London location, coupled with increasing competition online prompted a move from the flagship store to a new London home round the corner at 7 Mercer Walk, still in Covent Garden.

Map browsing

Stanfords prides itself on the depth of its stock, sourced by experts, from all over the world. As it says on the website: ‘If you can’t find what you are looking for in store or online and, if it exists, Stanfords will make every effort to find it for you.’

Present day

In 2020 the world became paralysed with the threat of coronavirus. Travel is all but impossible and demand for maps and travel information has ‘dropped off a cliff’. Consumer shopping has moved largely online with aggressive competitors, and the joy of an in-store browsing experience is lost to all but intrepid central London shoppers.

While travel literature can develop ideas and nurture ambitions during lockdown, demand for maps and guidebooks to any location outside the British Isles has meant that much of the store's stock is more or less in hibernation. London rates are crippling, and highly skilled staff still need to be paid.

Vivien Godfrey, Stanfords’ CEO and chairman explains: ‘There is no denying that this is a dark time for Stanfords and we are in grave danger of 2020 being the final year of our 167-year history.’

Stanfords has a potential lifeline! The Mayor of London’s Pay it Forward Crowdfunder initiative is designed to help similarly stricken businesses.

A number of us at Cicerone have contributed, and we hope that outdoor enthusiasts will consider helping this wonderful institution survive into 2021. Donations from as little as £5 are matched with rewards to enjoy.

If you would like to support Stanfords, please visit Stanfords’ Pay it Forward Crowndfunder page. There are some wonderful and heart-warming comments from other contributors that are worth reading!

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