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Fobs, hats, fags and fry ups

April 23, 2013

As 52 St Giles undergoes its most recent metamorphosis, it seemed appropriate to look back at the history of these very singular premises.

The present building of number 52 St Giles was constructed in 1868, and was occupied then by a Polish watchmaker and jeweller, Israel Levi. Records show he was still living and working there at the age of sixty-five, with his wife and a young servant. Looking up at the house now, and blocking out the cars, I begin to picture this veteran horologist.  He is sitting at a high workbench, at the window probably, where the light is best, and he wears a black frock coat and small gold-rimmed glasses. Placed carefully on the bench are his precision instruments, and as I watch him in my mind’s eye, he is hunched over, peering through a magnifying glass, practising his craft with painstaking concentration.

How very different the shop frontage must have looked, when in 1891 it became a Milliner. Then, I imagine, the window must have been festooned with bonnets, boaters and nightcaps; fans, garters and parasols. And I can see the Victorian ladies of Oxford, sweeping in off the street to view the latest designs from Paris, They would have marvelled at the swathes of velvet and lace, the billowing Ostrich feathers, glossy satin ribbons and frothy silk flowers of every colour.

After a brief spell as the Binsey Dairy Supply from 1893-4, the shop became a tobacconist in 1895, run by several different proprietors until 1922. After the boudoir scents and atmosphere of a milliner, the interior must have become altogether more masculine and the air distinctly pungent. I assume that wooden shelving would have been used throughout, to display pipes and their accoutrements, cleaners and tampers, exotic cigars from around the world and cutters, tins of snuff, and elegant scales for weighing out the tobacco which would have been scooped from ornate jars.

And then, in 1937 St Giles Café was born. It is said that Oscar Wilde and CS Lewis dined there, but one suspects that any Oxford eating or drinking establishment dating back far enough could make similar claims. The point is that the café has been serving breakfast, lunch, snacks and tea for seventy-six years, and after a brief hiatus is about to do so again. With its bright minimalist Shaker style and signature palette of chocolate brown, teal and pale duck egg, the interior is certainly very different from anything that’s been there before. As is the food. But the history, thank goodness, remains.

St Giles Café looks forward to welcoming everybody, but it’s just possible that watchmakers, milliners and tobacconists may get extra special treatment…. A post by Jo

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  1. Lucy Garnier permalink

    I used to work at Browns from 1976 to 1981. All the waitresses due to work on the Sunday morning shift used to meet at St Giles Cafe for a jolly good breakfast ready to do a full day’s work – it was very hard work at Browns, this is before computer terminals – all orders were committed mentally or written down on order pads. We would work for about 7 hours non stop, probably walking several miles in one shift, which was just as well as I had a passion for the Browns chocolate cake and cream! I can remember looking forward to my breakfast – there were usually about 5 or 6 of us and sometimes we were joined by the barmen – those were the days!

    I don’t know if anyone remembers the cartoon the ‘Browns waitress and the Chap’ – I was told I was the inspiration for the waitress character.


    • The good old days of Browns! I was a regular customer (on Sundays) in those years. Memories of amazing ribs and chocolate milkshakes like no other.
      Wonder whether you could track down all your old work mates? There’d be a celebratory breakfast for you if you ever did:)

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