Survey of London volume on Oxford Street
By the Survey of London, on 3 April 2020
The Survey of London team is continuing with its work in isolation due to the current public health crisis. While it has been unfortunate but necessary to postpone two major events in our calendar, the launches of the Jewish East End Memory Map and a new volume on Oxford Street, these milestones can still be marked. Other projects in South-West Marylebone and Whitechapel continue to move forward.
We are looking forward to the publication of Oxford Street, the fifty-third volume in the Survey of London’s main or parish series, on 14 April 2020. In the Survey’s 126-year history, Oxford Street is the first volume to focus on the development and architecture of a single street. In recent weeks images of Oxford Street have proliferated in the news, showing closed stores and pavements cleared of the vibrant street life and crowds that usually attract and repel visitors in equal measure – a reflection of these extraordinary times. The volume charts the history of the remarkable and enduring success of Oxford Street as a magnet for shoppers, examining its buildings and transport links as well as its social and cultural life.
The Survey’s new volume offers insights into the history and growth of shopping in London, along with the reasons for Oxford Street’s unique and enduring success – initially, its advantageous position between Mayfair and Marylebone, and later the fast and convenient transport networks that brought customers to its shops from the suburbs and beyond. Oxford Street is organized in a linear format, covering both sides of the street from Tottenham Court Road to Marble Arch. Twenty-two chapters cover discrete chunks of Oxford Street between the cross-streets, with an interest in existing buildings and those that have been demolished.
The Survey’s research on Oxford Street followed on from the publication of two volumes on South-East Marylebone in 2017. That study covered an extensive portion of the West End north of Oxford Street, or the area bounded by Marylebone Road at the north, Cleveland Street and Tottenham Court Road at the east, and Marylebone High Street at the west. A fourth volume, South-West Marylebone, is currently in progress, examining the area immediately west as far as Edgware Road. This research on the West End is balanced by ongoing work towards two volumes on Whitechapel that are expected to be published in 2022.
As one of the longest continuous shopping streets in Europe, stretching for more than a mile in length, Oxford Street has a distinctive topography and character. It has been a major road since the Roman times, when it formed part of an arterial route leading westwards from the City. This highway came to be known as the Tyburn Road, a name derived from a brook (the Tyburn or Ay Brook) that has long since been overrun by urban development. By the time of the Norman Conquest, a hamlet had sprung up near the brook. In 1200 there was a small roadside church on the north side of the highway; its site may be identified today as somewhere between the two arms of Marylebone Lane.
Tyburn as a place name was eventually replaced by Marylebone, after the dedication of the church following its relocation to a site further north in the fifteenth century. Tyburn carried dreadful associations of the public executions that were carried out on the site of the present junction at Marble Arch from 1196 to the 1780s. The highway served as the last route of condemned prisoners, who were often accompanied by riotous and drunken crowds of onlookers. By the seventeenth century the name Oxford Street was in common use, reflecting the highway’s status as the main route to Oxford. The emergence of the alternative name preceded the beginnings of bourgeois development on the estate of the Cavendish–Harleys from the 1710s, yet its use and adoption conveniently helped to shake off the notoriety associated with the gallows at Tyburn.
Today Oxford Street is better known as a popular centre for shopping, drawing in crowds of tourists and shoppers from the capital and its suburbs. Through the research towards the volume, it has been possible to pinpoint Oxford Street’s transition into a major shopping destination to the 1770s. By this time, the executions at Tyburn had ended and the road was resurfaced with granite blocks. The street lighting was also enhanced by increasing the number of lamps. Shopkeepers were attracted by the opportunity to establish shops on a major road within reach of the upmarket residents of Mayfair and Marylebone. Many entrepreneurs were connected with the drapery trade and set up in small shops based in single houses, often with staff accommodation on the upper floors.
In the nineteenth century the dominance of small shops was challenged by the rise of covered bazaars for small traders, often tucked into former yards or stable areas behind modest street fronts. The bazaar has often been understood as a precursor to the department store, which began to appear in Oxford Street with the rebuilding of Marshall & Snelgrove in the 1870s. Other major department stores of the late nineteenth century included John Lewis and D. H. Evans, which started as small drapery businesses before gradually engulfing entire blocks. These household names were joined by Bourne & Hollingsworth, Waring & Gillow and Selfridges in the Edwardian years. Department stores were furnished with comfortable amenities such as restaurants and rest rooms for customers, while staff were increasingly transferred from ‘over the shop’ accommodation to separate homes. Selfridges in particular represented a new scale of ambition, consumption and glamour among department stores in London and internationally.
The arrival of improved transport links in the Edwardian period extended Oxford Street’s appeal to shoppers, securing its status as the capital’s most continuously successful shopping street. Oxford Street was serviced by a range of underground lines connecting to four stations at Tottenham Court Road, Oxford Circus, Bond Street and Marble Arch. The Central Line was opened in 1900, followed by the Bakerloo Line in 1906. In the following year, the Northern Line opened at Tottenham Court Road. In 1969 the Victoria Line opened at the newly remodelled Oxford Circus Station, boasting a new concourse accessed from each quadrant of the circus. With the impending arrival of the Elizabeth Line, connections will be further improved.
Despite the concentration of shops and stores, Oxford Street has also long been a hub for entertainment, including restaurants, music halls, theatres and cinemas. The celebrated Pantheon, an entertainment venue first built to designs by James Wyatt in 1769–72, is the focus of a chapter that was written by the late Francis Sheppard and first published in Volume 32 on St James Westminster (1963). From the 1890s onwards tearooms and cafés sprung up at street level, led by the J. Lyons chain. Another well-known establishment was Frascati’s Restaurant, which operated in spacious and elaborate premises between 1892 and 1954. An early picture house was established at No. 165 in 1906, followed by Cinema House at No. 225 in 1910, when it was hailed by the Building News ‘the last word in living-picture theatres’. Social and cultural life continued to develop in Oxford Street during the Second World War, with bars, clubs and exhibitions along the street. The future 100 Club was established in 1942 as a venue for live jazz in the basement of 100 Oxford Street, where it continues today. Another remarkable survival is the Flying Horse, the last true pub in Oxford Street. The volume includes an appendix of Oxford Street pubs that conveys the extent of the pubs formerly in the street.
Oxford Street contains more than 350 illustrations, including drawings and maps by Helen Jones, the Survey’s architectural illustrator, and a variety of historic photographs. New photography has been carried out by Chris Redgrave of Historic England with support from the Portman Estate. The volume also contains photographs of the sights and atmosphere of Oxford Street, recorded by Lucy Millson-Watkins in 2016. The volume has been edited by Andrew Saint and produced in the Survey’s current house style, designed by Catherine Bankhurst under the supervision of Emily Lees at the Paul Mellon Centre. The volume is now available from Yale Books for £75. The draft chapters have been made available online via our website, in advance of a fuller online version in the future.