The 200-year-old cosmopolitan and architectural allure of Oxford Street

The Survey of London has published its latest volume, for the first time devoted to a single thoroughfare — Oxford Street.

Front of buildings on street.
Survey of London, Oxford Street. Oxford Street in 2018. To the left, the former Lyons Oxford Corner House at Nos 14–24. Composite image. Survey of London, Oxford Street. Chris Redgrave. Historic England Archive.

The Survey, founded in 1894, is a research project to produce a comprehensive architectural survey of central London and its suburbs. Volume 53 of the Survey, 440 pages in length, traces the story of Oxford Street from Roman times to today, exploring how it became the most continually prosperous shopping street not just in London, but arguably, anywhere. This richly detailed investigation, brings together data and details of the street’s history, offers insights into the buildings and businesses that have left their mark on the area, and includes over 385 photographs and drawings, many previously unpublished. As the volume’s editor, architectural historian Andrew Saint, writes in his introduction, many streets of shops around the world surpass it in cosmopolitan chic, yet Oxford Street has enjoyed international allure for over two centuries.

Dating back to Roman times, the street, over a mile long, was formerly known as Tyburn Road, notorious as the route from Newgate Prison to the Tyburn Gallows near the present Marble Arch. Gradual improvements to the road surface, and its eventual paving in the 1770s, transformed the route into an urban street serving the prosperous communities of Marylebone and Mayfair. The Tyburn executions ended in the 1780s, bolstering the street’s commercial potential. The Survey notes that from the 1830s onwards Oxford Street began to take advantage of public transport which provided access to its shops, by bus, cab and underground train.

Recording the development of the shops of Oxford Street, the Survey observes that as far back as the 1780s, the street’s predominant industry was the same as it is today — clothing. Before 1725, most shops were either in the front rooms of ordinary houses, or were open-fronted with wooden shutters that closed at night. By the 1830s, fully glazed shopfronts had become the norm, and Oxford Street was home to many covered bazaars. In 1851 Marshall & Snelgrove opened their Royal British Warehouse, which, notes the Survey, has a good claim to qualify as the street’s first department store. Other department stores followed, starting as drapery businesses that started small, then grew, including John Lewis, founded in 1864.

Chapter 1 of Volume 53 focuses on the eastern end of Oxford Street, near St Giles’ Circus. On the Fitzrovia side of the eastern end of the street, one building with a particularly varied history stands near the corner of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road. This building, then No 14-16 Oxford Street, was established as the Oxford Music Hall in 1861 by theatre manager Charles Morton. It quickly became one of the capital’s most popular music halls, attracting such notable performers of the day as Marie Lloyd and George Robey. The building survived two major fires and several rebuildings, notably in the 1890s, when it was reconstructed in the French Second Empire architectural style, with two towers crowning its crested roof. In 1917 the hall was converted into a legitimate theatre and in 1921 renamed the New Oxford Theatre. When the theatre closed in May 1926, the building was converted into a Lyons Corner House. In 1979 it became the home of the first Virgin Megastore, and now, renumbered 4-24 Oxford Street, houses a branch of low-cost clothing chain Primark, the store’s white stone front dating from its Corner House days.

The Survey describes the Flying Horse at 4–6 Oxford Street as “the only true pub” on Oxford Street. The last remaining pub on the street, it is a Grade II listed building and a major surviving monument of London’s late Victorian pub boom. Built in 1892-93, its exterior architecture, in the Flemish Renaissance style, suits its tall narrow frontage. Formerly named The Tottenham, it reverted to the name the Flying Horse in 2014, a name not uncommon in the age of coaching inns along major thoroughfares. The Survey includes some striking colour photographs of the pub’s interior detail, its panelling, mosaics and paintings personifying the seasons.

Another notable building in this part of Oxford Street was Frascati’s Restaurant, once one of the most prestigious restaurants in London, Frascati’s occupied spacious premises behind 26–32 Oxford Street between 1892 and 1954. Patrons enjoyed dining there to the accompaniment of a string orchestra, not then usual in 1890s London.

Further chapters of the Survey go on to examine other notable buildings and developments in the history of Oxford Street, up to the present day, with the advent of Crossrail and council plans to enhance the street’s assets in the face of competition from online shopping. As Andrew Saint notes in his introduction: “It is to be hoped the present volume will help in identifying and valuing those assets.”

The Survey of London Volume 53: Oxford Street, edited by Andrew Saint, is published by Yale University Press, London (£75).

Helene Parry was born, bred and buttered in the South Wales valleys. She turned down a career in the steelworks to train as a journalist. Salad At The Bad Café is her first novel.