Charing Cross Road, Westminster
A street famed for its bookshops, though their number is now much reduced, running north from Trafalgar Square to St Giles Circus
Crown Street and Castle Street formerly followed this route and their improvement was primarily a slum clearance and road-widening project, replacing St Martin’s Lane as the area’s principal northbound thoroughfare.
Despite suggestions that the new street should be named Alexandra Avenue or Nelson Avenue, it was opened in 1887 as Charing Cross Road, a choice apparently preferred by the local inhabitants. The Duke of Cambridge performed the opening ceremony and the midpoint junction with Shaftesbury Avenue was named Cambridge Circus in his honour. Part of the west side of Cambridge Circus is shown in the photograph above.*
Leicester Square station was built in 1906. Its Cranbourn Street entrance replaced three houses belonging to Lord Salisbury, which had to be compulsorily purchased from the reluctant peer. Also in 1906, William and Gilbert Foyle relocated the bookshop they had founded three years earlier to Charing Cross Road.
Even before the road’s creation booksellers had operated in the southern part of the area and the arrival of Foyles encouraged the trade to spread along its full length. Foyles moved a short distance south in 2014, into the former home of St Martin’s school of art.
In May 2016 Westminster council granted permission for Soho Estates to demolish the original Foyles store and replace it with a bulky office block called Ilona Rose House. In doing so, the council rejected the advice of the heritage body Historic England, which argued that “this development would strike at the heart of why Soho is so special.” Ilona Rose House was completed in spring 2021.
Elswehere along the street, rent rises and the general difficulties facing bricks-and-mortar booksellers have forced some shops to close down but several remain, including a large branch of Blackwell’s and a notable cluster of specialists in the section between Litchfield Street and Great Newport Street. Since the photograph above was taken, the corner bookshop has been replaced by a Patisserie Valerie.
84, Charing Cross Road is the story of the American writer Helene Hanff’s 20-year correspondence with Frank Doel, of the antiquarian booksellers Marks and Co., at that address, which is now the site of a bar. The book has been adapted for the stage and screen.
The revered 1930s crooner Al Bowlly is commemorated with a blue plaque above the entrance to Charing Cross Mansions, where he lived in a flat overlooking Cecil Court.