Harley Street

Harley Street, Westminster

London’s premier address for private doctors, Harley Street runs northwards from Cavendish Square to Regent’s Park along what was once the valley of the Tyburn river

Harley Street, copyright Edward Hands

From around 1719 Edward Harley, lat­er sec­ond Earl of Oxford, began to devel­op the Cavendish fam­i­ly estate, but Harley Street itself was not com­plet­ed until 1770. Its archi­tec­ture was wide­ly scorned for its dull­ness but the sump­tu­ous inte­ri­ors, some by the Adam broth­ers, attract­ed the upper ech­e­lons of soci­ety, includ­ing Lady Nel­son, JMW Turn­er and William Glad­stone.

The Duke of Welling­ton (as he lat­er became) rent­ed a home in Harley Street for his wife and chil­dren while he was away on his mil­i­tary cam­paigns. For­eign ambas­sadors chose the street for its quiet­ness and the qual­i­ty of its homes, and fam­i­lies from the coun­try rent­ed here dur­ing the Lon­don sea­son.

Around the mid-19th cen­tu­ry Cavendish Square became a pres­ti­gious loca­tion for physi­cians’ con­sult­ing rooms and doc­tors began to colonise the south­ern end of Harley Street in order to be near the square. Flo­rence Nightin­gale moved to Harley Street in 1853 to become super­in­ten­dent of a gentlewomen’s nurs­ing home.

It was not until lat­er in the 19th cen­tu­ry that Harley Street acquired a cachet of its own, where­upon spa­cious rooms were sub­di­vid­ed into con­sult­ing suites and large brass plaques were mount­ed on front doors, because pro­fes­sion­al restric­tions pre­vent­ed oth­er forms of adver­tis­ing. By the 1920s the street had almost com­plete­ly filled up with doc­tors and Brunswick Place was renamed Upper Harley Street to pro­vide addi­tion­al capac­i­ty.

Harley Street lost some of its prac­tices after the cre­ation of the Nation­al Health Ser­vice, but it remains syn­ony­mous with expen­sive con­sul­tan­cy, includ­ing new­er forms of treat­ment such as cos­met­ic surgery.

In Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, heroine Margaret Hale lives in ‘comfort and luxury’ with her cousin Edith Shaw at 96 Harley Street, while Charles Dickens made the street home to the obscenely wealthy Mr Merdle in Little Dorrit. Both novels were published in the 1850s.

Postal district: W1
Further reading: Percy Flemming, Harley Street: From Earliest Times to the Present Day, Lewis, 1939

 

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* The picture of Harley Street at the top of this page is adapted from an original photograph by Edward Hands at Wikimedia Commons, made available under the Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International licence. Any subsequent reuse is freely permitted under the terms of that licence.