Oxford Street

Oxford Street, Westminster

Central London’s “jugular vein of consumerism”, running 1¼ miles east–west from St Giles Circus to Marble Arch

Hidden London: Oxford Street on Christmas Eve 2016 by Poppybead

This was a medieval track, part of ‘the way to Uxbridge’, and was for­mer­ly known as Tyburn Road. The change to Oxford Street took place grad­u­al­ly between about 1718 and 1729 and the mod­ern name prob­a­bly derives from for­mer landown­ers the earls of Oxford.

The Lord Mayor’s ban­quet­ing house was a for­mer coun­try seat that stood near the mod­ern Strat­ford Place, oppo­site Bond Street sta­tion. New Bond Street reached Oxford Street in the 1720s and the ban­quet­ing house was demol­ished in 1737 when pri­vate homes, most of which still backed onto open fields, were begin­ning to line the street.

The neigh­bour­hood’s evo­lu­tion cul­mi­nat­ed in the 1810s with the cre­ation of Regent Street, which formed a cross­roads at what is now Oxford Cir­cus but was orig­i­nal­ly named Regent Cir­cus North. There­after, small shops such as book­sellers, shoe­mak­ers and gold­smiths spread out­wards from this focal point.

John Lewis opened his first shop sell­ing rib­bons and hab­er­dash­ery in 1864, pro­gres­sive­ly branch­ing out into new lines. DH Evans fol­lowed soon after­wards.

By the 1890s Oxford Cir­cus had become a noto­ri­ous traf­fic blackspot, crowd­ed with horse-drawn car­riages from dawn until dusk. Dur­ing this decade the linen drap­er Peter Robin­son relo­cat­ed here, oper­at­ing premis­es at both the north-west­ern and north-east­ern cor­ners, while Dick­ens and Jones took up res­i­dence at the south-east­ern cor­ner.

The open­ing of four Cen­tral Line sta­tions on the street in 1900 encour­aged cus­tomers to trav­el from fur­ther afield and in 1902 the Bourne and Hollingsworth broth­ers-in-law moved their store to Oxford Street from West­bourne Grove, which had been a rival for shop­pers’ atten­tions.

In 1909 Har­ry Gor­don Sel­f­ridge opened Britain’s first ‘demo­c­ra­t­ic’ depart­ment store, where you could walk around as you pleased rather than being shown from counter to counter.

Oxford Cir­cus was rebuilt over an eleven-year peri­od from 1912 as part of the recon­struc­tion of Regent Street. Oxford Street became sin­gle-mind­ed­ly devot­ed to retail­ing and the last pri­vate hous­es dis­ap­peared in 1930, to be replaced by a Gamage’s depart­ment store.

Marks and Spencer opened its Mar­ble Arch store in 1930 and the Pan­theon store in 1938. By this time, John Lewis’s busi­ness had grown to fill a pair of depart­ment stores, but these were destroyed by fire after being hit by an oil bomb in 1940. The John Lewis store was rebuilt in its present form in the late 1950s.

The first dis­play of Christ­mas lights on Oxford Street was turned on in 1959 and the event is now a heav­i­ly pub­li­cised part of the pro­mo­tion­al cal­en­dar, usu­al­ly involv­ing celebri­ties who appeal to an audi­ence of par­ents and chil­dren. Oxford Cir­cus gets so clogged with shop­pers in the run-up to Christ­mas that police offi­cers are need­ed to con­trol the pedes­tri­an cross­ings.

Today the street shifts upmar­ket from east to west, although the vicin­i­ty of Tot­ten­ham Court Road sta­tion will soon be revi­talised by the arrival of the Eliz­a­beth line (Cross­rail). At present, the dis­count traders are most­ly at the east­ern end, while depart­ment stores and flag­ship branch­es of mass-mar­ket fash­ion groups clus­ter around Oxford Cir­cus. Towards Mar­ble Arch the mix includes hotels and out­lets tar­get­ing for­eign tourists. Much of the south side of Oxford Street is owned by Grosvenor Estates, which has col­lab­o­rat­ed with West­min­ster coun­cil in mak­ing envi­ron­men­tal improve­ments.

Hidden London: traffic free Oxford Street CGI

Despite receiv­ing back­ing from Lon­don may­or Sadiq Khan, plans to pedes­tri­anise the street (as shown in the CGI above) were with­drawn by West­min­ster coun­cil in June 2018, fol­low­ing pub­lic con­sul­ta­tions. How­ev­er, coun­cil leader Nick­ie Aiken was report­ed as say­ing: “Doing noth­ing to improve the area is not an option either if we are to max­imise the poten­tial ben­e­fits from the open­ing of the Eliz­a­beth line. We must future-proof Oxford Street and the sur­round­ing dis­trict so it … main­tains its crown as the nation’s high street in an ever-chang­ing busi­ness and retail envi­ron­ment.”

Marks and Spencer’s Pantheon store occupies the site of a pharmacy where the writer Thomas de Quincey obtained his first supply of opium. De Quincey addressed the street as a “stonyhearted stepmother, thou that listenest to the sighs of orphans, and drinkest the tears of children.”

Postal district: W1
Station: Bakerloo, Central Line and Victoria lines (Oxford Circus, zone 1)
Website: Oxford Street Association
Further reading: Christopher Ross, Tunnel Visions: Journeys of an Underground Philosopher, Fourth Estate, 2001
* The picture of Oxford Street on Christmas Eve 2016 at the top of this page is adapted from an original photograph at Flickr, copyright Poppybead, made available under the Attribution 2.0 Generic licence. Any subsequent reuse is hereby freely permitted under the terms of that licence.