For the wit, Whig and clergyman Sydney Smith it was ‘the golden parallelogram’. The area bounded by Hyde Park to the west and Regent Street to the east, extending north to Oxford Street and south to Piccadilly, enclosed ‘more intelligence and ability, to say nothing of wealth and beauty, than the world had ever collected in such a space before’. In the long summer months when he was confined to his Somerset parish at Combe Florey, Smith tried and failed to love the countryside. He looked forward instead to the return of ‘bad weather, coal fires and good society in a crowded city’. Rohan McWilliam’s West End is bigger than Smith’s. It begins further east, at what is now Kingsway, and carries on south to the Strand, but it is conceptually the same, a sort of flying island of sophistication, sociability and pleasurable consumption. In its late Georgian incarnation, as Smith knew it, the West End probably was an unprecedented phenomenon. London was the biggest city anyone had ever seen and in the Napoleonic era, where McWilliam begins, it was the richest and most stable in Europe. Money, antiquities and dispossessed aristocrats flooded in to thicken the mix.
In cities built along a river, inhabitants who can afford it generally move upstream so that the prevailing winds and tides carry the worst of the smell away from them. London’s wealthy had been moving west since the 17th century and McWilliam fixes on Charles II’s Restoration in 1660 as the moment when the economy took off again after the uncertainties and destruction caused by the Civil Wars. The plague saw only a temporary retreat, and the population of London quadrupled between 1550 and 1700. It was rapidly overtaking Paris, and the West End, with its salubrious air and proximity to the Houses of Parliament and the Court of St James’s, was more attractive than ever. Its rise was unstoppable, its nature always mutable. There was no crisis from which it did not emerge invigorated. John Nash designed Piccadilly Circus as a rond-point for his great picturesque town plan leading up Regent Street to the Regent’s Park. The view south was to culminate in the Prince Regent’s Palace at Carlton House. Long before the work was finished, however, Prinnie got bored and decided he wanted to move to Buckingham House. Carlton House was dismantled and the materials as far as possible reused to upgrade Buckingham House to palace level, leaving the view from Piccadilly open to the shambling and much compromised buildings of the old Palace of Westminster. After these burned down in 1834, the spires and crockets of its Gothic replacement made the view from Piccadilly one of the great architectural set pieces of Europe. Chance and fashion have always trumped planning in the West End.
As the 19th century wore on and the area became less residential, the great private houses of the aristocracy were increasingly hemmed in by shops, inns and theatres. Lord Cavendish, irritated by passers-by throwing oyster shells and other rubbish over his garden wall at Burlington House, blocked it off on the west side by building the Burlington Arcade – then, as now, the longest arcade in Britain. Despite all the accidental and deliberate destruction of the last two hundred years, the history of the West End is still legible on the ground. Rules, the first English restaurant in the modern sense, has been in Covent Garden since 1798, Hatchards bookshop in Piccadilly since 1797. Bonhams and Christie’s, the auction houses where the spoils of the Napoleonic Wars were sold off, still host spectacular sales. In St James’s, the last of the town palaces still in the hands of its original owners, Spencer House, survives. Burlington House was sold off to the government in the 1850s and modified by Robert Smirke, with what Pevsner called ‘high Victorian cruelty’, to house the Royal Academy. Charles Barry Jr and Robert Banks added the ranges that enclose the courtyard and house the Linnean, Geological and Astronomical Societies and the Society of Antiquaries. Solid Victorian temples to art and the life of the mind, they preserve something of the dignity, not to say stand-offishness, of a private palace, which no amount of open-air coffee stalls and modern art installations can quite dispel. The ghost of the private palaces also haunts the club houses of Pall Mall, a new building type in the 1830s and 1840s that took its cue from the old.
It is in these spaces that combine, in varying proportions, the private and the public – shops, cafés, lecture halls, clubs and theatres – that the charm of the pleasure district lies. The pleasure seeker is out and about, free from the obligations of either host or guest, yet still assured of a congenial milieu, whether looking at paintings, browsing in perfumeries or scanning a menu. Among the features of the West End which were novel and luxurious for the later Georgians were pavements, plate glass shop windows and streets lit at night. The German novelist Sophie von La Roche was in her fifties when she visited London and she had never seen anything like Oxford Street. ‘Just imagine,’ she wrote home in 1786, ‘a street taking half an hour to cover from end to end, with double rows of brightly shining lamps, in the middle of which stands an equally long row of beautifully lacquered coaches, and on each side of these there is room for two coaches to pass one another.’ It was the dawn of window shopping, made possible not only by the newly enlarged glass windows, but by wide pavements where browsers could stand ‘six people deep’ to admire prints, fans or pyramids of fruit.
Bright lights epitomise the charm of cities and, before gas, any artificial light was a novelty. La Roche was especially entranced by a stall selling ‘Argand and other lamps’:
a really dazzling spectacle; every variety of lamp, crystal, lacquer and metal ones, silver and brass in every possible shade; large and small lamps arranged so artistically and so beautifully lit … There were reflecting lamps … large pewter oil vessels, gleaming like silver … and oil of every description, so that the lamp and the oil can be bought and taken home together if one likes, the oil in a beautiful glass flask, and the wick, too, in a dainty box.
The many light shows of Georgian London included transparencies painted on canvas and backlit with oil lamps to mark notable public occasions. The Treaty of Amiens in 1802 saw a display outside the French ambassador’s residence where the figures of France and England stood united between the words ‘Peace’ and ‘Concord’. Unfortunately, some sailors in the crowd whose spelling was weak felt insulted at the implication they had been conquered and started a riot. The transparency was taken down and ‘Concord’ hastily repainted to read ‘Amity’.
Unruly elements were always present in the West End, just beyond the pools of light. The shelter of the shopping arcade was useful for soliciting, the gawping out-of-town tourist an easy mark for a pickpocket. In Covent Garden, two centuries before George Young described the homeless as ‘the people you step over when you come out of the opera’, departing audiences were picking their way through prostitutes and cabbage leaves left over from the market. Shortly after Trafalgar Square was created in the 1840s, in belated tribute to Britain’s victory in 1805, it became the usual meeting place for large demonstrations. After riots during the unemployment marches of 1886, the police attempted to ban protesters but were successfully opposed, notably by the revolutionary Social Democratic Federation, which claimed it as a public space; the resulting clashes culminated in the Bloody Sunday of November 1887.
It is usual for urban centres to contain extreme contrasts and not unusual for them to be scenes of conflict. What is striking about the West End is the peculiar compound of establishment and anti-establishment, how often the pleasure seekers and the protesters are the same people on different days. This was notable in the anti-Brexit demonstrations, much mocked at the time for their resemblance to the crowd at a John Lewis sale, and similar remarks were made about the Iraq War protests. William Morris, a leading figure in the SDF, was issued with a summons for obstruction in July 1886, six years after his firm had been commissioned to decorate the throne room at St James’s Palace. In a demonstration on the afternoon of 1 March 1912, suffragettes broke shop windows from the Strand all the way up the Haymarket to Regent Street, where Liberty’s took a particularly heavy pounding. The shop’s owner, in an interview with the Evening News, remarked in wounded tones that ‘women have regrettably turned against the shrines at which they usually worship.’ In fact, they were merely operating on different principles. Selfridges escaped unscathed because Harry Gordon Selfridge was known to be in favour of the vote.
Much of McWilliam’s book is devoted to the theatres, always the beating heart of the West End, the brightest of the bright lights. At the beginning of his account only the patent theatres, principally Covent Garden and Drury Lane, were licensed to perform spoken drama. This was the heyday of Romantic theatre, when the first great actor-managers – Philip Kemble, with his brother Charles and their sister Sarah Siddons – transformed the drama. A generation of great actors met a generation of great critics, including Hazlitt, Coleridge and Byron, and the London theatre was a centre of literary and intellectual life as never before or since. In an auditorium without dimmable lights or sound amplification, everything depended on intense intimacy between players and audience. Drury Lane, however, where the Kembles were based, was owned by Sheridan, who used it as a cash cow for his political career. Frequent artistic differences culminated in Sheridan’s insistence that Kemble put on a production of Vortigern and Rowena, a supposedly lost play by Shakespeare which he, Kemble and most of the audience knew to be a forgery. Sheridan had Drury Lane rebuilt on a vastly bigger scale to increase revenue and the Kembles decamped to Covent Garden.
Next to bankruptcy, the greatest threat to the theatres was fire, and the new Drury Lane incorporated the first iron safety curtain, despite which it burned down in 1809. Sheridan, knowing he was ruined, watched from the pavement, drink in hand, remarking to a quizzical passer-by that a man could surely enjoy a glass of wine by his own fireside. He had also been, in a sense, responsible for burning down Covent Garden the year before, as it was thought that wadding from a musket fired in a production of his popular play Pizarro had started the fire. The new Covent Garden was inevitably much bigger. The Kemble era was over and the complaint that West End theatre isn’t what it was began, never to cease. Each new generation, meanwhile, failed to notice the decline and relished the experiences of its own day. The young Victorians grew up with the spectacular shows that filled the vast new auditoria and marked the golden age of pantomime, of spangled acrobatic clowns and live tigers. Dickens, Ruskin and Victoria herself belonged to a generation of stage-struck children.
The sequence of disastrous fires and megalomaniac rebuilding continued until the 1840s, when the monopoly of the patent theatres came to an end, opening the way for countless venues for spoken drama. Theatre buildings changed as lights became dimmable. The great apron stages withdrew under the proscenium arch; the stalls, once the cheapest part of the theatre, were carpeted and raked and became expensive. Tip-up seats, programmes, interval refreshments and lavatories (though never enough for women) were introduced, and as the railways brought in crowds from the suburbs the ‘day in town’ became an event, typically a shopping trip which culminated in ‘taking in a show’. By 1900, the West End was primarily theatreland, with more theatres to the acre than any city except New York, but the continuing war between art and commerce meant that while Ibsen and Shaw were transforming British drama, it was Charley’s Aunt, Peter Pan and The Scarlet Pimpernel that played to packed houses. Yet there was also Boucicault and, at the end of the century, Wilde. The theatres themselves were designed in a style for which McWilliam has coined the apt term Populist Palatial. Almost the only building type to prove immune to the Victorian Gothic revival, they remained for the most part grandiosely neoclassical. One striking exception was the Palace Theatre at Cambridge Circus, a terracotta-fronted, turreted instance of what Pevsner calls the ‘Loire style’. It was built for Richard D’Oyly Carte in the late 1880s and its interior was a vision of marble and velvet. Conceived as a full-blown opera house, it was a commercial failure and its successful reinvention as the Palace Theatre of Varieties, an upmarket music hall, reflected ever changing times. While straight theatre became more middle class, variety, somewhere above music hall and below drama in the cultural hierarchy, grew up to cater for the aspiring working class and the more experimental pleasure seekers of the bourgeoisie. Acts of every sort were popular, from comedy and burlesque to song and dance and magic acts. So many animals appeared at the Coliseum in St Martin’s Lane that it had its own stables.
Like the Palace and the Coliseum, the Empire, Lyceum, Palladium, Alhambra and Hippodrome were named to emphasise both grandeur of scale and nobility, or at least respectability by association. The pleasure district was always vulnerable to complaints about the kind of pleasures on offer. On stage, total nudity was not allowed. The poses plastiques, however, in which young women formed tableaux vivants while wearing body stockings or were arranged behind strategically placed fans and vases, were permitted, so long as nobody moved. Movement, clothed or unclothed, was another source of anxiety for the self-appointed guardians of public morals. Particularly troubling were the exotic dancers. ‘The dances of eastern women in the low haunts of Tunis and Rangoon’ were not, a ‘well known professor of dancing’ informed the Daily Chronicle, the sort of thing ‘we would want to provide for the young men and women of English society’. The last of the theatres to be built on Shaftesbury Avenue, itself a creation of the 1880s when it was carved through from Piccadilly Circus to New Oxford Street, was the Prince’s, in 1911. By 1968, when theatre censorship at last came to an end, it had been renamed the Shaftesbury and celebrated by putting on Hair, which ran for nearly five years, the ticket sales boosted by periodic outbursts of protest.
Throughout McWilliam’s period the bright lights of the West End grew ever brighter. The shows of Georgian London, the panoramas, dioramas and the artist Philippe de Loutherbourg’s Eidophusikon, seemed for decades to be straining towards photography, which arrived in 1839. Louis Daguerre, inventor of the diorama, in which backlit canvases appeared to show moving pictures by the manipulation of lights and reflectors, published the details of his photographic process, and the same year a French photographer, M. de St Croix, took a daguerreotype at Charing Cross. Looking down Whitehall past the statue of Charles I, it caught the last of Georgian London. Today only the statue and Inigo Jones’s Banqueting House survive. In 1906, the first purpose-built cinema appeared on Oxford Street. The ‘kinematograph’ followed the preference for Greek-derived names but was not especially quick to take off. When it did, the ‘cinemas’, like the club houses of the 1830s and 1840s, took their architectural cue from their ancestors, inheriting the old variety halls’ fondness for grandeur by association, with chains of Odeons, Granadas and Plazas. The Populist Palatial, a style with few rules beyond achieving the maximum of bang to buck, found natural expression in the hotels and department stores which began to proliferate around the turn of the century. Waring and Gillow in Oxford Street was conceived as a scaled-down version of Hampton Court Palace.
Hotels were a relatively late development. For much of the 19th century most visitors stayed at inns or lodgings while the aristocracy either owned a house or rented one for the season. Mivart’s in Brook Street, which opened in 1812, was the first truly smart hotel, but it wasn’t until the 1890s that the Grand Hotel – which, like the operatic variety theatres, was a Continental import – came to prominence. William Claridge, who had been in service as a butler, took over Mivart’s, which became Claridge’s. D’Oyly Carte built the Savoy, run by César Ritz, who went on to have his own hotel chain, but unlike the theatres, the hotels of London’s West End were never in the top rank internationally. The American hotels de luxe were the biggest and best. As the journalist George Sala put it: ‘The American hotel is to an English hotel what an elephant is to a periwinkle.’ The Savoy, Claridge’s and the Berkeley on Piccadilly became established as smart places not only to stay, but for non-residents to dine and even for women to dine alone. Fewer grand families took a house for the season and it became acceptable to hold a ball or even a wedding reception in a hotel function room. In 2011, Kate Middleton’s decision to spend the night before her wedding at the Goring in Belgravia, rather than at a private residence, marked the latest step in this direction. Like the hotels, the ever multiplying restaurants were semi-public places with a clientele that was self-selecting, largely according to expense, in addition to which, at the top end, lay the many elephant traps of the menu (usually in French) and the bewildering array of knives, forks, soup spoons and snail tongs to deter the socially insecure. Yet no amount of sophistication could ensure decency. At Oscar Wilde’s committal the judge was horrified to learn that some of his offences had been committed at the Savoy. ‘It is a state of things one shudders to contemplate in a first-class hotel.’
McWilliam is an academic and so tends to preface the most unexceptionable statements with ‘I argue’. He is also sometimes given to elaborate terminology which complicates the obvious. We do not need a ‘theatreologist’ to tell us that the theatre is a ‘liminoid’ space ‘where identity is not definite but subject to role-playing’. For the most part however, he covers a great deal of ground at a lively pace and his extensive bibliography points down many byways to be pursued for further information. Oxford Street, the latest volume of the Survey of London, is narrower in geographical scope but broader in chronology. It turns up the magnification to a level of detail that is richly impressive and especially compelling just now. With the West End in its present state of suspended animation, the survey’s promenade through its past, up to the point before the first lockdown struck, is as close to being there as it is possible to get. Like Oxford Street as it exists today, the Survey of London is an essentially Edwardian project, begun in 1894 on the initiative of the arts and crafts designer C.R. Ashbee. The first volume appeared in 1900 and it still has a long way to go. It has come at various times under the auspices of the London County Council and the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England; its present home is with the Bartlett School of Architecture, where it continues the heroic enterprise that has adapted to changes in printing and reproduction, and to the shift from amateur to professional operations. Responding to the unusual nature of its material, this is the first volume to be devoted to a single street rather than a historic parish.
The pivot is Oxford Circus, a creation of Nash’s plan, marking the intersection of the old and new West Ends. Regent Street, which traverses it north-south, was the first purpose-built shopping street. Oxford Street, running east-west, was in existence before the Romans came. For most of the 18th century it was a muddy road, dangerous in many ways, a ‘suburban via dolorosa’ of pubs, bare-knuckle boxing, cut-throats and pig pounds, culminating at Tyburn, where public executions took place until 1759. Hangings at temporary gallows continued in the area until 1783, but three years later it had become the fairyland scene of light and luxury described by La Roche. Oxford Street has existed in a state of ‘persistent incoherence’ for centuries. The paving of the road in 1770 marked the first great improvement, transforming it into an urban street. Gradually, the surrounding areas in Marylebone and Mayfair were infilled with houses and businesses and grew prosperous. Only Tyburn lowered the tone. Once executions were stopped – and Tyburn, named for the now vanished Tyburn Brook, became more popularly known as Marylebone – Oxford Street was on its way to becoming smart, ‘the ladies’ mile’, dominated by shops.
There were other attractions. The Princess’s Theatre enjoyed a brief heyday in the 1850s under the actor manager Charles Kean, a thespian in the Vincent Crummles mode. ‘My theatre is small – my ideas are large,’ he wrote to Prince Albert’s secretary. ‘I cannot act in a commercial spirit.’ He and his wife put on lavish productions of Shakespeare in what appeared to the high Victorians to be historically accurate costumes until, inevitably, the money ran out. The other great non-retail Oxford Street phenomenon, and the only one to get its own chapter, was the Pantheon, with its huge rotunda. Opened in 1772, it survived until 1937, when the site was sold to Marks and Spencer’s. It was conceived as winter assembly rooms, an indoor equivalent of the pleasure gardens of Vauxhall and Ranelagh, and the neoclassical design by James Wyatt was thought by Gibbon to be ‘the wonder of the 18th century and the British Empire’. It was visited by Boswell and Johnson, featured in Fanny Burney’s Evelina, illustrated by Turner and caricatured by Rowlandson, so that it lives in historic memory as one of London’s great ghost buildings. As well as balls and concerts, the Pantheon hosted the King’s Theatre for some years and in 1784 Lunardi exhibited his hot air balloon there. He showed it again in 1785 – when, unfortunately, a skylight collapsed and it burst.
It was as a shopping street, however, that Oxford Street became famous and the Edwardian years saw its great flowering in the golden age of the department store. Among the most prominent were Waring and Gillow, with its overblown Wrenaissance front on the eastern side of the circus, countered to the west by Selfridges, where Harry Gordon Selfridge, a native of Chicago, deployed the latest American techniques of rapid metal-frame construction on a grid plan behind a neoclassical façade of ‘unprecedented audacity and swagger’. The only Victorian store to survive under its original name is John Lewis, which had a particular role in the street’s development. The first John Lewis, who came to London from Somerset in 1856 and set up shop initially as a draper, was an ‘obdurate and litigious’ businessman who took on his landlords, the Howard de Walden estate. After years of legal wrangling he secured full beneficial ownership of his premises, a landmark judgment for commercial tenure in London. His son, the more irenic John Spedan Lewis, was responsible for the firm’s other great innovation, the profit-sharing partnership scheme. The present store, by architects Slater and Uren in a style of ‘orderly, restrained Modernism with a hint of Scandinavian influence’, was completed in 1960.
Less of the historic West End survives at ground level in Oxford Street than in Piccadilly or Mayfair, but there is plenty to see if you look up. In addition to the wealth of historic illustrations, maps and plans, the survey includes superb new photographs of buildings that passers-by rarely notice above eye-height. Above Primark, at Nos. 14-28, is the handsome faience frontage of the former Lyons Oxford Corner House. At No. 8, above McDonalds, there is the ‘robust brick front with crowning gablet in the Waterhouse-Romanesque manner, perhaps of c.1880’ that was once a tailor’s or clothier’s shop. These are the traces of the changing retail patterns of the 19th century: from small to big, from individual stalls, bazaars and arcades to giant specialised emporia and department stores. This process went into reverse in the later 20th century with the rise of shopping centres and malls, which translated in Oxford Street into individual concessions within larger stores. Published last year, Oxford Street now has a remote and elegiac aura. How many of the closed shops will reopen is uncertain. Shopping habits and the peculiar compound of the pleasure district will be changed for ever – again.