As reported previously, The Survey of London has published its latest volume, for the first time devoted to a single thoroughfare — Oxford Street. The Survey, founded in 1894, is a research project to produce a comprehensive architectural survey of central London and its suburbs. In this second look at the publication, we focus on Oxford Street Nos. 70-132 — from Perry’s Place to Wells Street.
These three blocks are occupied today by modest looking buildings — apart from the Plaza shopping centre at No 120 — but in the past they have housed much innovative activity.
One notable firm successful in early and mid-Victorian London was Jackson & Graham, high quality furniture makers and one of the most prestigious cabinet makers of the 19th century. Founders Thomas Jackson and Peter Graham, cabinet makers from Cumberland, established the company in 1836 at 37 Oxford Street, then the premises were gradually expanded until the company owned six buildings along the street. They not only supplied but also made their own furniture on the premises, employing fashionable designers. To this day, furniture designed by Owen Jones for the firm can be seen in the Victoria & Albert Museum. Jackson & Graham represented Britain at many of the international exhibitions and customers included Queen Victoria, Napoleon III and the royalty of Egypt and Siam.
No. 70 at the Perry’s Place corner had the distinction of hosting the first British appearance of the Kinetoscope, the forerunner of the motion picture film projector, in October 1894. American inventor Thomas Edison had made one of the first motion picture cameras, the Kinetograph, which captured images using stop-and-go movement. The short films created in this way, advertised as “living, moving, life-like pictures”, could be viewed by one person at a time who would peer through an eyepiece at the top of a viewing cabinet – the Kinetoscope. Films shown included Blacksmith’s Shop, Wrestling Match, and Barber Shop, representations of working lives and popular culture that provided a distinctive portrait of American life.
During World War 2 Nos 70-88 Oxford Street suffered punishing bomb damage and the block was demolished as a result. The Ministry of Information took the site over for a series of exhibitions, in steel huts erected by the Ministry of Works. “Victory Over Japan”, the first, was opened shortly after VJ Day 1945 by the Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, and continued till Christmas. It included a striking display of the “jungle”, with the sights, smells, and smoke of the Burmese campaign replicated. “Germany under Control” followed in the summer of 1946, on the work of the Control Commission in the British occupied zone in that country, which attracted perhaps 200,000 visitors. Then in January 1947 came “And So To Work”, about encouraging people to overcome disabilities and bringing them back into the workforce.
At Nos 100-102 were Oslers and Century House. F & C Osler were the leading makers of ornamental glass and lighting during the nineteenth century. The glassworks were founded by Thomas Osler in 1807 in Birmingham and specialised in glass furniture and chandeliers for the overseas market. Outstanding among the Midlands glass-makers of the Industrial Revolution, the firm owed its early success to an improved method for making glass drops for chandeliers and other ornaments. Oslers opened its London shop in 1845, but maintained links with the Midlands, designing a candelabrum that was exhibited at the Exhibition of Industrial Arts in Birmingham. When the Great Exhibition was organised in London in 1851, Oslers was commissioned to create the monumental ‘crystal fountain’ at the centre of the event. The exhibition catalogue singles out the fountain as “perhaps the most striking object in the Exhibition; the lightness and beauty, as well as the perfect novelty of its design, have rendered it the theme of admiration with all visitors.”
The basement of Century House contained a restaurant from 1927, but in 1942 it became a live music venue when British drummer Victor Feldman’s father started a regular Sunday night jazz club there. During World War 2 the crowds kept coming, boosted by the club’s basement location, which made it an effective shelter. One of the club’s advertising slogans in the war years ran: “Forget the Doodle-bug – come and Jitterbug.” Post-war, the club welcomed jazz legends including Chris Barber and Humphrey Lyttleton. Restaurant use faded out in the 1950s, when the 100 Club, as it became known, kept up with changing styles of music. Blues artists such as Muddy Waters and BB King played there in the 1970s. Later, the club hosted the first ever punk festival in 1976, with The Clash and The Sex Pistols among the line-up. The 100 Club continues to showcase live music, and with its rich history, has become the venue of choice for top bands performing secret gigs, including the Rolling Stones, who have played warm-up shows there before world tours.
In further chapters, the Survey goes on to highlight other Oxford Street buildings and businesses that have become nationally-known institutions. One key reason for the street’s enduring success, it notes, is accessibility. And with the Elizabeth Line set to connect Oxford Street with Heathrow, a fresh vote of confidence in its future seems assured.
The Survey of London Volume 53: Oxford Street, edited by Andrew Saint, is published by Yale University Press, London (£75).