Rohan McWilliam’s impressive history of the West End embraces the area from Kingsway to Bond Street and Oxford Street to the Strand. It is the first in a two-volume project aiming to cover the West End’s story from its beginnings to the present day.

Lights on Oxford Street.
Oxford Street lights illuminate a district of consumption and entertainment.

In McWilliam’s words, it is “the first ever history of the district which was a substantial force for cultural change in the nineteenth century.” As you might expect, it is comprehensive as well as detailed. Beginning with its development for the needs of aristocrats requiring homes near Parliament and away from the stinks of the City and East End, the book tells us how the West End later became predominantly a bourgeois space; not just middle-class but middlebrow in the leisure activities it offered. And, it was, from the beginning, a space of consumption: in diarist Arthur Munby’s words a place for, “Mammas and daughters making purchases, and elegant young women in silks flitting about.”

The first part of McWilliam’s story moves from the early nineteenth-century aristocratic new West End to the late-nineteenth century middle-class West End. The later part of the book delves into the theatre world that fascinated all classes and shows how the West End tradition became more populist with the opening of the music halls and variety shows. The same thing happened with eating out, as entrepreneurs like the Gatti family – many of them immigrants – created delectable dining experiences for everyone. The West End is, in many ways, shown to be a conservative space that served the needs of the upper classes and the bourgeoisie. But, at the same time, it was, and is, a place where “people feel they can behave differently” from their ordinary, everyday selves; a place where norms can be undermined. These two strands in the history of the West End are kept in balance throughout the book.

In some ways, McWilliam saves the best till last in his final chapter, The Other West End. This looks at the West End, the shopping and entertainment centre of London, with fresh eyes as the heart of empire. The Victorian image of Great Britain as the centre of the world was made visible in grand architecture and triumphal spaces like Trafalgar Square, as well as being acted out on its stages, in its first cinemas and even in its ballet performances. Most of all, the West End was a place where huge crowds could gather to celebrate national victories. The chapter begins with a vivid picture of Londoners massing to cheer the relief of Mafeking in May 1900: “Word spread from person to person and from cabman to van driver; it charged down Ludgate Hill in the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral and along Fleet Street. Could it really be true? The evening papers in turn quickly trumpeted the news. Within a few minutes the streets of central London were resounding to choruses of ‘Rule Britannia’ and a dramatic saturnalia of music and dancing took over the West End. Cyclists brandishing union jacks on long rods and men in carriages created an unruly percussion.” Here, London was created as the capital of Empire.

In seeing the West End as “a place where dreams of empire were manufactured”, McWilliam’s racial heritage – his mother is from Ceylon as it was then known – could well have played a fruitful role. And, crucially, he does not forget those otherwise excluded from the story Britain tells about itself: the poor and unemployed who took over the space of Nelson and empire to protest their condition in Trafalgar Square.

London’s West End: Creating the Pleasure District 1800-1914, by Rohan McWilliam, Oxford University Press, 2020.

Ann Basu is a writer and historian. Her book Fitzrovia: The Other Side of Oxford Street was published in 2019.