As reported in part one and part two of this extended review, The Survey of London’s latest volume is 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 third look at the book, we focus on Oxford Street Nos. 134–162, from Wells Street to Winsley Street.

Corner view of building.
162 Oxford Street, former Mappin & Webb building, in 2013. Belcher & Joass, architects, 1907–8 and 1929. Photo: Chris Redgrave ©Historic England Archive.

In the late 18th century, the fashionable shops in Oxford Street were drapers and ironmongers’ establishments together with silversmiths and jewellers, which commonly doubled as pawnbrokers. Tailors and outfitters Hyam & Co. occupied premises at the Wells Street end of the block (Nos 134–140) and silversmiths Mappin & Webb were at the Winsley Street end (Nos 156–162). But the major influence on development was the creation of the Royal Bazaar (later named the Queen’s Bazaar) behind the centre of the block.

Hyam & Co. Ltd first opened premises at 86 Oxford Street, a small shop in the next block west beyond Winsley Street. Lawrence Hyam started out with an outfitters shop in Bury St Edmunds, then moved to Gracechurch Street, London, in 1845, before opening his West End branch. In 1862 the company moved eastwards to double premises at Nos 66-67 just east of Adam and Eve Court, its all-glass shop front framed by reeded iron columns. The premises gradually expanded, giving the shop a department-store scale and taking it halfway up the block towards Eastcastle Street.

In 1925 the Hyams were displaced by C & A Modes, a branch of the successful Dutch-German drapers founded by the Brenninkmeijer family. This was the second C & A branch to open in Britain, following their pioneering British store further west at 376-384 Oxford Street in 1922. Eventually it transferred west to Nos 200-212. Nos 134-140 were then replaced by Wells House, a commercial building due to be redeveloped at the time of writing.

Mappin & Webb’s imposing building, erected in 1906–8, was designed by the architectural firm Belcher and Joass. Sheffield cutler Joseph Mappin started a business in 1825 which was later expanded by his four sons under the name Mappin Brothers. In 1845 that company opened its first London shop in the City, later adopting the name Mappin & Webb due to their partnership with George Webb of Clapham. In due course their Oxford Street premises grew, occupying the whole of Nos 158–162, which is now a Grade II listed building. Today, Mappin & Webb still deals in watches and luxury goods, but no longer has premises in Oxford Street.

In December 1827 Thomas Hamlet, a silversmith, unveiled The Royal Bazaar, a combined shopping and entertainment centre. It was made up of three elements: the Bazaar ‘for the sale of works of art and manufactures’, the British Diorama, and an exhibition space. The bazaar was free and occupied by individual stallholders selling fancy goods; the diorama and exhibition cost a shilling each. The Diorama consisted of large, semi-transparent paintings, around 27 feet high by 38 feet wide, created by noted theatrical scenery painters. Light falling on the canvas was skilfully manipulated to give an impression of a 3-D scene – day would turn into night, seasons would change, and people would appear and disappear. The audience would watch these atmospheric dramas from a darkened platform that was mechanically rotated. The Diorama caught fire in May 1829 and most of the bazaar was burnt down. There was no loss of life but the paintings and much traders’ stock were destroyed. The bazaar was up and running again by July, and in 1834 was renamed the Queen’s Bazaar in compliment to Queen Adelaide, but it failed to capture the public’s imagination, probably because it was too close to the Soho Bazaar and the Pantheon, across the street.

An attempt made to turn the building into a theatre in 1836 failed, but the architect T Marsh Nelson eventually made an effective conversion and the Princess’s Theatre opened in 1840, retaining the old concert rooms. Named for the then Princess, future Queen Victoria, it had three tiers of boxes around a rectangular pit, plus a gallery. From 1850-1859 the theatre, under the management of Charles Kean, produced the finest Shakespearean productions the London stage had ever seen. Kean spent up to £50,000 a season, ensuring historical accuracy and splendour. He employed nearly 550 people every week and would generally stage Shakespeare three nights a week, with popular melodramas on the other nights.

The theatre closed in October 1902 and the building stayed empty until 1905 when the front of house areas were turned into shops and the auditorium became a warehouse. The theatre was demolished in 1931 and a Woolworth’s store built on the site. Similarly, the Pantheon, across the road, became a Marks & Spencer store. The theatre’s former site is now represented by Princess House of 1931–3, with a commercial Oxford Street front numbered 150–152.

After Woolworth left, Princess House in 1986 became the flagship Oxford Street HMV store, said to be the largest music store in the world, but financial issues forced it to close in January 2014 and sports goods retailer Sports Direct moved into the premises. Given the current pressures facing the UK retail sector, Oxford Street could be among the shopping streets to see sweeping changes in 2021 and beyond.

The Survey of London Volume 53: Oxford Street, edited by Andrew Saint, is published by Yale University Press, London (£75).

Helene Parry was born, bred and buttered in the South Wales valleys. She turned down a career in the steelworks to train as a journalist. Salad At The Bad Café is her first novel.