In this final instalment of my four-part review of The Survey of London volume devoted to Oxford Street, I focus on numbers 164 to 212 — the area between Winsley Street and Great Portland Street.
The premises at the Winsley Street corner, which became 164, was established in 1786 as Hayling & Parkinsons’ oil and lamp warehouse.
German writer Sophie von la Roche singles the store out in her 1786 account of shopping in Oxford Street: “Most of all we admired a stall with Argand and other lamps, situated in a corner house and forming a 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, that each one was visible as in broad daylight.”
The lighting shop’s customer service also earned a suitably glowing review: “… 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.”
Sophie notes with approval that: “The highest lord and humble labourer may purchase here lamps of immense beauty and price or at a very reasonable figure, and both receive equally rapid and courteous attention.”
As well as the oil and lamp business, the garment trade was well represented on this stretch of Oxford Street, with drapers, hosiers, haberdashers and hatters among the smarter shops. No less than three major furriers had their establishments here.
At No. 82 (later No. 170) was Nicholay’s, which by the 1840s was styling itself “Furrier to the Queen”. At the Great Exhibition in 1851, it was reported that Queen Victoria visited its stand more than once. Nicholay’s bought several of the neighbouring properties, including No. 86, where it used the rear premises, in Turk’s Head Yard, for warehousing and dressing furs.
The building shed its furs in 1867, when it was remoulded into a chic confiseriefrançaise, run by confectioner Alfred Duclos. His bonbons were much admired by fashionable London shoppers for their elegant boxes as much as for their sweetness. Sadly, disaster struck when Duclos’ strongroom in Turk’s Head Yard was robbed. The confectioner went so far as to bring in clairvoyants in an attempt to solve the crime, but his establishment did not long survive the blow.
Farmer & Taylor, manufacturers of ostrich feathers, moved from Dean Street to No 90 Oxford Street in May 1779. Printed advertisements of the time indicate that they began mainly by supplying the military, offering army officers “a large assortment of feathers of all sorts and colours” (presumably not white ones!). Over the 1780s the firm would redirect its focus towards fashionable feathers and expand into the fur trade. By 1790 its stock was listed as “consisting of several thousands of muffs, tippets and trimmings, and other articles in the fur trade, of the very best quality and workmanship” and a “great stock of white, black, coloured and fancy ostrich feathers of the best qualities”.
The dominant building along this stretch of the street is the former Waring & Gillow department store. When the building, at Nos 164–182, was built in 1904–6, it was the first West End store to occupy a whole block. It remains Oxford Street’s most lavish store front after Selfridges.
Waring & Gillow was exceptional among large stores in that it did not grow out of a clothes shop, but from the furniture and decorating trades. It was founded by Samuel Waring Junior, who later became Lord Waring (1860–1940).
Samuel’s father had inherited a Liverpool cabinet-making firm which by the 1890s was fitting out Merseyside premises and, probably, ships. Samuel built the business into an international concern, and in 1893 opened a London branch, taking showrooms at 181 Oxford Street.
Four years later he pulled off the coup of acquiring Gillow & Company, a distinguished old furnishing firm, and soon Waring & Gillow (later known as Warings) took in the whole of 175-181 Oxford Street.
The firm became a phenomenon, furnishing houses, hotels, theatres and ships the world over. During the First World War, the firm’s Lancaster factory was turned over to war production, making ammunition chests for the Navy and propellers for De Havilland DH9 aircraft.
They carried on trading until business began to decline in the 1970s, when its new owners transferred its main premises to Regent Street.
Permission was granted for the Oxford Street site to be redeveloped, but in June 1973, on the initiative of the Victorian Society, the store was spot-listed at short notice. A compromise was reached, so when the building was reconstructed in 1977-78, the Oxford Street and Great Titchfield Street fronts were retained, but Eastcastle and Winsley Streets were rebuilt in a bland brick style. Today there are a number of shops on the Oxford Street elevation and only when looking up do you get the impression that once this block was a whole shop.
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.