And so we start our journey through the W postcodes in W1. There is a lot to choose from in this postcode. W1 is synonymous with the West End. But not the West End of theatre – only 9 West End theatres are actually in W1 (Apollo, Dominion, Geilgud, Lyric, Palace, Palladium, Piccadilly, Prince Edward and Queen’s). Most West End theatres are in WC2.
But W1 is certainly the West End for shopping. As I am researching this in the run up to Christmas and publishing whilst the sales are in full swing, it seems only fitting I should focus the W1 walk on shops.
There are lots of Post Offices in W1 but I have chosen to start at a Post Office which is actually situated inside what used to be a department store. So we begin at the Post Office inside The Plaza, 120 Oxford Street.
Stop 1: The Plaza (former Bourne & Hollingsworth store)
Until 1983, this building housed a store called Bourne and Hollingsworth. Walter William Bourne and Howard E Hollingsworth started up in Westbourne Grove, only moving to Oxford Street in 1902. The building we see today dates from the 1920s. Bourne and Hollingsworth was never very grand or part of a big chain so far as I can establish, so that is probably why it has not survived.
In the mid 1980s, the building was gutted to create this mini shopping mall, called The Plaza. This was then remodelled in 1997 when a sculpture of a girl by Michael Rizzello was added on the front.
There is a little reminder of the previous name if you look high up just below the pediment at each corner on Oxford Street. Oddly at the eastern end of the building, it says “B + H”, whilst the one at the west just says “BH”. Perhaps they are just slightly different sizes.
Turn right out of the Plaza, and stay on the north side of Oxford Street. As we walk along, do look at the former HMV flagship shore at 150 Oxford Street (on same side as the Plaza). This dates from the 1930s and was originally built for F W Woolworth & Co, but they moved out in the mid 1980s.
Our next stop is on the same side of the road between Winsley Street and Great Titchfield Street.
Stop 2: 162 – 180 Oxford Street (Former Waring & Gillow store)
This building is described by architectural historian, Pevsner, as “riotous Hampton Court baroque” and it certainly is. Not sure when this stopped being Waring & Gillow but the building itself was reconstructed in 1977/78 with offices on the upper floors. Today there are a number of shops on the Oxford Street elevation and it is only when you look up you can get a hint that once this block was a whole shop.
Waring and Gillow had a long history. First as separate entities: Warings was from Liverpool and began in the mid 19th century whilst Gillows was from Lancashire and started even earlier in the 1760s. They were at the upper end of the furniture market and by the late 19th century both had showrooms in London. The two companies began a loose association in 1897 and merged to become Waring & Gillow in 1903. The first part of their new Oxford Street store opened in 1906 with the western part on Oxford Street and into Great Titchfield Street opening in 1933.
There is an interesting touch at the corners. Not initials like at Bourne and Hollingsworth but a sculptural ship’s prow. Perhaps this is a reference to the fact that Gillow did a lot of work providing furnishings for ocean going liners.
Now just across the road is our next stop at 173 Oxford Street.
Stop 3: Marks & Spencer Pantheon store
This sleek black granite facade dating from 1938 has a little clue to what was here before. If you look right up at the top in the centre, it has the name “The Pantheon”.
The Pantheon was built in 1772 as a high class place of assembly, and was so called because the main rotunda had a central dome reminiscent of the Pantheon in Rome. Its fortunes declined in the 1780s. There were various failed attempts to use the premises for opera and theatre and in the end the building was reconstructed in the 1830s as a bazaar. In 1867 it was acquired by the wine merchants W and A Gilbey who used the building as offices and showrooms, until the 1930s when Marks and Spencer acquired the site.
A completely new building was put up, designed by Robert Lutyens (son of the more famous architect Sir Edwin Lutyens). This building has been extended and rebuilt so many times since, I doubt there is much 1930s original apart of course from this distinctive facade.
Keep walking along Oxford Street, crossing to the south side when convenient before you get to Argyll Street.
Stop 4: Oxford Circus Station buildings (each corner of Argyll Street)
I know I said this was a West End store walk but I have to include the two original Oxford Circus tube station buildings as without them Oxford Street could probably not developed in the way it did. Until the tube came the only way to get to Oxford Street by public transport was by bus – the main line railways had been kept at a safe distance from the West End; the first shallow underground lines from 1863 onwards could not be extended to the West End because of the disruption that the cut and cover construction would have caused; and trams were never ever allowed in the West End.
On the east corner of Argyll Street is the earlier of the two – the Central London Railway building of 1899/1901, all red brick and biscuit coloured terra cotta. On other corner is the Baker Street and Waterloo Railway’s building of 1905/06. This was on one of three lines developed by what became Underground Electric Railways of London, the main forerunner of London Transport. Almost all their early stations had the same distinctive dark red tiling on the ground floor level and they were deliberately built so that additional floors of offices could be built above, as happened in most cases. The offices above the Oxford Circus Station date from 1922.
We tend to forget these tube lines were built by different companies and in the early days the concept of interchange on the Underground was not well developed, so that is why the two lines at Oxford Circus each had their own station. We also tend to forget that the original deep level stations in central London were all built with lifts. So these buildings would have housed the lift machinery.
Oxford Circus had a major reconstruction in the 1960s when the Victoria Line was built. A new ticket hall was created underneath Oxford Circus itself which became the main way in. But part of these old station buildings continue to be used as exits.
Go down Argyll Street and ahead at the end is Liberty’s.
Stop 5: Liberty’s, Great Marlborough Street
Arthur Lasenby Liberty first set up in half a shop at 218a Regent Street in 1875, using a £2,000 loan from his father in law. The shop sold ornaments, fabrics and objets d’art from Japan and the East. Within 18 months Liberty had not only paid back the loan but had got the lease of the other half of the shop.
The Crown Estate owned the freehold of all the property in Regent Street and started a wholesale reconstruction in the early 20th century. The first world war intervened and so much of what we see today dates from the 1920s. In order to keep trading Liberty’s built a new store on Great Marlborough Street in 1922/23 whilst their main store in Regent Street was being rebuilt. The Regent Street building is now split up into various shops and so today people think of Liberty’s only as the Great Marlborough Street building.
The two buildings were connected by a couple of bridges, which people rarely notice.
The Great Marlborough Street store is quite unique. It is built out of the timbers of two 19th Century Royal Navy ships: HMS Impregnable and HMS Hindustan. The length of the frontage on Great Marlborough Street is the same as that of the Hindustan. It was built in the traditional manner of a tudor building with no nails or glue. Sadly Arthur Lasenby Liberty did not live to see his new store as he died in 1917.
Pevsner by the way hated this building saying: “the scale is wrong, the symmetry is wrong, the proximity to a classical facade put up by the same firm at about the same time is wrong, and the goings on of a store behind such a facade (and below those twisted Tudor chimneys) are wrongest of all”
Before we leave Liberty’s, look out for a couple of nice touches. The weathervane atop in the centre is a galleon said to be modelled on the Mayflower.
And then above the main bridge is a clock and underneath a little homily about time: “No minute gone comes ever back again. Take heed and see ye do nothing in vain.”
Go the full length of the Liberty store and cross Regent Street when you get to it. Look back across the road and you will see the former Liberty building on Regent Street (with its lovely curving facade on the upper floors).
Our next stop is on the other (northern) corner of Great Marlborough Street and Regent Street.
Stop 6: 224 – 244 Regent Street (former Dickens & Jones store)
This building was Dickens and Jones which closed in January 2006, having traded in Regent Street since 1835. Back then it was Dickens, Sons and Stephens. Then in the 1890s it became Dickens and Jones when Sir John Pritchard Jones became a partner. The Regent Street side of the present building dates from 1919 /1921 and was part of the reconstruction of Regent Street.
The business was acquired by Harrods in 1914 as its first store beyond the original Knightbridge store. Harrods was itself taken over by House of Fraser in 1959 but both stores carried on under their original names. Harrods was subsequently demerged from House of Fraser but Dickens and Jones stayed as a House of Fraser store until it closed. The building is now spilt into a number of stores.
Walk up towards Oxford Circus but turn left into Princes Street. Go into Hanover Square and then right up Harewood Place. Cross Oxford Street when you get to it and go down Holles Street, stopping when convenient to look at our next stop.
Stop 7: John Lewis store
John Lewis has been trading here on Oxford Street since 1864 – so no doubt John Lewis will have some sort of 150th birthday celebration in 2014.
By all accounts John Lewis was an autocratic employer and his management style led to disputes with his sons, John Spedan and Oswald. It was John Spedan Lewis who in effect gave the company away after his father’s death – first with profit sharing in 1929 and then to full employee ownership in 1950.
The store we see on Oxford Street dates mainly from the late 1950s and has a distinctive sculpture on the corner of Holles Street. What other department store chain would have commissioned leading sculptor Barbara Hepworth to create a work to go on the side of their new store. It is a stringed aluminium piece dating from 1963 called “Winged Figure” and it looks like it has had a bit of brush up for its 50th birthday.
Although the store had been virtually wiped out in the Blitz, the rear of the building is actually pre-war.
In the 1930s John Lewis had already rebuilt their Peter Jones store and were in the process of rebuilding the Oxford Street store when war intervened. They started at the Cavendish Square end of the store and this part of the store survived the Blitz. You can see the building changes as you get towards Cavendish Square.
Go round the back of John Lewis into Henrietta Place and the next block after John Lewis is the rear of the House of Fraser store.
Stop 8: House of Fraser (former D H Evans) store
This is a fine example of an inter war department store, dating from 1935/37, with streamlining fins making it feel taller than it is. What is interesting about this building is that it does not just have a decorative facade on Oxford Street. As you can see the side and the back of the building are properly finished.
The man D H Evans was as the name suggests Welsh – from Carmarthenshire. Dan Harries Evans having learned his trade as a draper in South Wales coming to London in 1878, first setting up business in Westminster Bridge Road but coming to Oxford Street in 1879. House of Fraser acquired this store in 1959 and it traded under its original name until 2001.
Useless fact: This was the first store in London to have escalators serving every floor.
Continue along Henrietta Place and then turn right into Wimpole Street. You will see the modern day Debenhams ahead of you but this will have to wait a while.
Go down Wimpole Street and cross Wigmore Street when you get to it. Turn left along the north side. Stop outside the Wigmore Hall
Stop 9a: former Debenham & Freebody store
Immediately opposite the Wigmore Hall is another former department store – this was Debenham and Freebody. You can see why this store has not survived. Wigmore Street could not compete with Oxford Street as a shopping destination.
Debenham and Freebody had quite a history though. It originated with a draper’s business started in 1778 by William Clark. William Debenham became a partner in 1813 and the name changed to Clark and Debenham. In 1851, Clement Freebody became a partner and the name changed to Debenham and Freebody. Expansion occurred after the First World War under its then chairman Ernest Debenham when he acquired the Marshall and Snelgrove company, more of which anon.
The building on Wigmore Street dates from 1907/08 and is faced with white glazed tiles. Unlike other surviving shops from this era, the grand entrance in the middle goes straight to a staircase. In a minute, cross over the road and have a look though the main doors. I think this entrance tells us Debenham and Freebody was a very grand store indeed, unlike its modern day successor.
But before you that do we cannot ignore the Wigmore Hall, which was sort of a shop.
Stop 9b: Wigmore Hall
On the face of it this building is not a shop, but the Wigmore Hall was originally built as an adjunct to the piano showrooms of the German piano manufacturer, Bechstein. Designed by Thomas Edward Colcutt, the building was opened in 1901 as the Bechstein Hall. It is said to have near perfect acoustics. The external decoration is a of pale terra cotta and has similarities to one of Colcutt’s other buildings, the theatre in Cambridge Circus, now known as the Palace.
Bechstein was forced to cease trading in June 1916 following the passing of the Trading with the Enemy Act 1916 – what a great title for an Act of Parliament. The property was seized and sold at auction. It was bought by Debenhams for £56,500 somewhat less than the £100,000 it had cost to build. It was rechristened the Wigmore Hall in 1917 and has been called that ever since. No sure when the Debenhams connection ended, but I assume it has.
The Hall today is run by a not for profit organisation but they do not own the freehold of the building. However according to this story this should not be a problem as they have got a 300 year lease starting from 2012! http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=a8Lh_ZwQ6Ayg&refer=culture
Now cross over (at a suitable safe location) and take a peek in the main door of the Debenham and Freebody building. Then go along Wigmore Street and turn left into Welbeck Street.
As we walk down Welbeck Street, we pass number 1, which looks like it was actually part of the Debenham and Freebody building. This was until fairly recently used as the corporate headquarters of the Debenham group of companies. It is currently being refurbished but for now you can still see the Debenham name by the door.
Ahead of us at the end of Welbeck Street is the building which houses the modern day Debenhams.
Stop 10: Debenhams (former Marshall and Snelgrove store)
So back to Debenhams. This was originally Marshall and Snelgrove, the first store to be acquired by Debenhams. James Marshall started his store in Vere Street in 1837 and was joined by John Snelgrove in 1848. About this time the store moved to new premises on the corner of Vere Street and Oxford Street. Marshall and Snelgrove expanded into fashionable provincial towns like Scarborough and Harrogate. They did not fare well during the First World War and in 1916 started a working relationship with Debenhams which led to a full merger in 1919.
The current building dates from the late 1960s and in the early 1970s the store was rebranded as Debenhams. It was considerably rebuilt in 1987 when a huge atrium was created with escalators running through it. And just recently it has been undergoing a £40 million refurbishment which included cladding the building with 180,000 aluminium tiles which ripple in the wind. However this is an improvement on what was there before.
Now go down Vere Street to Oxford Street and turn right. Our next stop is just across the road.
Stop 11: 363 Oxford Street (HMV)
This is the famous HMV store but all is not what it seems.
There is a blue plaque at the front which proclaims this was the most famous music store in the world and was opened by composer Sir Edward Elgar in July 1921. Well not quite, as that store burnt down in 1937 and the facade we see today dates from 1939. And in 2000, HMV moved out so the building was home to a giant Foot Locker store for more than a decade. HMV only came back to 363 Oxford Street in October 2013, when it down sized from its previous flagship store at 150 Oxford Street (which we saw earlier). And by the way that old fashioned looking sign is a replica of what used to be here.
The blue plaque was unveiled by Sir George Martin when the original store closed in 2000. Martin famously produced most of the Beatles tracks and the plaque references a Beatles connection. The store used to have a recording studio and in February 1962 a certain Brian Epstein used the store’s recording facilities to cut a demo disc with a band he was managing – a little-known act named The Beatles. According the HMV store website, “the tracks were heard by publishing company Ardmore & Beechwood, based in the same building, who put the young Epstein in touch with Parlophone’s George Martin and…well, you know the rest.”
It is hard to believe not so long ago there were two large HMV stores on Oxford Street plus two Virgin megastores not to mention Tower Records at Piccadilly Circus – which by the way was in the lower half of an old department store building (Swan and Edgar). Now this HMV is the last large music store standing. However I would not bet on this HMV store making it to its centenary year in 2021.
Continue walking along Oxford Street and you cannot miss our final stop.
Stop 12: Selfridges
We have to finish at Selfridges which is the largest store in Oxford Street and second largest store in the UK – only Harrods is bigger.
Where do you begin to start to tell the story of Harry Gordon Selfridge – a man who made his money in department stores in Chicago plus marrying well, and then came to London to shake up the retail scene here. He also credited with coining phrases such as “the customer is always right” and “[x] shopping days to Christmas”.
Selfridge had a colourful life, as we have been seeing in the TV series, Mr Selfridge. And we have already heard in our SW15 walk that he ended his days in reduced circumstances with his daughter in a rented flat in Putney.
He lived life to the full and he loved to gamble. And this was not just at the clubs. In 1917 he and the managing director of Harrods made a bet that 6 years after the end of (First World ) War, Selfridge’s turnover would be greater than of Harrods. He lost and even today Harrods is still the bigger store. The bet was called in in 1927 and Selfridge’s forfeit was to have a model of Harrods made in silver. This can still be seen today in the middle of Harrods Bank. (NE corner of basement- ie the end of the store nearest the tube station).
Selfridges store was not built in one go. The eastern end was the first part to be built in 1909, but the rest was not built until the 1920s, by which time it was looking a little old fashioned.The focus in the centre is the clock and sculpture. The clock dates from 1931 but the sculpture called “Queen of Time” is perhaps a little earlier.
And so time has run out for our W1 walk which focussed mainly but not exclusively on shops and looked at some of the forgotten ones as well as some of the big names of today.
As we are in the heart of the West End, there are lots of buses for onwards travel – plus of course Bond Street station is just down the road.