Oxford Street: Introduction

Page 171

Survey of London: Volume 40, the Grosvenor Estate in Mayfair, Part 2 (The Buildings). Originally published by London County Council, London, 1980.

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Oxford Street

For the casual passer-by, there is little now to mark off the character of the Grosvenor estate's frontage to Oxford Street from the remainder of what has for two centuries been one of the world's longest shopping streets, consisting of over a mile of uninterrupted commercial development, now almost exclusively Victorian or more recent in date. The Grosvenors' portion of this, between Park Lane and Davies Street, merges naturally with the rest, for during the present century Oxford Street has gradually assumed a special kind of commercial homogeneity, notably at shop level.

This is not a new phenomenon. Tallis's view of Oxford Street (fig. 42), drawn for his guide of 1838–40 and offering a conspectus of the whole street's appearance at that date, shows that it then consisted almost uniformly of modest, irregular Georgian houses with shop fronts; only at the very west end close to Park Lane, where there was a scatter of substantial private houses and their outbuildings, did our portion diverge from this pattern. Yet a visitor seventy years ago, just before Selfridges made its imposing presence known, might have derived a different impression. At that time the north side of Oxford Street was still much as in Tallis's day, but west of Davies Street the south side had been entirely rebuilt, mainly over a twentyfive-year span between 1865 and 1890. This reconstruction had not led to the kind of informal homogeneity attained in Mount Street, the estate's other shopping street to be rebuilt at this time. But it did bring greater uniformity than other stretches of Oxford Street (where ownership of the freehold was more fragmented) could then boast. Today, commercial pressures and the decline of the autocratic traditions of estate management which prevailed in the later nineteenth century have contributed to a return to the old state of affairs.