Oxford Street is a major road in the City of Westminster in the West End of London, running from Marble Arch to Tottenham Court Road via Oxford Circus. It is Europe's busiest shopping street, with around half a million daily visitors, and as of 2012 had approximately 300 shops. It is designated as part of the A40, a major road between London and Fishguard, though it is not signed as such, and traffic is regularly restricted to buses and taxis.

The road was originally a Roman road, part of the Via Trinobantina between Essex and Hampshire via London. It was known as Tyburn Road through the Middle Ages and was once notorious as a street where prisoners from Newgate Prison would be transported towards a public hanging. It became known as Oxford Road and then Oxford Street in the 18th century, and began to change character from a residential street to commercial and retail purposes by the late 19th century, also attracting street traders, confidence tricksters and prostitution. The first department stores in Britain opened on Oxford Street in the early 20th century, including Selfridges, John Lewis and HMV. Unlike nearby shopping streets such as Bond Street, it has retained an element of downmarket street trading alongside more prestigious retail stores. The street suffered heavy bombing during World War II, and several longstanding stores including John Lewis were completely destroyed and rebuilt from scratch.

Despite competition from other shopping centres such as Westfield Stratford City and the Brent Cross Shopping Centre, Oxford Street remains in high demand as a retail location, with several chains hosting their flagship stores on the street, and has a number of listed buildings. The annual switching on of Christmas lights by a celebrity has been a popular event since 1959. However, the combination of a very popular retail area and a main thoroughfare for London buses and taxis has caused significant problems with traffic congestion, safety and pollution. Various traffic management schemes have been proposed by Transport for London, including a ban on private vehicles during daytime hours on weekdays and Saturdays, and improved pedestrian crossings.

Location

Oxford Street runs for approximately 1.2 miles (1.9 km). From Marble Arch, where it meets Park Lane, Edgware Road, and its westward continuation Bayswater Road, it runs east past Vere Street, New Bond Street and Bond Street station, up to Oxford Circus, where it meets Regent Street.[2]

Beyond Oxford Circus, it meets Great Portland Street, Wardour Street and Rathbone Place and ends at St Giles Circus, the junction with Charing Cross Road and Tottenham Court Road, next to Tottenham Court Road station. The eastward continuation is New Oxford Street, and then Holborn. The road is entirely within the City of Westminster.[2]

The street is classified as part of the A40, most of which is a trunk road running from London to Fishguard (via Oxford, Cheltenham, Brecon and Haverfordwest), although like many roads in Central London that are no longer through routes, it is not signposted with the road number. It is within the London Congestion Charging Zone.[2] Numerous bus routes run along Oxford Street, including 10, 25, 55, 73, 98, 390 and Night Buses N8, N55, N73, N98 and N207.[3]

History

Early history

Oxford Street follows the route of a Roman road, the Via Trinobantina, which linked Calleva Atrebatum (near Silchester, Hampshire) with Camulodunum (now Colchester) via London and became one of the major routes in and out of the city.[4]

Between the 12th century and 1782, it was variously known as Tyburn Road (after the River Tyburn that ran just to the south of it, and now flows underneath it), Uxbridge Road (this name is still used for the portion of the London-Oxford road between Shepherds Bush and Uxbridge), Worcester Road and Oxford Road.[5] On Ralph Aggas' "Plan of London", published in the 16th century, the road is described partly as "The Waye to Uxbridge" followed by "Oxford Road", showing rural farmland where the junction of Oxford Street and Rathbone Place now is.[2]

Despite being a major coaching route, there were several obstacles along it, including the bridge over the Tyburn. A turnpike trust was established in the 1730s to improve upkeep of the road.[5] It became notorious as the route taken by prisoners on their final journey from Newgate Prison to the gallows at Tyburn near Marble Arch. Spectators drunkenly jeered at prisoners as they carted along the road, and could buy rope used in the executions from the hangman in taverns. By about 1729, the road had become known as Oxford Street.[2]

The street began to be redeveloped in the 18th century after many of the surrounding fields were purchased by the Earl of Oxford. In 1739, local gardener Thomas Huddle began to build property on the north side. John Rocque's Map of London, published in 1746, shows urban buildings as far as North Audley Street, but only intermittent rural property thereafter. Buildings began to be erected on the corner of Oxford Street and Davies Street in the 1750s.[7] Further development along the street occurred between 1763 and 1793. The Pantheon, a place for public entertainment, opened at No. 173 in 1772.

The street became popular with entertainers including bear-baiters, theatres and public houses. However, it was not attractive to the middle and upper classes due to the nearby Tyburn gallows and St Giles, then a notorious rookery, or slum. The gallows were removed in 1783, and by the end of the century, Oxford Street was built up from St Giles Circus to Park Lane, containing a mix of residential houses and entertainment. The Princess's Theatre opened in 1840, and is now the site of Oxford Walk shopping area.

Oxford Circus was designed as part of the development of Regent Street by the architect John Nash in 1810. The four quadrants of the circus were designed by Sir Henry Tanner and constructed between 1913 and 1928.

Retail development

Oxford Street changed character from residential to retail towards the end of the 19th century. Drapers, cobblers and furniture stores began to appear on the street, and were later expanded into the first department stores. Street vendors began to sell tourist souvenirs on the street during this time. A plan of Oxford Street in Tallis's London Street Views, published in the late 1830s, remarks that almost all the street, save for the far western end, was primarily retail.[5] John Lewis started in 1864 as a small shop at No. 132, while Selfridges opened on 15 March 1909 at No. 400. Most of the southern side of Oxford Street west of Davies Street was completely rebuilt between 1865 and 1890, allowing a more uniform freehold ownership.[5] By the 1930s, the street was almost entirely retail, a position that remains today. However, unlike nearby streets such as Bond Street and Park Lane, there remained a seedy element including street traders and prostitutes. Aside from a number of fixed places on the street, there are no provisions for selling licensed goods on Oxford Street. The advent of closed-circuit television has reduced the attraction of the area to scam artists and illegal street traders.[8]

Image
View west down Oxford Street in 1961, outside Bond Street Underground station

Oxford Street suffered considerable bombing during the Second World War. During the night and early hours of 17 to 18 September 1940, 268 Heinkel He 111 and Dornier Do 17 bombers targeted the West End, particularly Oxford Street. Many buildings were damaged, either from a direct hit or subsequent fires, including four department stores: John Lewis, Selfridges, Bourne & Hollingsworth and Peter Robinson. George Orwell wrote in his diary for 24 September that Oxford Street was "completely empty of traffic, and only a few pedestrians", and saw "innumerable fragments of broken glass".[9] John Lewis caught fire again on 25 September and was reduced to a shell. It remained a bomb site for the remainder of the war and beyond, finally being demolished and rebuilt between 1958 and 1960. Peter Robinson partially reopened on 22 September, though the main storefront remained boarded up. The basement was converted into studios for the BBC Eastern Service. Orwell made several broadcasts here from 1941 to 1943.[9]

Selfridges was bombed again on 17 April 1941, suffering further damage, including the destruction of the Palm Court Restaurant. The basement was converted to a communications base, with a dedicated line run along Oxford Street to Whitehall, and allowed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to make secure and direct telephone calls to the US President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The store was damaged again on 6 December 1944 after a V2 rocket exploded on nearby Duke Street, causing its Christmas tree displays to collapse into the street outside. Damage was quickly repaired and the shop re-opened the following day.[9]

Post-war

In September 1973 a shopping-bag bomb was detonated by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) at the offices of the Prudential Assurance Company on Oxford Street, injuring six people. A second bomb was detonated by the IRA on the street by Selfridges in December 1974, injuring three people and causing £1.5 million worth of damage. Oxford Street was again targeted by the IRA in August 1975; an undiscovered bomb that had been booby trapped exploded without any injuries.[88] The IRA also detonated a bomb at the John Lewis department store on Oxford Street in December 1992 along with another in nearby Cavendish Square, injuring four.[3]

The human billboard Stanley Green began selling on Oxford Street in 1968, advertising his belief in the link of proteins to sexual libido and the dangers therein. He regularly patrolled the street with a placard headlined "less passion from less protein", and advertised his pamphlet Eight Passion Proteins with Care until his death in 1993. His placards are now housed in the British Museum.

Centre Point, just beyond the eastern end of Oxford Street next to Tottenham Court Road station, was designed by property developer Harry Hyams and opened in 1966. It failed to find a suitable tenant and sat empty for many years, eventually being occupied by squatters who used it as a centre of protest against the lack of suitable accommodation in Central London. In 2015, the building began to be converted into residential flats, with development expected to finish in 2017.[3]

Buildings

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Stanley Green advertising on Oxford Street in 1974

Oxford Street is home to a number of major department stores and flagship retail outlets, containing over 300 shops as of 2012.[3] It is the most frequently visited shopping street in Inner London, attracting over half a million daily visitors in 2014, and is one of the most popular destinations in London for tourists, with an annual estimated turnover of over £1 billion. It forms part of a shopping district in the West End of London, along with other streets including Covent Garden, Bond Street and Piccadilly.[3]

The New West End Company, formerly the Oxford Street Association, is a group that oversees stores and trade along the street; its objective is to make the place safe and desirable for shoppers. They have been critical of the overcrowding and quality of shops and started to clamp down on abusive traders, who have then been refused licences.[3]

Several British retail chains regard their Oxford Street branch as the flagship store. Debenhams originally opened as Marshall & Snelgrove in 1870; in 1919 they merged with Debenhams, which had opened in nearby Wigmore Street in 1778. The company was owned by Burton between 1985 and 1998. The London flagship store of the House of Fraser began as D H Evans in 1879 and moved to its current premises in 1935. It was the first department store in the UK with escalators serving every floor. Selfridges, Oxford Street, the second-largest department store in the UK and flagship of the Selfridges chain, has been in Oxford Street since 1909.

Image
A view of Oxford Street in 1987, with Selfridges on the right

Marks & Spencer has two stores on Oxford Street. The first, Marks & Spencer Marble Arch, is at the junction with Orchard Street. A second branch between Regent Street and Tottenham Court Road stands on the former site of the Pantheon.[16]

The music retailer HMV was opened at No. 363 Oxford Street in 1921 by Sir Edward Elgar. The Beatles made their first recording in London in 1962, when they cut a 78rpm demo disc in the store. A larger store at No. 150 was opened in 1986 by Sir Bob Geldof, and was the largest music shop in the world at 60,000 square feet (6,000 m2). As well as music and video retail, the premises supported live gigs in the store. Due to financial difficulties, the store closed in 2014, with all retail moving to No. 363.[4]

The 100 Club, in the basement of No. 100, has been running as a live music venue since 24 October 1942. It was thought to be safe from bombing threats due to its underground location, and played host to jazz musicians, including Glenn Miller. It was renamed the London Jazz Club in 1948, and subsequently the Humphrey Lyttelton Club after Lyttelton took over the lease in the 1950s. Louis Armstrong played at the venue during this time. It became a key venue for the trad jazz revival, hosting gigs by Chris Barber and Acker Bilk. It was renamed the 100 Club in 1964 after Roger Horton bought a stake in the venue, adding an alcohol licence for the first time. The venue hosted gigs by several British blues bands, including the Who, the Kinks and the Animals. It was an important venue for punk rock in the UK and hosted the first British punk festival on 21 September 1976, featuring the Sex Pistols, the Damned and the Buzzcocks.

The Tottenham is a Grade II* listed public house at No. 6 Oxford Street, near Tottenham Court Road. It was built in the mid-19th century and is the last remaining pub in the street, which once had 20.[18]

The London College of Fashion has an Oxford Street campus, which is on John Prince's Street near Oxford Circus. The college is part of the University of the Arts London, formerly the London Institute.[4]

The cosmetics retailer Lush opened a store in Oxford Street in 2015. Measuring 9,300 square feet (860 m2) and containing three floors, it is the company's largest retail premises.[20]

Oxford Street is served by many major bus routes and by four tube stations of the London Underground. From Marble Arch eastwards, these stations are as follows:

The four stations serve an average of 100 million passengers every year, with Oxford Circus being the busiest.

Crossrail, a major project involving an east-west rail route across London, will have two stations serving Oxford Street, at Bond Street and Tottenham Court Road. Each station will be "double-ended", with exits through the existing tube station and also some distance away: to the east of Bond Street, in Hanover Square near Oxford Circus;[21] to the west of Tottenham Court Road, in Dean Street.[22]

Traffic

Oxford Street has been ranked as the most important retail location in Britain and the busiest shopping street in Europe. The street is often congested both on the pavements, due to the large number of shoppers and tourists, many of whom arrive at one of the tube stations, and on the roadway as a result of the many buses routed along the street.

There is heavy competition between foot and bus traffic on Oxford Street, which is the main east-west bus corridor through Central London. Around 175,000 people get on or off a bus on Oxford Street every day, along with 43,000 further through passengers. Taxis are popular, particularly along the stretch between Oxford Circus and Selfridges. Between 2009 and 2012, there were 71 accidents involving traffic and pedestrians. In 2016, a report suggested buses generally did not travel faster than 4.6 miles per hour (7.4 km/h), compared to a typical pedestrian speed of 3.1 miles per hour (5.0 km/h).[90]

There have been several proposals to reduce congestion on Oxford Street. Horse-drawn vehicles were banned in 1931, and traffic signals were installed in the same year.[23][24] To alleviate congestion and help traffic flow of buses, most of Oxford Street is designated a bus lane during peak daytime hours, when private vehicles are banned. It is only open to buses, taxis and two-wheeled vehicles between 7:00am and 7:00pm on all days except Sundays. The ban was introduced experimentally in June 1972. It was considered a success, with an estimated increase of £250,000 in retail sales.[25][26] In 2009, a new diagonal crossing opened at Oxford Circus, allowing pedestrians to cross from one corner of Oxford Street to the opposite corner without having to cross the road twice or use the pedestrian underpass. This doubles the pedestrian capacity at the junction.[27]

Pedestrianisation

From 2005 to 2012, Oxford Street was completely traffic-free on a Saturday before Christmas, which became known as VIP Day (for "Very Important Pedestrians"). The scheme was popular and boosted sales by over £17m in 2012. In 2013, the New West End Company announced that the scheme would not go ahead that year as it wanted to do "something new".[28] In 2014 Liberal Democrat members of the London Assembly proposed that Oxford Street should be pedestrianised by 2020.[29]

In 2006, the New West End Company and the then Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, put forward proposals to pedestrianise Oxford Street with a tram service running end to end.[30] However the next Mayor, Boris Johnson, elected in 2008, announced that the scheme would not go ahead as it was not cost effective and too disruptive. In response to a request from Johnson, Transport for London undertook to reduce the bus flow in Oxford Street by 10% in both 2009 and 2010.[31] Subsequently, the New West End Company called for a 33% reduction in bus movements in Oxford Street.[32]

In 2014, Transport for London suggested that pedestrianisation may not be a suitable long-term measure due to Crossrail reducing the demand for bus services along Oxford Street, and proposed to ban all traffic except buses and cycles during peak shopping times. Optimisation of existing traffic signals along the street, including Pedestrian Countdown signals, have also been proposed. Transport for London is concerned that in the long term traffic problems may affect trade on Oxford Street, which is now competing with shopping centres such as Westfield London, Westfield Stratford City and the Brent Cross Shopping Centre. In 2015, while campaigning for election as London Mayor, Labour's Sadiq Khan favoured the full pedestrianisation of Oxford Street, which was supported by other parties.[33] After winning the election, he pledged the street would be completely pedestrianised by 2020, including a ban on buses and taxis.[90] By 2017, this had been revised forward to the end of the following year.[92]

Pollution

In 2014, a report by a King's College, London scientist showed that Oxford Street had the world's highest concentration of nitrogen dioxide pollution, at 135 micrograms per cubic metre of air (μg/m3). However, this figure was an average that included night-time, when traffic was much lower. At peak times during the day, levels up to 463 μg/m3 were recorded – over 11 times the permitted EU maximum of 40 μg/m3.[34][35] Because of the diesel-powered traffic in the street (buses and taxis), annual average NO2 concentrations on Oxford Street are around 180 μg/m3. This is 4.5 times the EU target of 40 μg/m3 (Council Directive 1999/30/EC).[36]

Crime

Oxford Street has had a reputation for having relatively high rates of crime. In 2005 an internal Metropolitan Police report named it as the most dangerous street in Central London.[93] In 2012 an analysis of crime statistics revealed that Oxford Street was the shopping destination most surrounded by crime in Britain. During 2011, there were 656 vehicle crimes, 915 robberies, 2,597 violent crimes and 5,039 reported instances of anti-social behaviour.[94]

In 2014, the United Arab Emirates issued a travel advisory warnings its citizens to avoid Oxford Street and other areas of Central London such as Bond Street and Piccadilly due to "pickpocketing, fraud and theft".[95][96]

Christmas lights

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A blue plaque at No. 363 Oxford Street commemorating the founding of HMV in 1921

Every Christmas, Oxford Street is decorated with festive lights. The tradition of Christmas lights began in 1959, five years after the neighbouring Regent Street. There were no light displays in 1976 or 1977 due to economic recession, but the lights returned in 1978 when Oxford Street organised a laser display, and they have been there every year since.[37]

Current practice involves a celebrity turning the lights on in mid- to late-November, and they remain lit until 6 January (Twelfth Night). The festivities were postponed in 1963 due to the assassination of John F. Kennedy and in 1989 to fit Kylie Minogue's touring commitments.[37] In 2015, the lights were switched on earlier, on Sunday 1 November, resulting in an unusual closure of the street to all traffic.[3]

The following celebrities have turned on the lights since 1981:

Listed buildings

Oxford Street has several Grade II listed buildings. In addition, the facades to Oxford Circus tube station are also listed.[61][62]

NumberGradeYear listedDescription
6II*1987The Tottenham[18]
34 & 36II1987Built 1912[63]
35II2009Built for Richards & Co. jewellers in 1909[64]
105–109II1986Built c. 1887 for the hatter Henry Heath[65]
133–135II2009Pembroke House, built 1911[66]
147II2009Built in 1897 for the chemist John Robbins.[67]
156–162II*1975Built 1906–08; an early example of a steel-framed structure[68]
164–182II1973[69]Former Waring & Gillow department store
173II2009The Pantheon, now Marks and Spencer[16]
219II2001[70]
313II1975Built c. 1870–1880[71]
360–366II1987[72]
368–370II2008Early 20th-century construction with 1930s facade[73]