London’s Oxford Street is undergoing a painful reinvention as some of its biggest names close their doors. House of Fraser is expected to leave in January, while Debenhams, Topshop, French Connection and Gap are already shuttered. While there are no guarantees for the future, there is hope in the fact that the nation’s retail mecca has undergone multiple reinventions. Here, we take a walk through 300 years of Oxford Street history, through the evolution of five key buildings.
150-154: from dioramas to Sports drama
Billionaire Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct has just lavished £10m creating a London emporium designed to throw off its bargain tracksuit image and dazzle the crowds when it opened this summer.
His chosen site has been involved in drama from the start. When the Royal Bazaar opened its doors in 1827, it offered a mix of entertainment and retail with artworks and other goods on sale alongside a diorama, where audiences stood on a rotating platform to view semi-transparent paintings lit to give the impression of changing seasons or shifts from day to night. The diorama caught fire, and by 1840 the Princess Theatre had opened in its place, hosting high class Shakespeare plays and popular melodramas, according to Andrew Saint’s Survey of London published for the Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London, and informs our history of the street.
It was not until 1931 that new owners created Princess House, a modern building housing offices and workrooms and an outlet for relatively new arrival, Woolworths, which occupied the basement and ground floors complete with a cafeteria and lunch bar for 500 people.
Woolworths departed in 1977, 32 years before the UK business went bust and disappeared from Britain’s high streets, and the site became a shopping mall called Oxford Walk. Then in 1986 HMV moved in, claiming the three-floor 600,000 sq ft (55,740 sq metres) store was “the biggest music shop in the world”.
Such space became increasingly redundant as new technology diminished demand for vinyl records then CDs and DVDs and HMV went into administration in late 2013, making way for cut price fashion chain Sports Direct to move in.
214 Oxford Street: from the Bazaar to Ikea
Once the sparkling gem of British high street fashion, Topshop’s former flagship on Oxford Street lies empty. Now being refitted to lead furniture chain Ikea’s march on to high street, this north-east corner of Oxford Circus encapsulates the history and the future of British shopping in one site.
In 1858 the spot debuted as the Crystal Palace Bazaar, an iron and glass-roofed shopping arcade selling toys, jewellery and other goods, in a building designed by the architect Owen Jones who had been involved with the Crystal Palace. The glittering emporium only had a small entrance on Oxford Street which, at that time, was not a major shopping destination. As trading dwindled, the building was bought by Yorkshire draper Peter Robinson in 1876 as part of the expansion of his clothing business.
In 1912, a building covering the entire block was erected with Peter Robinson occupying the lower floors and an upper floor restaurant crowned by domed ceilings decorated with murals, which are still there today. In 1965, the department store’s basement became home to Topshop which in 1994 took over the building, hosting a hairdressers and a nail bar alongside its giant changing rooms. Sports brand Nike took over the prime corner plot in 1999. Topshop finally exited the high street last year after it fell into administration and was bought by online specialist Asos.
252-258 Oxford Street: pig pen to BHS and crazy golf
The 2016 closure of Oxford Street’s BHS, and its dozens of other outlets around the country, was at the heart of a retail scandal. The collapse of the ailing department store, just a year after it was sold for £1 to a serial bankrupt by the retail tycoon Sir Philip Green, led to thousands of redundancies and a hefty pension deficit only covered by Green’s family after public outcry.
The department store’s grubby end came after even grubbier beginnings, with part of site on the Cavendish-Harley estate once home to Nibbs’s Pound for lost pigs, according to Saint. There was also a stable yard nearby, alongside the Phoenix pub.
Redevelopment began in the reign of George I and by the 1780s there were a range of shops including a saddler and a print seller. The occupants were eventually bought out by Spedan Lewis, the head of John Lewis, in 1928.
After John Lewis came the fast expanding BHS, which opened its flagship there in 1961.
The site has now been divided into a pick and mix array of uses including Polish fashion chain Reserved!, Swingers crazy golf and a tourist souvenir and sweet shop. One name has remained a constant for the last 300 years, however: the block still houses a pub called the Phoenix.
456-464 Oxford Street: from bootmakers to controversy
Marks & Spencer’s Marble Arch flagship store is right at the sharp end of the reinvention of the Oxford Street.
The retailer wants to raze its current plot, which includes Orchard House, completed in 1930, to make way for a building that will halve its selling space, from five floors to just two-and-a-half, topped by several floors of offices. The development will include a shopping arcade, a small park and potentially leisure facilities, such as a gym.
While Westminster council has given approval for the plan, pending the go-ahead from the mayor of London, campaigners have urged a rethink, criticising the scheme over its potential carbon footprint and destruction of a historic building.
The loss of retail space, however, is very much back to the 19th century for Oxford Street.
Like most of the street this stretch began as terraced houses. By the 1830s all had shops on the ground floor, with homes or small workrooms for businesses, such as milliners or dressmakers, above.
Orchard House was commissioned by tearoom operator Lyons & Co which used the upper floors as training rooms until the late 1960s. M&S, which opened its first London store in 1899 having grown from a penny bazaar in Leeds, initially took the ground floor and basement of the new building.
Marks & Spencer gradually expanded to take more of the building, before the rise of online shopping made such acreage redundant.
499 Oxford Street: Edward Lutyens to Primark
Primark’s 100,000 sq ft store near Marble Arch caused mayhem when it opened its doors in 2007, with shoppers queuing down the street for two hours and battling to snap up cut price fashion at the chain’s first central London outlet. Primark has endured a difficult few years during the pandemic when it has been forced to close its doors for months on end, with no online sales to fall back on. But that is nothing compared with the grim fortunes of previous retailers in this spot.
Once the site of several grand houses on the Grosvenor Estate’s Hereford Gardens, it was taken on by the Gamages department store group in 1928 which wanted to expand from its Holborn base to a new store with flats above. The building cost more than £1m, with construction overseen by the arts and crafts era star architect, Sir Edward Lutyens. While the luxury flats were a success, the store, which opened in 1930 at the height of the Great Depression, closed after only eight months.
In 1938 it was bought out, becoming the UK headquarters of C&A, which used the upper floors as its offices. The Dutch fashion chain had opened its first UK outlet just eight years earlier, further along Oxford Street, and continued to trade until 2001 when its rainbow logo and cheap fashions had fallen out of favour. The site was next taken on by Allders department store, but by 2005 that group collapsed into administration with hefty debts, paving the way for Primark’s grand entrance.