Christmas is looming so we thought we’d take a look at which street in London’s West End has had Christmas lights for the longest. And, no surprises, it’s Regent Street which first lit up in 1954.

Apparently prompted by a newspaper article decrying the drabness of London’s streets at Christmas, local traders got together and, via the Regent Street Association, financed the first display. Oxford Street followed in 1959.

An economic downturn meant Regent Street’s lights (and those of Oxford Street) were turned off for almost a decade but the display was resumed in 1979 and have been a part of London’s Christmases ever since.

These days the Regent Street lights are generally geared around a theme and the ceremony at which they are officially turned on has become quite an affair with celebrities performing the honours. This year singer Paloma Faith was the special guest at the ceremony with the aid of Clean Bandit.

The decorations, switched on in mid-November and featuring 300,000 LED lights, are based around “The Spirit of Christmas” theme for the second year in a row.

PICTURED: Last year’s light display/Ungry Young Man (licensed under CC BY 2.0).

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The upmarket department store chain John Lewis traces its origins back to 1864 when the man himself opened a drapers at 132 Oxford Street (later renumbered, it’s the site of the current store).

Originally from Somerset and brought up by an aunt after he was orphaned at a young age, Lewis served as an apprentice to a linen draper in Wells as a teenager before he moved to London to work as salesman for an Oxford Street draper, eventually becoming a silk buyer. He apparently turned down offer of partnership in that business, deciding instead to put out his own shingle.

Lewis slowly expanded his business into neighbouring properties and diversified into a growing range of goods – everything from clothing to furniture to kitchen china. By 1895 he had rebuilt his original shop, which now had fronts on Oxford and Holles Streets, into a multi storey department store with retail showrooms as well as a warehouse and a restaurant for customers.

More than 40 years after he opened his first shop in London, in 1905 Lewis acquired Peter Jones in Sloane Square. His sons, John Spedan Lewis and Oswald, became partners in the business in 1907. Oswald was later bought out but John, particularly while convalescing following a riding accident, began to think about how he could improve staff wages and working conditions.

However, his new ideas led to conflict with his father (known to be a tough employer) and so, in 1914, Spedan Lewis took over total control of the Peter Jones business in exchange for no longer taking any part in the Oxford Street store. Instead, turning his attention to the Sloane Square business, he introduced a profit-sharing scheme for employees as well as a representative staff council and other initiatives including the introduction of the weekly in-house magazine, The Gazette.

In 1924, Spedan Lewis was reconciled with his father and so it was that following his father’s death in 1928, he became sole owner of both businesses, bringing them together into a single entity. The famous motto – “Never Knowingly Undersold” – has apparently been in use in the Peter Jones store since it was introduced by Spedan Lewis in 1925.

In 1929, he created the John Lewis Partnership Ltd and while he continued to have practical control of the business, his reforms meant profits were distributed among employees. Twenty-one years later, in 1950, he signed settlement which saw the partnership become the property of the employees.

In 1933, the partnership purchased its first store outside London in Nottingham and it is now regarded as the largest department store retailer in the UK with 46 John Lewis shops including 32 department stores. It also owns the Waitrose supermarket chain.

The flagship Oxford Street store was almost completely destroyed during World War II. The present premises, which features a roof garden, opened in 1961. It features a famous (now Grade II*-listed) artwork – Barbara Hepworth’s Winged Figure – on the Holles Street facade near the corner with Oxford Street.

In 2008 this store was awarded a Royal Warrant from Queen Elizabeth II as “suppliers of haberdashery and household goods”.

This is the final in our current Wednesday series. We’ll be starting a new series shortly.

PICTURE: James Petts/Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 2.0

London is illuminated for Christmas. Here’s some of what photographers on Flickr have captured this year…
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Christmas in Regent Street. PICTURE: Michael Reilly/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

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Christmas tree in Waterloo Place. PICTURE: William Warby/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

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Carnaby Street. decorations PICTURE: Roger/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

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Oxford Street under lights. PICTURE: Paolo Braiuca/Flickr/CC BY 2.0  (image cropped).

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A floating Christmas tree at St Katharine Docks. PICTURE: Matt Brown/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

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Christmas lights are appearing already and shop windows are being unveiled. So in the lead-up to the yuletide celebrations this year, we’re taking a look at eight of London’s most historic department stores.

To kick it off, we’re looking at how it all started for Selfridges, the department store started by American Harry Gordon Selfridge and made famous, in recent times, as the setting for the TV series, Mr Selfridge.

Selfridge, who had been born in Wisconsin in the US, formed the company Selfridges & Co in 1906, having made his way to London from Chicago where he had been extensively involved in the department store Field & Leiter (later Marshall Fields) rising to become a junior partner in the business (he had, after leaving Marshall Fields, apparently subsequently opened his own store in Chicago but not wanting to compete with his former employees, decided to head for London).

As well as drawing on his own resources, he was backed by Samuel Waring of furniture makers Waring & Gillow, who did so on condition that he not sell furniture in his store, a condition respected long after W&G had ceased trading.

Work began on his new purpose-built neo-classical department store at 400 Oxford Street soon after. Featuring rows of columns and taking up a whole block, it was designed by American architect Daniel Burnham whom Selfridge knew from Chicago and wasn’t fully completed until 1928. As mentioned in a previous post, an idea for a colossal tower on the building was never realised.

The grand opening was held on 15th March, 1909, and, a master of the theatrical, Selfridge’s publicity campaigns had ensured a crowd and as many as 30 police officers were apparently required to help hold back the crowds.

Known to his staff as The Chief, Selfridge – who now preferred the name Gordon to Harry, kept the masses talking about his store when in July that same year he put on display the plane French aviator Louis Bleriot had used when making the first flight over water. More than 150,000 people came to see it.

Selfridge, driven by his credo that “the customer is always right”, revolutionised the way the British shopped – particularly women – with his stylish display of goods in-store and in the windows, not to mention store features like the women’s toilets (a novelty for the age), Art Deco lifts, rooftop gardens and the Palm Court Restaurant (destroyed by fire caused by bombing in the 1940s). Other facilities included a post office, theatre booking office, library and an information bureau.

And the innovations kept coming: in 1910, he opened a beauty department inside the ground-floor entrance and in 1911, the Bargain Basement was born. The world’s biggest bookshop became part of the store in 1911 as well as a pet department. He also launched a delivery system using a fleet of horse-drawn vans and then petrol and electric powered vans.

And Selfridge continued to draw crowds with events ranging from a gala charity ball on the rooftop in 1913 to a showing of John Logie Baird’s televisor in 1925. In 1931, the famous clock, The Queen of Time was installed over the flagship store’s entrance.

Selfridge, who was forced to retire in 1939 after losing much of his personal fortune – thanks at least in part to his free-spending lifestyle, died in 1947.

Aside from the flagship store in London, Selfridges stores can now be found in Birmingham and Manchester (two).

PICTURE: Russ London/Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 2.5/Image cropped

For more on the history of Selfridges, see Lindy Woodhead’s Shopping, Seduction & Mr Selfridge.

Selfridges’ flagship Oxford Street store has been an institution for more than a century.

Selfridges_nameboardCredited as being the second biggest store in the UK, the now Grade II-listed neo-Classical premises was opened in 1909. It was designed by US architect Daniel Burnham and features five above ground stories, three basement levels and a roof terrace (a western extension, designed by Sir John Burnet, was added between 1924-29).

Less known is that there was at one stage a proposal to build a massive 450 foot high tower on top of the building. Selfridges’ founder, Harry Gordon Selfridge, backed the plan for the tower – drawn up in 1918 – and apparently spent years lobbying for permission to build it before, eventually successful in those efforts, he commissioned architect Philip Armstrong Tilden and Burnet to draw up plans (you can see some of the designs on the Royal Institute of British Architects’ website here and here and a picture of a plaster model here).

Selfridge apparently didn’t like any of the plans, however, and eventually dropped the idea, his attention instead coming to focus on building the “largest castle in the world” in Dorset (another plan which didn’t go ahead).

The tower was among a number of proposed London buildings that were never built which featured in a gingerbread display in Selfridges’ famous windows in 2013.

PICTURE: Anuradha Dullewe Wijeyeratne

The Paddington Trail, London, 2014Paddington comes to the Museum of London in a new exhibition opening tomorrow to coincide with the bear’s big-screen debut. A Bear called Paddington charts the story of the character from his genesis on Christmas Eve, 1956, when creator Michael Bond bought his wife a small toy bear and named him after the railway station near where they loved across the next almost 60 years to today. Objects on display include: a first edition A Bear Called Paddington – dating from 1958, it belonged to Bond’s daughter Karen Jankel; an original illustration of Paddington by Paddy Fortnum; the typewriter Bond used to write Paddington at Work and Paddington Goes To Town; the original Paddington puppet from the 1970s TV animations; and, props from the upcoming film Paddington (released on 28th November). The free exhibition runs until 4th January. See www.museumoflondon.org.uk for more. The museum, meanwhile, is also playing host to a new life-sized statue of the famous bear designed by Benedict Cumberbatch (and known as Sherlock Bear for obvious reasons given Cumberbatch’s penchant for playing a certain detective – pictured). It forms just one stop on the Paddington Trail which, as the work of VisitLondon.com, NSPCC and film-makers StudioCanal, links 50 sites – each with their own statue of the bear – across the capital. Designed by everyone from Mayor Boris Johnson to football star David Beckham and actors Sandra Bullock and Hugh Bonneville, the bears can be found around town until 30th December. For more on the trail, including a map of locations, check out www.visitlondon.com/paddington/.

While the Oxford Street lights are already switched on (as are those in Covent Garden), Carnaby Street’s Christmas decorations are to be officially launched at 6.30pm tonight. The launch coincides with a shopping party (including 20 per cent discount), live music, free drinks, good bags and “trend masterclasses” with Grazia Magazine’s editor-at-large Angela Buttolph. Oh, and the decorations consist of eight red and white oversized sets of headphones and sunglasses. Meanwhile the Regent Street lights get turned on this Sunday with an event featuring a star-studded cast including Take That’s Mark Owen, Gary Barlow and Howard Donald (who are switching on the lights but not playing). While there’s entertainment along the street from noon, the music kicks off at 4pm and the lights, designed around the theme of the film Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, get switched-on at 5pm and will be followed by a fireworks display. For more, see www.regentstreetonline.com.

The Guards Memorial in Horseguards Parade, Westminister, has been upgrade to a Grade 1-listed structure on the advice of English Heritage. Unveiled in 1926 by the Duke of Connaught, Senior Colonel of the Guards, and General George Higginson, a Crimean veteran, the memorial commemorates the 14,000 Guardsmen who died in the First World War. Designed by architect Harold Chalton Bradshaw and sculpted by Gilbert Ledward, it features five bronze soldiers, each representing a typical soldier from each of the divisions – Grenadiers, Coldstreams, Scots, Welsh and Irish Guards.

On Now: Grayson Perry: Who Are You? This exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery near Trafalgar Square features a series of new works created by Perry during the making of his Channel 4 TV series of the same name. Interspersed with 19th and 20th century collections of the gallery, the portraits – which include a tapestry, sculptures and pots – are of families, groups and individuals and include everyone from a young Muslim convert and Celebrity Big Brother contestant Rylan Clark. Runs until 15th March. Entry is free. For more, see www.npg.org.uk.

Send all items for inclusion to exploringlondon@gmail.com.

For some it sounds like a dream come true but what is known as the London Beer Flood of 17th October, 1814, was a very real tragedy, leaving eight dead in its wake.

PorterThe flood of more than a million litres of fermenting porter – a dark beer (pictured) – occurred when corrosion caused one of the metal hoops around a three storey high vat to give way inside the Horse Shoe Brewery.

The force of the vat’s collapse – which took place late in the afternoon – caused further vats to rupture and the resulting wave of beer reportedly stood as tall as 15 foot high as it smashed into neighbouring buildings.

Standing at the corner of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street in central London, the brewery was located in the midst of the St Giles Rookery – a overcrowded slum filled with flimsy structures. This meant the damage was considerable and while many buildings were at least partially damaged, the worst hit were a pair of homes which were apparently completely destroyed.

Among the dead were four women and a three-year-old boy who were attending a wake for a child in a nearby basement and a four-year-old girl and her mother who were having tea in their house.

While an enterprising watchman apparently charged voyeurs to see the ruins of the vat, it is believed that reports mobs ran amok getting drunk on the spilt beer have no basis in fact.

The brewers, Henry Meux & Co, were subsequently taken to court but, with the incident ruled an “Act of God”, no-one could be held accountable (in fact, the brewers were refunded duties they had paid on the lost beer). The brewery itself was finally demolished in 1922 and the Dominion Theatre now stands on the part of the site.

The nearby Holborn Whippet pub now commemorates the event with a special brew.

PICTURE: Michal Zacharzewski/www.freeimages.com

Bond-Street

No, the name of the famous Bond Street in Mayfair has nothing to do with James Bond. Rather, the street – in fact, two streets named Old and New Bond Street – takes its name from a 17th century courtier, Sir Thomas Bond.

Bond was the comptroller of the household of Queen Henrietta Maria, then the Queen Mother thanks to being the widow of King Charles I and the mother of King Charles II. He was also something of a land developer – the head of a consortium that purchased Albermarle House from Christopher Monck, the 2nd Duke of Albermarle, in 1683.

The house was promptly demolished and the area redeveloped with what is now Old Bond Street – which runs from Piccadilly to Burlington Gardens – laid out in 1686 and given Sir Thomas’ surname (he’d died the previous year).

AlliesThe northern extension of Old Bond Street (which runs from Burlington Gardens to Oxford Street) – named New Bond Street – was developed in the 1720s. Caroline Taggart, in The Book of London Place Names, says it was residents of Old Bond Street who insisted on the use of ‘new’ in the name, no doubt to differentiate between themselves and the newcomers or, as Taggart suggests, ‘upstarts’.

Traditionally known as a location for art dealers (Sotheby’s auction house – identified by an ancient Egyptian bust of the goddess Sekhmet which sits on the facade – has stood there for more than a century), the street has become increasingly known for its luxury fashion and accessories retailers such as Asprey’s, Chanel, Cartier, Dolce & Gabbana, Bulgari and Tiffany & Co (see the Bond Street Association for more). Other landmark buildings in the street include the home of the Fine Art Society and the Royal Arcade.

Bond Street is also home to US sculptor’s Lawrence Holofcener’s work, Allies (pictured above), depicting former British PM Winston Churchill and US President Franklin D Roosevelt, and at the northern end stands the Bond Street Underground Station which opened in 1900.

Famous residents have included Admiral Horatio Nelson – who stayed at number 147 in 1797-98 while he recovered after losing his arm at Tenerife, eighteenth century satirist Jonathan Swift and politician William Pitt the Elder, as well as twentieth century spy Guy Burgess, who lived at Clifford Chambers before his defection to USSR.

Around Christmas, the street plays host to a rather special display of lights (pictured top).

Stuart-masque-at-Banqueting-HouseThe sights and sounds of the elaborate masques of the early Stuart Court – described as a cross between a ball, an amateur theatrical, and a fancy dress party – are being recreated at the Banqueting House in Whitehall. Historic Royal Palaces have joined with JB3 Creative to create an “immersive theatrical experience” for visitors to the building – one of the last surviving parts of the Palace of Whitehall – with the chance to try on costumes, learn a masque dance and witness performance rehearsals for Tempe Restored, last performed in the building in 1632. Inigo Jones will be ‘present’ as masque designer to talk about his vision for the performance. Weekends will also see musicians performing period music and on 27th July there will be a one-off evening event at the Banqueting House based on Tempe Restored. Admission charge applies. Performing for the King opens tomorrow and runs until 1st September. For more, see www.hrp.org.uk/BanquetingHouse/. PICTURE: HPR/newsteam.

A new exhibition looking at how some of London’s great Georgian and Victorian buildings were lost to bombs and developers before, after and during World War II – and how people such as poet John Betjeman campaigned to save them – opened in the Quadriga Gallery at Wellington Arch near Hyde Park Corner yesterday. Pride and Prejudice: The Battle for Betjeman’s Britain features surviving fragments and rare photographs of some of the “worst heritage losses” of the mid-20th century. They include Robert Adam’s Adelphi Terrace (1768-72) near the Strand, the Pantheon entertainment rooms (1772) on Oxford Street, and Euston Arch (1837). The English Heritage exhibition runs until 15th September. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/wellington-arch/.

IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) will be ‘uncovered’ in a new exhibition opening tomorrow at the National Army Museum. Unseen Enemy will tell the stories of the men and women in Afghanistan who search for, make safe and deal with the impact of the IEDs through personal interviews, images and mementoes. The exhibition has been developed with “unprecedented access” from the British Army, Royal Air Force and Royal Navy and will include a range of equipment used in detecting and disarming the devices, such as bombsuits and robots as well as medical equipment used to help those injured in explosions. The exhibition is free. For more, see www.nam.ac.uk.

On Now: Club to Catwalk – London Fashion in the 1980s. This exhibition at the V&A explores the “creative explosion” of London fashion during the decade and features more than 85 outfits by designers including John Galliano, Vivienne Westwood and Katherine Hamnett as well as accessories by designers such as Stephen Jones and Patrick Cox. While the ground floor gallery focuses on young fashion designers who found themselves on the world stage, the upper floor focuses on club wear, grouping garments worn by ‘tribes’ such as Fetish, Goth, High Camp and the New Romantics and featuring clothes such as those worn by the likes of Boy George, Adam Ant and Leigh Bowery. The exhibition also includes a display of magazines of the time. Entry charge applies. Runs until 16th February, 2014. For more, see www.vam.ac.uk. Meanwhile, tomorrow (Friday) night the V&A will celebrate the 25th anniversary of designer Jenny Packham with a series of four free catwalk shows in its Raphael Gallery. Booking is essential. Head to the V&A website for details.

• The Cutty Sark, the world’s last surviving 19th century tea clipper, reopens to the public today following a £50 million, six year conservation project. The project to restore the Greenwich-docked ship has involved raising it more than three metres so visitors can walk underneath and see for themselves the sleek lines which helped the vessel set a then record-breaking speed of 17.5 knots or 20mph in sailing from Sydney to London. As well as raising the ship three metres, the project has involved encasing the ship’s hull in a glass casing to protect it from the weather – this area also contains the museum’s extensive collection of more than 80 ships’ figureheads, never been seen in its entirety on the site. The ship’s weather deck and rigging, meanwhile, have been restored to their original specification and new, interactive exhibitions on the vessel’s history have been installed below deck. Originally launched in 1869 in Dumbarton, Scotland, Cutty Sark visited most major ports around the world, carrying cargoes including tea, gunpowder, whiskey and buffalo horns and made its name as the fastest ship of the era when carrying wool between Australia and England. The ship became a training vessel in the 1920s and in 1954 took up her current position in the dry dock at Greenwich before opening to the public. In November 2006, the ship’s rig was dismantled in preparation for a restoration project – this received a setback on 21st May, 2007, when a fire broke out aboard the ship and almost destroyed it. The ship – which was officially reopened by Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh (pictured) yesterday – is now under the operational management of the umbrella body, Royal Museums Greenwich. For more (including the online purchasing of tickets), see www.rmg.co.uk/cuttysark or www.cuttysark.org.uk. PICTURE: National Maritime Museum, London.

• A large statue of Genghis Khan has invaded Marble Arch. The 16 foot (five metre) tall sculpture of the Mongolian warlord, created by artist Dashi Namdakov, was erected by Westminster City Council as part of its ongoing City of Sculpture festival which is running in the lead-up to the Olympics. The statue has sparked some controversy – Labour councillors at Westminster have reportedly suggested Dambusters hero Guy Gibson would be a more suitable subject for a statue than the warlord Khan. The Russian artist, who has an exhibition opening at the Halcyon Gallery in Mayfair next month, told the Evening Standard he simply wanted to honor Khan on the 850th anniversary of his birth.

• Development of a new West End theatre, the first to be built in the area in 30 years, has been given the green light. The new 350 seat theatre will be part of a development project located between Charing Cross Road and Oxford Street which will also feature office and retail spaces. The site was occupied by a pickle factory in the 19th and 20th centuries and from 1927 was the home of the Astoria cinema, remodelled as a live venue in the 1980s. Live music was last presented there in 2009 when the site was compulsorily acquired for the Crossrail project.

• On Now: Crowns and Ducats: Shakespeare’s money and medals. This exhibition at the British Museum explores the role of money in Shakespeare’s world and looks at how coins – a frequently recurring motif in Shakespeare’s work – and medals were issued to mark major events. Objects in the display include Nich0las Hilliard’s ‘Dangers Averted’ medal of Elizabeth I and William Roper’s print of the Queen, the first to be signed and dated by a British artist, as well as a money box such as might have been used at the Globe and a hoard of coins, including a Venetian ducat, deposited in Essex around the time of Shakespeare’s birth. Almost every coin mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays will be on show – from ‘crack’d drachmas’ to ‘gilt twopences’. Runs until 28th October in room 69a. Entry is free. For more, see www.britishmuseum.org.

The true story of Captain Kidd and an exploration of London’s links with piracy is the focus of a new major exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands. Pirates: The Captain Kidd Story features original artefacts dating from 300 years ago when London was a site of pirate executions and tells the story of the infamous Captain Kidd’s life until his execution at Wapping’s Execution Dock. Among the artefacts is the original costume worn by actor Johnny Depp as he played Captain Jack Sparrow in the film Pirates of the Caribbean. The exhibition, which opens tomorrow and runs until 30th October, is being held in conjunction with a series of pirate related events including an adults-only pirate night on 27th May where you have the chance to sample some genuine “pirate drink” and take part in pirate speech lessons. Admission charges apply. For more information, visit the Museum of London Docklands website www.museumoflondon.org.uk/Docklands/Whats-on/Exhibitions-Displays/Pirates.htm.

The path of London’s Olympic Torch Relay has been announced and will finish with a week long jaunt through London. The torch will arrive in Waltham Forest on 21st July next year and then pass through Bexley, Wandsworth, Ealing, Haringey and Westminster before its arrival at the Olympic Stadium on 27th July. To find out how to nominate someone to carry the torch or for more information on the relay, visit www.london2012.com/olympic-torch-relay.

• On Now: London’s Underworld Unearthed: the Secret Life of the Rookery. The seedy side of the St Giles Rookery, a once infamous quarter of the capital, is laid bare in this new exhibition at the Coningsby Gallery. Back in 1751, the area was known as “a pit of degradation, poverty and crime” known for its free-flowing gin. Artist Jane Palm-Gold has displayed 18th and 19th century artifacts found during the Museum of London Archaeology’s recent excavation of old St Giles (conducted prior to the construction of the recent Central St Giles development which now covers the site) alongside her paintings, building what has been described as a “multi-layered psycho-geography that both mesmerises and disturbs”. Runs until 3rd June at the Coninsby Gallery at 30 Tottenham Street (nearest tube station is Goodge Street). Admission is free. For more information, see www.coningsbygallery.com

Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue – known for having helped cure King George VI of his stammer, the story of which is told in the recent Oscar-winning film, The King’s Speech – has been honored with a green plaque by Westminster Council. The plaque was expected to be unveiled today at 146 Harley Street, where Logue, who is known to have used fees from wealthier client to subsidise free treatments for those who could not afford them, lived from 1926 until 1952. The plaque is one of 94 which Westminster Council has placed to mark buildings of particular significance for their association with people who have made lasting contributions to society.

• On Now: The Seven Seas at Selfridges in Oxford Street. Conceptual artist Beth Derbyshire’s seven minute video installation features seven films of seven different seas around the globe. On show as part of Project Ocean – an initiative by Selfridges and 20 environmental and conservation groups aimed at celebrating the ocean’s beauty and highlighting the issue of overfishing. Runs until 8th June. For more information, see www.selfridges.com.

Still the address to have in London, the origins of the name Mayfair are just as they appear – this area to the west of the City was named for the annual May Fair which was held at what is now the trendy (and picturesque) cafe precinct of Shepherd Market during the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

The two week long annual fair was established by King James II as a cattle market on what was then known as Brookfield Market in the 1680s. Attracting other pleasure-related activities, it soon became known for its licentiousness and, having survived Queen Anne’s attempts to have it banned, was eventually stopped in the mid-1700s. Edward Shepherd, who today gives his name to the area on which Brookfield Market once stood, was an architect and developer who subsequently redeveloped the site.

These days Mayfair is generally taken to encompass an area bordered by Hyde Park to the west, Oxford Street to the north, Piccadilly to the south and Regent Street to the east. The area’s development really took off in the century following the mid 1600s (landowners included the Grosvenor family – whose name is reflected in landmarks like London’s third largest square Grosvenor Square and Grosvenor Chapel (pictured) – as well as the Berkeleys and Burlingtons) and it became a favored residential location among the wealthy – indeed, it was this very gentrification which indirectly put an end to the fair.

Today, as well as being known for high end residential real estate, it’s one of London’s most expensive shopping precincts. Landmark buildings in the area today include the hulking bulk of the US Embassy at the western end of Grosvenor Square, the Royal Academy of Arts in Piccadilly, the Handel House Museum (located in what was the home of composer George Frideric Handel), shopping arcades such as the Burlington and Royal Arcades, and various luxury hotels like Claridge’s and The Dorchester in Park Lane.

This curiously named part of London, pronounced Mar-lee-bone, takes it’s name from a church dedicated to St Mary which was originally built near a small river or stream called the Tyburn or Tybourne. Hence St Mary-le-Burn became St Marylebone.

There was a medieval village here which during the 18th century became subsumed into greater London as fashionable people sought land to the west of the city. The area – in particular Harley Street – became known as a location of choice for doctors to site their consulting rooms and is still known for its medical establishments.

Among the significant sites is the St Marylebone Parish Church (pictured right) which, consecrated in 1817, was where poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett were married in 1846 following their elopement, the John Nash-designed All Souls Church in Langham Place, the Langham Hotel which opened in 1865 and boasted Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain among guests, 221B Baker Street, fictional home of Sherlock Holmes and now the site of the Sherlock Holmes Museum, and the famous wax museum, Madame Tussauds.

Marylebone is also home to the world famous Wallace Collection, bequeathed to the government in 1897, the concert hall Wigmore Hall, the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal Institute of Architects, and the art-deco headquarters of the BBC, Broadcasting House. Marylebone High Street remains a shopping mecca offering a diverse range of independent boutiques and specialty shops while in the south, Marylebone includes one of London’s most famous shopping strips on Oxford Street.

Other famous people connected with the area include four time Prime Minister William Gladstone who lived at 73 Harley Street from 1876 to 1882, writer Charles Dickens who lived at 18 Bentinck Street while working as a court reporter in the 1830s, author Edward Gibbon, who lived at 7 Bentinck Street while writing his landmark text The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire from the 1770s, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, who worked in Upper Wimpole Street in the 1890s.

• Oxford Street and Regent Street in London’s West End will be closed to cars and buses this Saturday (27th November) as part of the sixth annual West End VIP Day. The day, which is sponsored by American Express,  will also bring singers, entertainers and celebrities hit the streets as they fundraise for the Starlight Children’s Foundation. Other entertainment will include a seven foot climbing wall on Regent Street, giant TV screens, fair ground style rides and the chance to climb inside a lifesize snow globe. Runs from 9am to 10pm. For more information, see www.westendlondon.com/vip.

• This week was National Curry Week, so to celebrate, we thought we’d tell you about London’s oldest curryhouse (in fact it’s said to be the oldest in the UK). Veeraswamy was founded in 1926 at its current location of 99 Regent Street (entry via Swallow Street) by, according to the restaurant’s website, “the great grandson of an English General, and an Indian princess”. Customers are said to have included Indira Gandhi, Charlie Chaplin, King Hussein of Jordan and Marlon Brando. See www.nationaleatingoutweek.com or www.veeraswamy.com.

Kenwood House in Hampstead, north London, is set to undergo major repair and conservation works meaning the house will be closed to the public from early summer 2012 for just over a year. The grounds will remain open. The current house was designed by Robert Adam and built over the period of 1762 to 1779 for William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield and the Lord Chief Justice. It now houses a collection of paintings bequeathed to the nation in 1927 by Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh, which includes works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Gainsborough and Turner. For more information, see www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/kenwood-house/.

On now: Compare Horatio Nelson’s handwriting before and after he lost his right arm in battle at a special showing of two of his letters at the Wellcome Collection tomorrow night (26th November). The letters are part of Hands: Amazing Appendages, a one night only show. There will also be the chance to try out some nail art, try out some surgeon’s tools and hear talks and see performances. Admission is free (but some talks and performances will be tickets – tickets available on the night only from 7pm). See www.wellcomecollection.org/whats-on/events/hands.aspx.

 

What’s in a name? – Soho

September 6, 2010

The first in an occasional series looking behind some of London’s place names. To kick it off, we’re taking a look at the origins of the name of the inner metropolitan suburb of Soho.

The name was apparently taken from a hunting cry – ‘So Ho’  and is believed to have been first used to describe this area of London in the 1600s (the cry was also later used as a rallying cry by the James Scott, the Duke of Monmouth’s men when he tried to overthrow James II at the Battle of Sedgemoor in 1685).

The area was used as grazing lands before becoming part of Henry VIII’s hunting grounds and then in the later 1600s started to undergo development, becoming known as a refuge for immigrants from Greece and France (the French Protestant Church on Soho Square is indicative of the diverse population who have lived there).

It later morphed into a somewhat seedy and bohemian entertainment district and became home to some big name writers, artists, intellectuals and musicians. Over the years, famous residents have included everyone from Karl Marx to poet William Blake.

These days, while elements of entertainment industry remain – in particular the film industry as well as some seedier establishments – the area, bordered by Oxford and Regent Streets, Charing Cross Road and Piccadilly Circus to the south, is also home to large numbers of trendy cafes, pubs and restaurants and still boasts a healthy nightlife.