Oxford Street

Oxford Street is a major road in the City of Westminster in the West End of London, running from Tottenham Court Road to Marble Arch 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.

Oxford Street
View east along Oxford Street in May 2016
Location within Central London
Former name(s)Via Trinobantina
Tyburn Road
Maintained byTransport for London
Length1.2 mi (1.9 km)
LocationLondon, United Kingdom
Postal codeW1
Nearest Tube station
Coordinates51.515312°N 0.142025°W / 51.515312; -0.142025
West endMarble Arch
East endTottenham Court Road / Charing Cross Road
Known for

The road was originally part of the Via Trinobantina, a Roman road between Essex and Hampshire via London. It was known as Tyburn Road through the Middle Ages when it was notorious for public hangings of prisoners in Newgate Prison. It became known as Oxford Road and then Oxford Street in the eighteenth century, and began to change from residential to commercial and retail purposes by the late-nineteenth century, attracting street traders, confidence tricksters and prostitution. The first department stores in the UK opened in the early-twentieth century, including Selfridges, John Lewis & Partners and HMV. Unlike nearby shopping streets such as Bond Street, it has retained an element of downmarket 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. As a popular retail area and main thoroughfare for London buses and taxis, Oxford Street has suffered from traffic congestion, a poor safety record and pollution. Various traffic management schemes have been implemented by Transport for London (TfL), including a ban on private vehicles during daytime hours on weekdays and Saturdays, and improved pedestrian crossings.


Oxford Street runs for approximately 1.2 miles (1.9 km). It is entirely within the City of Westminster.[1] The road begins at St Giles Circus as a westward continuation of New Oxford Street, meeting Charing Cross Road, Tottenham Court Road (next to Tottenham Court Road station). It runs past Great Portland Street, Wardour Street and Rathbone Place to Oxford Circus, where it meets Regent Street. From there it continues past New Bond Street, Bond Street station and Vere Street, ending on Marble Arch.[1]

The road is within the London Congestion Charging Zone. It is part of the A40, most of which is a trunk road running from London to Fishguard (via Oxford, Cheltenham, Brecon and Haverfordwest). Like many roads in Central London that are no longer through routes, it is not signposted with that number.[1] Numerous bus routes run along Oxford Street, including 10, 25, 55, 73, 98, 390 and Night Buses N8, N55, N73, N98 and N207.[2]


Early history


Map of the local area before urbanisation

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.[3]

Between the 12th century and 1782, it was variously known as Tyburn Road (after the River Tyburn that crossed it north to south), Uxbridge Road (the name still used for the road between Shepherds Bush and Uxbridge), Worcester Road and Oxford Road.[4] 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.[5]

Though 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.[4] 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 jeered as the prisoners were carted along the road, and could buy rope used in the executions from the hangman in taverns.[6] By about 1729, the road had become known as Oxford Street.[5]

Development began in the 18th century after many surrounding fields were purchased by the Earl of Oxford.[6] In 1739, a local gardener, Thomas Huddle, built property on the north side.[7] John Rocque's Map of London, published in 1746, shows urban buildings as far as North Audley Street, but only intermittent rural property beyond. Buildings were erected on the corner of Oxford Street and Davies Street in the 1750s.[8] Further development occurred between 1763 and 1793. The Pantheon, a place for public entertainment, opened at No. 173 in 1772.[7]

The street became popular for entertainment including bear-baiters, theatres and public houses.[9] However, it was not attractive to the middle and upper classes due to the nearby Tyburn gallows and the notorious St Giles rookery, or slum.[6] 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.[6][7] The site of the Princess's Theatre that opened in 1840 is now occupied by Oxford Walk shopping area.[7]

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.[10]

Retail development

Oxford Street changed in character from residential to retail towards the end of the 19th century. Drapers, cobblers and furniture stores opened shops on the street, and some expanded into the first department stores. Street vendors sold tourist souvenirs during this time.[7] A plan 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.[4] John Lewis started in 1864 in small shop at No. 132,[11] while Selfridges opened on 15 March 1909 at No. 400.[12] Most of the southern side west of Davies Street was completely rebuilt between 1865 and 1890, allowing a more uniform freehold ownership.[4] 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.[13] Aside from a number of fixed places, there are no provisions for selling licensed goods on Oxford Street.

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 direct hits 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".[14] 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.[14]

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 allowing 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 repaired and the shop re-opened the following day.[14]


In September 1973 a shopping-bag bomb was detonated by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) at the offices of the Prudential Assurance Company, injuring six people.[15] A second bomb was detonated by the IRA next to Selfridges in December 1974, injuring three people and causing £1.5 million worth of damage.[16] Oxford Street was again targeted by the IRA in August 1975; an undiscovered bomb that had been booby trapped exploded without any injuries.[17] The IRA also detonated a bomb at the John Lewis department store in December 1992 along with another in nearby Cavendish Square, injuring four people.[18]

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",[13] and advertised his pamphlet Eight Passion Proteins with Care until his death in 1993. His placards are now housed in the British Museum.[19]

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 remained empty for many years before being occupied by squatters who used it as a centre of protest against the lack of suitable accommodation in central London. In 2015, building work began to convert it into residential flats, with development expected to finish in 2017.[20]


Oxford Street is home to a number of major department stores and flagship retail outlets, containing over 300 shops as of 2012.[21] It is the most frequently visited shopping street in Inner London, attracting over half a million daily visitors in 2014,[22] and is one of the most popular destinations in London for tourists, with an annual estimated turnover of over £1 billion.[23] It forms part of a shopping district in the West End of London, along with other streets including Covent Garden, Bond Street and Piccadilly.[24]

The New West End Company, formerly the Oxford Street Association, oversees stores and trade along the street; its objective is to make the place safe and desirable for shoppers. The group has been critical of overcrowding and the quality of shops and clamped down on abusive traders, who were then refused licences.[23][25]

Several British retail chains regard their Oxford Street branch as the flagship store. Debenhams 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.[26] The London flagship store of the House of Fraser began as D H Evans in 1879 and moved to its current premises in 1935.[27] It was the first department store in the UK with escalators serving every floor.[28] Selfridges, Oxford Street, the second-largest department store in the UK and flagship of the Selfridges chain, has been in Oxford Street since 1909.[29]

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.[30]

The music retailer HMV 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.[31] A larger store at No. 150 was opened in 1986 by 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. Because of financial difficulties, the store closed in 2014, with all retail moving to No. 363.[32]

The 100 Club, in the basement of No. 100, has been run as a live music venue since 24 October 1942. It was thought to be safe from bombing threats because of 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 he 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, 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.[33]

The Tottenham is a Grade II* listed pub 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.[34][35][36]

The London College of Fashion has an Oxford Street campus on John Prince's Street near Oxford Circus. The college is part of the University of the Arts London, formerly the London Institute.[37]

The cosmetics retailer Lush opened a store in 2015. Measuring 9,300 square feet (860 m2) and containing three floors, it is the company's largest retail premises.[38]

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

The four stations serve an average of 100 million passengers every year, with Oxford Circus being the busiest.[39]

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;[40] to the west of Tottenham Court Road, in Dean Street.[41]


Oxford Street has been ranked as the most important retail location in Britain and the busiest shopping street in Europe.[42] The pavements are congested because of shoppers and tourists, many of whom arrive at a tube station, and the roadway is regularly blocked by buses.[43]

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.[42] Between 2009 and 2012, there were 71 accidents involving traffic and pedestrians.[44] 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).[45]

There have been several proposals to reduce congestion on Oxford Street. Horse-drawn vehicles were banned in 1931, and traffic signals were installed the same year.[46][47] To prevent congestion of buses, most of Oxford Street is designated a bus lane during peak hours and private vehicles are banned. This is only open to buses, taxis and two-wheeled vehicles between 7:00am and 7:00pm on all days except Sundays.[42] The ban was introduced experimentally in June 1972 and was considered a success, with an estimated increase of £250,000 in retail sales. However, the area is popular with unregulated rickshaws, which are a major cause of congestion in the area. Their slow speed, coupled with the narrowness of the street (buses are unable to pass them, causing long traffic queues) only add to the traffic woes. [48][49] In 2009, a new diagonal crossing opened at Oxford Circus, allowing pedestrians to cross from one corner of Oxford Street to the opposite without needing to cross twice or use an underpass. This doubles the pedestrian capacity at the junction.[50]


From 2005 to 2012, Oxford Street was closed to motor traffic on VIP Day, (Very Important Pedestrians), a Saturday before Christmas. The scheme was popular and boosted sales by over £17m in 2012 but in 2013, the New West End Company announced that the scheme would not go ahead as it wanted to do "something new".[51] In 2014, Liberal Democrat members of the London Assembly proposed the street should be pedestrianised by 2020.[52]

In 2006, the New West End Company and the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, proposed to pedestrianise the street with a tram service running end to end.[53] The next Mayor, Boris Johnson, elected in 2008, announced that the scheme was not cost effective, too disruptive and would not go ahead. In response to a request from Johnson, Transport for London (TfL) reduced bus flow by 10% in both 2009 and 2010.[54] The New West End Company called for a 33% reduction in bus movements.[55]

In 2014, TfL suggested that pedestrianisation may not be a suitable long-term measure due to Crossrail reducing the demand for bus services on the street and proposed banning all traffic except buses and cycles during peak shopping times.[43] Optimisation of traffic signals, including pedestrian countdown signals, was also proposed.[56] TfL is concerned that long-term traffic problems may affect trade, which competes with shopping centres such as Westfield London, Westfield Stratford City and the Brent Cross Shopping Centre.[44] In 2015, while campaigning for election as London Mayor, Labour's Sadiq Khan favoured pedestrianisation, which was supported by other parties.[57] After winning the election, he pledged the street would be completely pedestrianised by 2020.[45] In 2017, the project was brought forward to be completed by the end of the following year.[58] The plan has been disapproved by local residents, Westminster City Council and the Fitzrovia Business Association.[59][60]


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). The 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.[61][62] Because of diesel-powered traffic (buses and taxis), annual average nitrogen dioxide concentrations are around 180 μg/m3. This is 4.5 times the EU target of 40 μg/m3 (Council Directive 1999/30/EC).[63]


Oxford Street has suffered from high crime rates. In 2005, an internal Metropolitan Police report named it as the most dangerous street in Central London.[64] In 2012, an analysis of crime statistics revealed that Oxford Street was the shopping destination most surrounded by crime in the UK. During 2011, there were 656 vehicle crimes, 915 robberies, 2,597 violent crimes and 5,039 reported instances of anti-social behaviour.[65]

In 2014, the United Arab Emirates issued a travel advisory, warning Emirati citizens to avoid Oxford Street and other areas of Central London such as Bond Street and Piccadilly due to "pickpocketing, fraud and theft".[66][67] The advent of closed-circuit television has reduced the area's attraction to scam artists and illegal street traders.[68][69]

Christmas lights

Every Christmas, Oxford Street is decorated with festive lights. The tradition of Christmas lights began in 1959, five years after neighbouring Regent Street. There were no light displays in 1976 or 1977 because of economic recession, but the lights returned in 1978 when Oxford Street organised a laser display, and have continued every year since.[70]

Current practice involves a celebrity turning the lights on in mid- to late-November, and the lights remain until 6 January (Twelfth Night). The festivities were postponed in 1963 because of the assassination of John F. Kennedy and in 1989 to fit with Kylie Minogue's touring commitments.[70] In 2015, the lights were switched on earlier, on Sunday 1 November, resulting in an unusual closure of the street to all traffic.[71]

Listed buildings

Oxford Street has several Grade II listed buildings. In addition, the façades to Oxford Circus tube station are also listed.[72][73]

Number Grade Year listed Description
6 II* 1987 The Tottenham[36]
34 & 36 II 1987 Built 1912[74]
35 II 2009 Built for Richards & Co. jewellers in 1909[75]
105–109 II 1986 Built c. 1887 for the hatter Henry Heath[76]
133–135 II 2009 Pembroke House, built 1911[77]
147 II 2009 Built in 1897 for the chemist John Robbins.[78]
156–162 II* 1975 Built 1906–08; an early example of a steel-framed structure[79]
164–182 II 1973[80] Former Waring & Gillow department store
173 II 2009 The Pantheon, now Marks and Spencer[30]
219 II 2001[81]
313 II 1975 Built c. 1870–1880[82]
360–366 II 1987[83]
368–370 II 2008 Early 20th-century construction with 1930s facade[84]

Cultural references

Oxford Street is mentioned in several Charles Dickens novels. In A Tale of Two Cities, as Oxford Road, it is described as having "very few buildings", though it was heavily built up by the late 18th century. It is also mentioned in Sketches by Boz and Bleak House.[85]

The street is a square on the British Monopoly game board, part of the green set (together with Regent Street and Bond Street). The streets were grouped together as they are all primarily retail areas.[6] In 1991, music manager and entrepreneur Malcolm McLaren produced The Ghosts of Oxford Street, a musical documentary about life and history in the local area.[86]

See also



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  7. Hibbert & Weinreb 2010, p. 611.
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Further reading

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