The Changing Face of Oxford Street Over the Years and Into the Future

Here at Boxpod, we love all things commercial property, and retail is a big part of this in the UK.
The retail market and its commercial property closely reflect the world and society that we are living in. It gives us clues about the economy, trends and what people are spending their money on, the demographic of the area, and can also give us information about the layouts of towns and cities and the way that they have grown.
Oxford Street is one of the country’s biggest retail areas, in the heart of London. It attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every day from local Londoners to international shoppers. The street runs from London’s Marble Arch, past Regent Street, through to Tottenham Court Road and its junction with Charing Cross Road. It has been an area for retail in London since the 18th Century.

In the Beginning…

Oxford Street was originally known as Via Trinobantina – built by the Romans. In the Roman days, it became an open-air market where produce such as cattle, fish, vegetables, wine, and fabrics were sold – as well as becoming a place where the lending and trading of money occurred.
Through the ages, it has also been known as Tyburn Road, Uxbridge Road, Worcester Road, and Oxford Road, settling for Oxford Street in 1729. Tyburn – where Marble Arch now stands was originally known for its gallows, where people were executed publicly from 1388 to 1783. The prisoners would typically travel along Oxford Street from Newgate Prison to the jeers of crowds to the gallows.
All of this meant that the middle and upper classes rarely frequented the area, gaining a reputation for being seedy, fuelling prostitution, street traders, and ‘leisure activities’ such as bear baiting.

Retail on Oxford Street

At the end of the 18th Century, Oxford Street began to change its make-up, moving towards retail properties. Some of the typical retailers on the street include confectioners, watchmakers, fruiterers, booths selling strong drinks, silversmiths, china and glass shops, furniture makers, clothes shops, silk shops, lamp shops, and others. It has been recorded that from the late 1830s onwards, the street was almost entirely made up of retail units.
Some of the first shops to appear on the street include Gillow & Co. (furniture makers), Peter Robinson (drapers, of which Top Shop became a section), and Marshall & Snellgrove (a department store that later became part of the Debenhams Group).
It was in the 1870s that department stores really began to show up on Oxford Street. Marshall & Snellgrove was rebuilt and became one of the first, soon being joined by John Lewis and D H Evans. The large department stores were also accompanied by smaller, independent retailers across a range of different products.
By the end of the 19th Century, the new Central London Railway (now known as the London Underground’s Central Line) was constructed, linking the east to the west of London, and providing stations along the famous road (Marble Arch, Bond Street, Oxford Circus, and Tottenham Court Road). This was completed in 1900. The Bakerloo Line linked the north of London to the south, stopping off at Oxford Circus, and opened in 1906, and what is now known as the Northern Line calls in at Tottenham Court Road. This means that at the beginning of the 20th Century, there was easy access for shoppers and retail workers alike from most of London, and served to increase the popularity of the street.

Oxford Street in the 20th Century

The beginning of the 20th Century saw a number of department stores springing up on Oxford Street. Bourne and Hollingsworth (known as ‘Bournes’) and Selfridges were the most notable, and other successful shops also established themselves, such as Lilley & Skinner (shoe manufacturers, retailers, and distributors), C & A (clothing), and Littlewoods (general retail). By the 1930s, Oxford Street was almost completely retail but was significantly bombed during the 2nd World War.
After the war, many of the buildings that were impacted by the bombings were re-constructed and the area began to thrive again. The next big threat was to come in the 1970s when the out-of-town shopping centre concept was born. Although there were experiments with the construction of a shopping centre in the Oxford Street area, it was not overly successful, but the street managed to withstand the threat.

Oxford Street Now and in the Future

In much the same way as many other high streets across the country, Oxford Street has suffered a lot from the growth of online shopping. So much so that what was once the place to be seen for shoppers from all corners of the globe, seems to now be a hive of US-style sweet shops and souvenir shops. There is little to attract people except for a few core shops, but things are expected to change with some new investment and several high-profile shops due to arrive on Oxford Street.
It is expected that about £90 million worth of investment is going to be put into the street. As with many other high streets in the UK, Oxford Street is in need of diversification. The new plans include the addition of new retail units as well as restaurant and hotel businesses. They also include measures to make it safer for pedestrians, green areas, the implementation of multi-use areas, and places for people to sit.
Some of the retailers that have already confirmed that they will be taking space in the ‘new look’ Oxford Street include Ikea and HMV. This regeneration will also be aided by the opening of the new Elizabeth Line which stops at Tottenham Court Road station and links to Paddington, Liverpool Street, Reading, and Heathrow Airport.

High Streets Across the UK

The threats that Oxford Street has suffered over the past few years are not unique to Oxford Street. These are scenes that are seen commonly across the UK, and it is important that the same lessons are learnt (and improvements made). With more investment, diversification, and consideration for those using the space, there is no reason why they cannot thrive once again.
If you are looking for a retail unit to rent or another commercial property for your business, or, indeed, you are a landlord looking for your perfect tenants, get in touch with us here at Boxpod today!