A Subterranean Mystery on Oxford Street

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Subterranean London is a fascinating subject. The city has been inhabited for millennia, built and rebuilt over itself. A lot of history has ended up underground: once-navigable rivers, lengths of the Roman Wall, a Roman amphitheater, Medieval catacombs, Shakespearean theaters. Back in 2005 a commenter on the All In London forums asked:

Does anybody know anything about the supposed Victorian High Street underneath the present Oxford Street? Evidently Oxford St was raised up years ago but there is a tunnel underneath where the original cobbled road still stands and the part facias of Victorian shops. Or is this just an urban myth?

The question was provoked by a recently-aired television interview with the actor John Altman. Altman played Thomas De Quincey in a segment of Malcolm McLaren’s film, The Ghosts of Oxford Street, which aired on British television around Christmastime in 1991. It was a portmanteau film that combined music and short narrative vignettes to tell the history of the titular London street. De Quincey frequented Oxford Street as a teenager at the turn of the nineteenth century, while living alone in poverty in the capital. There he struck up a tender and doomed relationship with a young prostitute named Ann. In Ghosts of Oxford Street Altman delivers a monologue as De Quincey in what appears to be a ramshackle shop with arched masonry ceilings and what might be windows and a doorway. Clips from the film were later broadcast in 2004 as part of The 100 Greatest Christmas Moments, a “best of” program on Channel 4. During an interview for that program, Altman recalled being led through a hole under Selfridges department store by McLaren to the tunnel in question.

Other commenters remembered seeing the buried “shops” in Ghosts of Oxford Street. One commenter wrote that his mother worked on Oxford Street in the 1930s and confirmed that there were “roads underground. Down ladders to [U]nderground, postal workers sent goods to customers. You could come up to other streets like Harley street. She used to walk them herself.” But this seems to be a reference to the Post Office Railway which operated, between 1927 and 2003, very near by.

It is certainly not unreasonable to imagine that the raising of a street would bury an older portion. If one looks through a metal grate on Charing Cross Road at Old Compton Street one sees part of the former Little Compton Street. Two tiled signs bearing the name are visible, set in a brick wall. But this is immediately below street level, not at a depth lower than the sub-basements of a department store.

Author Antony Clayton investigated the claims in a long piece on his blog in 2013:

At the time that I was writing my folklore book I tried to obtain a copy of The Ghosts of London but it wasn’t out on dvd and didn’t appear on You Tube or anything similar; nobody I knew had recorded it. Last week, however, another audience member told me that it could now be seen on Channel 4’s tv on demand website here. So yesterday I finally managed to see this intermittently entertaining former rarity (with a ridiculous performance from Leigh Bowery) on my laptop and guess what? I cannot find the scene filmed in a preserved street of Victorian shops under Oxford Street…

The main candidate must be the section on Thomas de Quincey (1785-1859), played by John Altman, filmed in what looks like a set dressed to signify decadent dilapidation—it may be intended to represent shops as an obviously non-authentic sign reads ‘Boots apothecary’. There are however no ‘perfectly preserved’ Victorian shop fronts, nothing to indicate that it lies beneath Selfridge’s and, owing to the camera position, no view of a cobbled street.

Clayton ends by asking the most obvious question: “Could this now firmly established piece of subterranean folklore be based on a misremembering of a small part of the Ghosts of Oxford Street that was, as far as I know, only shown on the one occasion in 1991; the urban legend does not appear to predate that year.” In 2016 the press office of Selfridges told Clayton that the story “was a myth started by the Ghosts of Oxford Street film.”

And yet there are still those who claim to have seen the subterranean street. A reader of Peter Watts’s blog claimed in 2013 that the street was located beneath Lilley & Skinner, not Selfridges. Watts quotes the following correspondence from Steve Lloyd:

‘In the early 80s I was manager of Lilley & Skinner at 356-360 Oxford Street (the largest shoe store in the world according to the Guinness Book of Records). The staff entrance to the store was at the rear along Barrett Street. Here was a short driveway downhill into the building where I used to park. Also situated here was the maintenance department and adjacent was a concrete staircase which led down to several lower levels that were really no more than cellars. The lads in maintenance had told me about the ‘old street’ that was down there and took me down one day to have to have a look.

Though of course very interesting there was not a lot to see, just a bit of old shop front under some arches and some cobbled street. The lads said that the council had put a preservation order on it and that we weren’t allowed to use the space in any way.

I found some stills from The Ghosts of Oxford Street a couple of years ago after I saw it discussed on this forum and I have to say that they are exactly how I remember the site at Lilley & Skinner.

The first is one of the arches and the second is the piece of shop front and window frame. Entering the right of the store from Oxford Street you’d go downstairs to the Mens department on the lower ground floor and then there was another department (Tall and Small) at lower lower ground floor, which was on the left hand side of the building. Our secret street was a couple of levels down from that.’

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A still from the Thomas De Quincey segment of The Ghosts of Oxford Street, 1991.
ghostsofoxfordstreet1
A still from the Thomas De Quincey segment of The Ghosts of Oxford Street, 1991.

Founded in 1835, Lilley & Skinner moved to the Oxford Street location in 1921. The company went out of business in the 1990s and the building is, at the time of this writing, an outlet of Forever 21. Clayton visited the store in January of 2017, writing, in an addendum to his original post:

The building has only one lower ground floor—this was confirmed by asking a member of staff—there are no lower levels—at least not accessible these days, if they ever were. It is on the side of Stratford Place, a fascinating historical cul de sac and close to the route of the Tyburn. I couldn’t use Bond Street station as the area adjacent to the store is being prepared for Crossrail.

The reference to Stratford Place opens up an interesting possibility. In 1875 an unexpected archaeological discovery was made at this very spot. An article in The Builder, of August 14, 1875, reported:

As the workmen in the employment of the Chartered Gas Company were laying down a main pipe opposite to Stratford-place, Oxford-street (in the middle of the road) they came in contact with some brickwork of a very hard nature. Having ascertained that there was no sewer in that part of the road, the men applied their pickaxes with vigour, and it was discovered that they had come upon the crown of the arch of a brick subterranean building, containing several rooms in a fairly good condition. The principle chamber…contained some freestone pillars, the angles of which were chamfered, and some small (window?) openings. The apartments communicated one with another, and had about 2 ft. of water in them and much foul air. It is to be regretted that no one able to pronounce as to the age or purpose of the construction appears to have seen it. The Tyburn, a brook that rose near Hampstead, and ran south to the Thames…crossed Oxford-street at this same spot, namely, opposite Stratford-place, and made its way by Lower Brook-street to Green Park. It may be supposed, therefore, that the constructions to which we have referred had some conexion with the brook. Another suggestion is that they were connected with the Lord Mayor’s Banqueting House, which formerly stood near the spot.

In fact, both of these associations turned out to be correct. As London expanded in the thirteenth century, the water supply became increasing polluted. A reservoir was constructed at what is now Stratford Place to collect water from fresh springs and feed it through pipes to the City. Two years after the report in The Builder a full explanation appeared in The Journal of the Society of Arts:

[T]he first conduit erected in the City of London was that in Westcheap (now Cheapside), and the water with which it was supplied was brought from Paddington. The building of this was commenced in the year 1235, but it was not completed until 1285. The cost of laying the water-pipes being found to be heavy, the several Lord Mayors invited the principal citizens to contribute, and in 1235 some foreign merchants, being desirous of landing and housing wood, &c., purchased the privilege they desired by a yearly payment of fifty marks, and the donation of one hundred pounds towards the expense of bringing water in a six-inch leaden pipe from Tyburn to the City. The various springs of the district which fed the Tye-bourne were gathered together in a reservoir on the spot where Stratford place now stands. In course of time the reservoir was arched over, and a banqueting house was erected upon the arches, where the Lord Mayor and Corporation feasted when they annually visited the reservoirs and hunted the hare or the fox in the fields of Marylebone. The banqueting house was pulled down in the year 1737, and in course of time the existence of the cisterns was generally forgotten.

Could the long memory of this discovery have contributed to a legend about a building or buildings under Oxford Street? Could that legend have became entangled with more recent memories of The Ghosts of Oxford Street?

On the other hand, might some structure really have been accessible under one of the Oxford Street shops? The cistern unearthed in the nineteenth century was apparently left as it was found when work on the gas main was completed. It was rediscovered in the twenty-first century during excavation for Crossrail, the new tube line running through parts of London and the home counties. The Economist mentions “a medieval reservoir under Oxford Street” among the archeological finds since digging began in 2009. In her book, The Tunnel Through Time, Gillian Tindal writes: “digging at Stratford Place for the Crossrail station at Bond Street they did turn up the remains of the medieval water cistern just as their predecessors had. It seemed to have been reused much later, when Oxford Street became built up, as a cellar or ice-house.” That means the cistern was accessible from a nearby building, or buildings. Lilly & Skinner on the same corner, perhaps?

There may also have been other ancient structures, perhaps connected to the reservoir system, in the area. Tindall recalls that historian Michael Harrison mentioned

an apparently quite separate Oxford Street discovery of what sounds like a very similar underground vaulted structure, with water in the bottom (this time ‘a bubbling spring’) and ‘chamfered gothic arches’. This one was said to be a little further west, at the corner of North Audley Street. Harrison quotes what he describes as ‘a contemporary source’ but with no reference, giving the impression that the discovery was about the same time as that of the medieval reservoir but offering no firm date. His anonymous Victorian source appears to have decided that this second underground water construction was of Roman origin and ‘from all appearances the place was originally a baptistry’. A remarkable example of the complete preservation of an extremely ancient construction—if true.

Tindall is skeptical of this latter discover, however, as no documentary evidence could be found to corroborate it.

If there is a buried structure underground that people have gained access to, it would seem logically to be the cistern (or in some way connected with the Medieval reservoir system). Recall how those who discovered the cistern in the nineteenth century mistook it for a series of rooms or apartments. Why not a row of shops? Nothing else could reasonably be at the depth described; certainly not whole buildings that were once at street level.

See also: A Solution to the Oxford Street Mystery.

Sources:

Beddoes, Susan Minton (ed). (Aug 25, 2016) “More than just getting from A to B,” The Economist. London.

Clayton, Antony. (April 10, 2013) “The Mystery of Subterranean Selfridge’s (Repost),” The Antonine Itineraries. http://theantonineitineraries.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/the-mystery-of-subterranean-selfridges.html

Godwin, George (ed). (August 14, 1875) “Underground Apartments, Oxford Street,” The Builder. London.

Tindall, Gillian. (2017) The Tunnel Through Time: A New Route for an Old London Journey. London: Random House.

Various. (November-December, 2005) “Under Oxford Street.” Messages posted to: https://www.allinlondon.co.uk/knowledge/posts.php?thread=523

Watts, Peter. (November 21, 2013) “Secret London: more streets beneath London streets,” The Great Wen. https://greatwen.com/2013/11/21/secret-london-more-streets-beneath-london-streets/

Wheatley, Henry (ed). (September 5, 1879) “Old London Water Supply,” Journal of the Society of Arts. London: George Bell and Sons.


One thought on “A Subterranean Mystery on Oxford Street

  1. The shops and the cobbled street does exist. Back in the 70’s, I worked at Liley & Skinner in Oxford Street as a Saturday Girl. At the back of one of the stock rooms on the Lower Ground floor there was a small door and beyond this door was the old cobbled street with all the Victorian shops. It was spooky but amazing! The shop is on the corner of Oxford Street and Stratford Pl, opposite Bond Street Tube Station, though not Liley & Skinner anymore the building is still there. When you enter Stratford Pl there are rows of glass tiles on the pavement, The cobbled street is directly underneath the Glass Tiles.

    Like

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