Words Jane Singer
Illustrations Natalka Talkowska
“Shaftesbury Avenue… This is the seventh heaven street to me” Wild West End, Dire Straits
The birthplace of Cat Stevens and a film location for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1, Shaftesbury Avenue is in the heart of the West-End. Just shy of a mile, this road was once the home of slum dwellings and now boasts world-class theatres showing hit musicals and links several areas of London together.
In the 1860s and 70s, the need for improved communication between Piccadilly Circus and Charing Cross, and between Charing Cross and Tottenham Court Road was frequently discussed, but little more was mentioned of the Piccadilly to Bloomsbury route until 1876. By then, a long line of improved east-west communication from Shoreditch to Bloomsbury was almost complete, and the Metropolitan Board of Works realised that the amount of additional traffic which would be brought into Oxford Street and which would make its way towards Charing Cross would require the formation of a direct link from Oxford Street to Piccadilly and to Charing Cross. The board therefore applied to Parliament for the necessary powers, which were granted by the Metropolitan Street Improvements Act, 1877.
This Act authorised the Board to form the streets now known as Charing Cross Road and Shaftesbury Avenue. The line of these new streets was drawn up jointly by the Board’s superintending architect, George Vulliamy, and the engineer, Sir Joseph Bazalgette. Unfortunately, nearly 10 years elapsed between the passing of the Act of 1877 and the opening of the two streets. When Charing Cross Road and Shaftesbury Avenue were finally opened, they marked not only the formation of over a mile of main thoroughfare 60 ft. wide, but also the abolition of some of the worst slums in London and the rehousing of over 3000 of the labouring classes.
Parliament had placed on The Metropolitan Board of Works, the obligation to provide housing for all displaced members of the labouring classes before work could begin. It wasn’t until December 1884 that the Home Secretary certified that the Board had now sufficiently provided artisans’ dwellings for more than 2000 of the labouring classes. Shortly afterwards, demolition work began at the south end of Shaftesbury Avenue. The gross cost was £1,136,456 and after deduction of the value of the land acquired, the net cost was £758,887. Opening in January 1886, the board named the street Shaftesbury Avenue, in memory of the recently deceased 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley Cooper, much of whose work for the poor of London had been done in the area traversed by the new street. Charing Cross Road was opened in February 1887.
An abundance of architectural styles form Shaftesbury Avenue. The segmental sweep for the first stage of its progress from Piccadilly Circus to Cambridge Circus, offered the opportunities of another Regent Street Quadrant. The fronts were of red brick, dressed with terra-cotta or red sandstone or Portland stone, the heights varying from three to five storeys with a skyline of gables or turrets of French or Flemish Renaissance derivation.
The south side, at the Piccadilly end, begins with the London Pavilion, its style, though ornate, and its chief material, Bath stone, relating it more closely to Nash’s buildings than to the rest of Shaftesbury Avenue. Nos. 26–32 east of the Trocadero have a front of Portland stone finished with Baroque gables derived from Norman Shaw. On the east corner of Rupert Street is an example of Martin and Purchase’s insipid work. Beyond is an interesting group that has been attributed to Thomas Harris, probably built about the same time, in 1889, and all featuring the motif of elliptical-headed arches; Nos. 58–60 are of brick, now painted, No. 62 is faced with stone, and No. 45 Wardour Street, forming part of the group, is of red brick dressed with stone.
On the north side, between Piccadilly Circus and Denman Street, three buildings were erected during 1888–9. From west to east these were first, Piccadilly Mansions, an elaborate but bland design again by Martin and Purchase, with ‘P.M.’ figuring on the terra-cotta gables; then came the Café Monico extension, by Christopher and White, with more character than its neighbours, and then Piccadilly House, with a fussy elevation, both these last have now been demolished.
Four theatres; the Lyric, Apollo, Globe and Queen’s—occupy almost all of the north side of Shaftesbury Avenue between Denman and Wardour Streets. No longer in existence, is the Saville Theatre which became a cinema in 1970, first known as ABC1 and ABC2, and since 2001 as Odeon Covent Garden. Another, the Curzon cinema, is located in the middle of the Avenue. Shaftesbury Avenue is also the beginning of London Chinatown. The number of Chinese businesses on the avenue has been on the increase with the present Chinatown not emerging until the 1970s. Up until then, it was a regular run-down Soho area. The area boasts over 80 restaurants showcasing some of London’s finest and most authentic Asian cuisine.
Shaftsbury Avenue, like much of the surrounding areas, is imbued with history and despite its traffic, noise and dirt, it still remains a focal point of the capital, drawing in tourists and locals. Whilst musicals and plays enjoy a healthy turnaround on Shaftsbury Avenue, they are minor in comparison against the façade of history and sublime architecture of this wonderful street.