If you were asked to picture London’s West End in your mind’s eye, you’d more than likely imagine neon lights, blockbuster shows and busy venues packed with people catching a pre- or post- theatre dinner and drink deal. The West End really is the beating heart of London and has been for centuries. Take a moment to step back in time though and you get to glimpse the unseen story of London, a world away from the modern day reality. It’s a tale filled with mystery, controversy and a healthy dose of glamour…
What defines the West End?
Although there are no official boundaries, London’s West End often refers to the shopping area found at the trifecta of Oxford Street, Regent Street and Bond Street. It also covers the multitude of theatres around Leicester Square and Convent Garden. Rich with attractions, eateries and things to do, this is an area of London perfect for a leisurely afternoon of browsing, shopping and indulging.
From rags to riches
The West End we see today is filled with many grand buildings, fine theatres, tourist attractions, luxurious shopping districts and high-end surgical clinics. However, once upon a time little existed in this part of the city. Its prime location changed all that when it proved to be the perfect area for development in an era when the city desperately needed to expand. Its growth was fuelled by the rich, wealthy and powerful.
After the Great Fire of London devastated the previous, old-fashioned city, the West End was given a new lease of life (from 1666 onwards). From then on, London slowly started to become the bustling metropolis we know today.
The theatre district
The West End is now home to over 40 theatres and each one has its own unique story to tell. The Theatre Royal on Drury Lane for example is one of the oldest in the district. It was first built in 1663, long before the area truly took off. Like many other public entertainment venues, it was shut down in 1665 to prevent the spread of infection during the Great Plague of London.
Owned by playwright, Richard Sheridan the theatre was almost demolished in 1794 to make way for a larger venue. It then burned down in 1809. Rumour has it that Sheridan was found in Convent Garden that day, sipping on Port to drown his sorrows as his beloved theatre went up in flames.
The theatres which line the West End were not only home to wonderful plays and musicals, but were also where many devotees of the arts chose to reside. Ivor Novello, the Welsh composer and actor, lived above what used to be the Strand Theatre from 1913 to 1951. His tenure led the theatre to be renamed The Novello in 2005. If you were to see a show there today, he is most likely to be watching with you, sitting comfortably among the many other ghosts and ghouls that the West End is said to host.
Nowadays, heading to Oxford Street means a day of shopping. The neighbouring Regent Street and nearby Bond Street overflow with high-end boutiques and luxury department stores such as Liberty London and Selfridges.
If you ventured into this area before the 18th century however, you were likely to be more terrified than excited. Previously called Tyburn Road, it led to the village of Tyburn, where public executions would take place at the infamous Tyburn Tree. Many criminals, wrongdoers and prisoners were hung on this notorious tree, rooted where the Marble Arch now proudly stands, after being pelted by eggs from passers-by.
Yes, visiting the West End back in those days would have provided quite a different story of London!