Oxford Circus

Sepia postcard image of Oxford Circus, 1920s or 30s.

Oxford Circus, London. Junction of Regent Street and Oxford Street. One of the principal shopping centres of the world. Noted for its magnificent Buildings.

[Oxford Street] has seen in our time a marvellous transformation, for those who are not even old remember the day when men smiled at Mr. Selfridge coming from America and setting up his great shop at the wrong end of Oxford Street where nobody came. People come today in their thousands and hundreds of thousands, and all the world knows Selfridge’s, the greatest shop in England that has no need to put its name on it. Its massive row of stone columns stretches for 500 feet along the street. Its windows are one of London’s annual shows at Christmas, and in summer its roof is a daily delight.
‘London’, Arthur Mee, Hodder & Stoughton, 1937.

Postcard image of Oxford Circus from Regent Street c. 1930s.

Approaching Oxford Circus from Regent Street.


London’s Gaiety Girls

In the “seventies” [1870s] there was a wonderful galaxy of talent at the old Gaiety Theatre, Nellie Farren, Kate Vaughan, Edward Terry, and Royce forming a matchless quartette.

Kate Vaughn

Kate Vaughan

Young men, of course, will always be foolish, up to the end of time. Nellie Farren, Kate Vaughan, and Emily Duncan all had their “colours.” Nellie Farren’s were dark blue, light blue, and white; Kate Vaughan’s were pink and grey; Emily Duncan’s black and white; the leading hosiers “stocked” silk scarves of these colours, and we foolish young men bought the colours of the lady we especially admired, and sat in the stalls of the Gaiety flaunting the scarves of our favourite round our necks.

As I then thought, and still think, that Nellie Farren was one of the daintiest and most graceful little creatures ever seen on the stage, with a gaminerie all her own, I, in common with many other youths, sat in the stalls of the Gaiety wrapped in a blue-and-white scarf. Each lady showered smiles over the footlights at her avowed admirers, whilst contemptuously ignoring those who sported her rival’s colours. One silly youth, to testify to his admiration for Emily Duncan, actually had white kid gloves with black fingers, specially manufactured for him. He was, we hope, repaid for his outlay by extra smiles from his enchantress.
‘The Days Before Yesterday’, Lord Frederic Hamilton. Hodder and Stoughton, London.


Nellie Farren

Nellie Farren

For a popular burlesque, in the days of Nellie Farren and Connie Gilchrist, of Fred Leslie and Arthur Roberts, the same stalls were filled night after night by the rich unemployed, who afterwards followed their fancies hither and thither and spent quite considerable sums upon them. There was no great stir when marriages followed such aquaintance, and most of them turned out a great success.
‘Gilded Youth’ (essay) ‘Fifty Years, Memories and Contrasts’, Sir Ian Malcolm. Thornton Butterworth, Ltd; London, 1932.

I have to admit, in the interest of accuracy, that the Gaiety shown above in 1913 is not the “old Gaiety Theatre” these two men remembered. That stood across the road on the site of the Morning Post newspaper office at left. It had its last performance in 1903 and was demolished soon afterwards. The new theatre (on the right) had been under construction since 1901 and opened four months after the original closed.

Some of the Gaiety Girls held a reunion in 1950 and what remained of the theatre, just a shell since 1939, was demolished in 1957. The Morning Post building, completed in 1907, is now the One Aldwych hotel.

Marble Arch and the Tyburn Tree

If you buy a picture postcard with a printed caption on the back, you expect it to be short, factual, upbeat and positive. No room for personal opinion. Maybe this caption writer didn’t get the memo.

Vintage postcard by J. Valentine of Marble Arch, London.

Marble Arch, London, – This fine if rather useless ornament of Hyde Park is reminiscent of the triumphal arches beloved of the Romans. The view serves to suggest the superb vistas available in the Park dear to fashion, which covers some four hundred acres, and is encompassed by a carriage drive two and a half miles long.

Arthur Mee, in his book ‘London’ (1937), gives us more detail about the Arch and the gruesome past of the place where it stands. This is the short, less harrowing, version.

At the top of [Park Lane], the meeting place of four great roads, stands the Marble Arch, which changed its address in the year of the Great Exhibition [1851]. Till then it stood at the entrance to Buckingham Palace; now it stands at the head of Oxford Street a few yards away from a little brass plate* which tells us that this was Tyburn Hill. Here were hanged men and women and children, heroes and malefactors, patriots and traitors.

The site took its name from the little river Tyburn, one of whose arms crossed Oxford Street here. Tyburn then lay among the fields, with only a few houses, from one of which the sheriffs watched the executions. Round the gallows were stands with seats, let to spectators at half a crown. Until 1783, when Newgate took its place, Tyburn was the busiest scene in the world of agony and sorrow. It became the frightful clearing-house for criminals of both sexes and of all ages. Upwards of 200 petty offences were punishable with death, and offenders were sent in horrifying numbers to die here in batches, a dozen or more at a time.

Vintage postcard of Marble Arch, London.

The arch was set up by John Nash ten years after Waterloo at a cost of £80,000. Chantrey’s statue of George the Fourth in Trafalgar Square was made for it, but never fixed. The arch was designed after [one] in the Roman Forum, and made of marble from Michael Angelo’s quarries at Carrara. It was orininally intended to symbolise the victories of Trafalgar and Waterloo in its picture panels, but the arch was made an arch of peace instead.

*The little brass plate was replaced by a bigger concrete marker in 1964.

London Notes, 1918

Vintage postcard of Rotten Row, London, by J. Valentine. Used 1918.

Card caption: Rotten Row – a corruption of route de roi, is reserved for equestrians. Is situated near Hyde Park corner.

I seen this row from the other end. I walked right through Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park to Marble Arch. Roy, 16-10-18. [map]

Vintage postcard of Westminster Abbey by J. Valentine.Dec 31st 1918
Dear Louie. After leaving the Albert Memorial behind we passed along Rotten Row where the knobs hang out on horse back of a sunday morning and came to the Abbey. We were all over it and saw the tombs of the different ones buried there. She’s a great joint and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Its an interesting old place.
Love Frank x x x x

Frank may have been an American soldier on his way home at the end of World War One. It seems he was a man given to understatement.
Both cards are by J. Valentine. Although they were used in 1918, the images are probably 12 to 15 years older.

A footnote about Prince Albert and his memorial – many web sites still maintain that Albert’s cause of death in 1861 was typhoid. Modern medical opinion is that Crohns disease, a condition not understood at the time, was the more likely cause. See here and here.

Landseer’s Lions

Tate; (c) Tate; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Duchess of Abercorn and daughter by Landseer. Tate Gallery.

Sir Edwin Landseer, the painter…..was one of my father and mother’s oldest friends, and had been an equally close friend of my grandparents, the Duke and Duchess of Bedford. He had painted three portraits of my father [the Duke of Abercorn], and five of my mother. Two of the latter had been engraved, and, under the titles of “Cottage Industry” and “The Mask,” had a very large sale in mid-Victorian days. His large picture of my two eldest sisters, which hung over our dining-room chimney-piece, had also been engraved, and was a great favourite, under the title of “The Abercorn Children.” Landseer was a most delightful person, and the best company that can be imagined. My father and mother were quite devoted to him, and both of them always addressed him as “Lanny.”

My mother going to call on him at his St. John’s Wood house, found “Lanny” in the garden, working from a ladder on a gigantic mass of clay. Turning the corner, she was somewhat alarmed at finding a full-grown lion stretched out on the lawn.

Trafalgar Square lion

Landseer had been commissioned by the Government to model the four lions for the base of Nelson’s pillar in Trafalgar Square. He had made some studies in the Zoological Gardens, but as he always preferred working from the live model, he arranged that an elderly and peculiarly docile lion should be brought to his house from the zoo in a furniture van attended by two keepers. Should anyone wish to know what that particular lion looked like, they have only to glance at the base of the Nelson pillar.

Vintage postcard of Trafalgar Square, London, by the Photochrom Company.

On paying an afternoon call, it is so unusual to find a live lion included amongst the guests, that my mother’s perturbation at finding herself in such close proximity to a huge loose carnivore is, perhaps, pardonable.
‘The Days Before Yesterday’, Lord Frederic Hamilton, Hodder and Stoughton. 1920.

The photograph of the captive lion was taken by Gambier Bolton, probably in the early 1890s, and published on a postcard by Raphael Tuck & Sons about 1905. This pioneering animal photographer was sometimes described as the Landseer of photography and his original prints fetch high prices from collectors today.

Fleet Street

In the days when London had only one daily with a million readers it was calculated that at a certain time in its history the forests cut down for it would equal 17 Devons; today with its rivals it must have cut down forests as big as 17 Englands to spread its good and evil news. We must hope it is worth it.

Fleet street


Fleet Street has transformed the face of the nation and set millions of people reading and thinking. It has made a new world of learners and seekers after truth, but it has built up the curse of gambling in the world and fed it hour by hour. It has filled Fleet Street with tipsters and astrologers, fortune tellers and fortune hunters, and has made a kind of journalism which will pay a swindler coming out of goal £10,000 to tell his story to the public he has swindled.

It has made the Fleet Street Army the most remarkable company ever got together. Bishops and statesmen, writers and dreamers, pugilists and footballmen, half-wits and no-wits, film stars and actresses, freaks and clowns: the stupidest man ever born is worth as much in Fleet Street as the wisest. Any morning we wake the newest tomfool is in the smart stunt paper, ready for a million breakfast tables. Mice and men, it is all the same today.
‘London’, Arthur Mee. Hodder and Stoughton Ltd, 1937.

The caption on the postcard is less cynical – “Fleet Street is famous the world over as the journalistic centre of London. In or near it are the offices of nearly all the great newspapers and periodicals, where hosts of busy toilers are at work both day and night.” A scribbled note underneath says “Bridge is a Railway and before this is Ludgate Circus. Traffic typical.”

The circus marks the end of Fleet Street. It is crossed by Farringdon Street, covering the

Vintage postcard by L.L. of Ludgate Circus, London, c.1905.


old River Fleet, which now discharges into the Thames from a pipe under Blackfriars Bridge. Arthur Mee writes “It seems never to have occurred to anyone that Ludgate Circus might be beautiful. Ever since the River Fleet was covered in on its approach to the Thames this supreme opportunity of a noble approach to St. Paul’s appears to have been thrown away.
Across the bottom of Ludgate Hill runs a railway which could easily be spared, serving two stations a few hundred yards apart.”

The bridge had been built in the 1860s by the London, Chatham & Dover Railway and was regarded as an eyesore by many from the start. It was finally “spared” (i.e. removed) in 1990. The last newspaper in Fleet Street moved out in 2016.

Artistic Licence

These two vintage postcards, published when London’s Admiralty Arch was still “new”, illustrate the liberties an artist could take with a scene compared to a photographer (in the days before Photoshop).

Admiralty Arch2

Tuck’s Oilette number 7975. One of a set of 12. First recorded use 1919.

In this view by H. B. Wimbush, Nelson’s Column has grown to a dizzying height and dwarfs the Arch. The domed tower on the right has not only been stretched but moved several hundred meters to the left. As you can see from the image below, it can’t actually be seen from this position at all. We can only speculate on why the artist put it there. It may have been simply to balance the composition. Digital photographers didn’t invent the art of bending reality – they were just catching up.

A vintage postcard of the new Admiralty Arch, London.

National Series. Published by M & L Ltd.

The truth is less exciting, although this image is so empty it must have been taken on a weekend in the off-season! Not much doubt about which card would have sold best. The message on the back of this one is more interesting than the front. The writer has dated it 16. 6. 16, although the last number has been over-written and could be 19. The message takes up all of the back so it must have been posted in an envelope, and we have no address for the recipient.

Dear Mrs Land,
Just had a note from Mabel to say she has settled down. Will try and get out to Richmond where she lives in a day or so. Everything went off just fine at the wedding and say – Tom Murray is a splendid fellow. Straight as you make them. Will see you soon as we are booked for U.S.A. on 28th this month. Have still the wee mascot so I’m safe.
Kind regards to Mr Land and self. A. R. Don.

It’s a tantalizing hint at the lives of several people and leaves more questions than answers. Was Mr. Don an American soldier being repatriated in 1919 after the war, or a private citizen braving the Atlantic U-boat menace in 1916? Whatever the case, he was superstitious enough to need a lucky charm. Did Mabel find it difficult to settle down and why, and was she the bride? Was the splendid Tom Murray the groom?

Maybe one of you fiction writers out there can exercise your own artistic licence, change the names, flesh out the characters, invent your own answers, and create a short story. I’m sure novels have been inspired by less.