A Solution to the Oxford Street Mystery

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Further evidence supports my theory that the “buried street” under Oxford Street in London is in fact the remains of a cistern built in the thirteenth century. A number of people have confirmed the claim made by former Lilley & Skinner employee Steve Lloyd, to Peter Watts of The Great Wen blog, that the underground structure is located at the corner of Stratford Place, not beneath Selfridges as the actor John Altman claimed.

Commenting on Watts’s blog, Eileen Barlow writes that Lloyd’s testimony “is absolutely true as I worked [at Lilley & Skinner] at the same time.” Robert Daly writes, “[I] was one of the maintenance guys back then…and did some electrical work in the old street.” Most significantly, Elaine Jobin (née Webb) writes, “I worked there at the same time as Eileen Barlow, Steve Lloyd, Rob Daly and yes the facts are true. The filming of Malcolm McLaren’s The Ghosts of Oxford Street was filmed in these basements.” The weight of testimony is almost entirely on the side of Stratford Place being the location of the structure. Only Altman places it at Selfridges. It is plausible that he simply misremembered which Oxford Street department store he had filmed in.

I consulted a report on the archeological impact of the Crossrail construction at Stratford Place drawn up by Pat Miller of the Museum of London in 2010. A new entrance to the Bond Street Underground station is being built at Stratford Place and Oxford Street, extending back into the cul-de-sac of Stratford Place. This report confirms a second detail of Lloyd’s story. He remembers co-workers telling him “that the council had put a preservation order on it and that we weren’t allowed to use the space in any way.” According to the Museum of London report,

The Heritage Scoping Appraisal indicated that the main archaeological potential is for deep alluvial deposits within the former Tyburn valley and related structures that included medieval and later conduits supplying the City of London with fresh water. The conduit head was associated with the Lord Mayor’s Banqueting House, close to the site and conduit houses are also documented. An archaeological watching brief in 1979 recorded a masonry structure, thought to be a water cistern, beneath the pavement vaults of no. 2 Stratford Place.

A watching brief is a program of preservation by documentation which does not stop a developer from altering or destroying an archeological feature but requires that archeologists be present to oversee work at the site. Could this be the “preservation order” mentioned by Lloyd’s co-workers? If so it would identify the “street” as the cistern.  2 Stratford Place is several doors down from Lilley & Skinner in the cul-de-sac, but remember that gas workers in 1875 entered the cistern from Oxford Street. This indicates that the reservoir system spans at least from 2 Stratford Place to Oxford Street with Lilly & Skinner in the middle. It may extends all the way to Stratford House, since the Lord Mayor’s Banqueting House was built over the cistern, and Stratford House was built on site of the banqueting house.

The report also lends plausibility to Michael Harrison’s account of a second vaulted structure being discovered in the late nineteenth century. Miller writes,

From the early medieval period, the Tyburn and other rivers across this area were utilised as sources for clean water to supply the City of London and it was during this period that a major alteration affecting the topography was made. This was the diverting in 1236 of the Tyburn stream at a point near Oxford Street from where it was sent to the City via conduits gathered at conduit houses. The land upon which one of the conduit houses was built became the property of the City of London and a Banqueting House was constructed for the Mayor and the Aldermen in 1565, possibly on the site. The Banqueting House had a number of cisterns associated with it and at least one has been identified on the site.

If a second structure was uncovered by Victorian engineers, it was likely one of the multiple cisterns, mistaken in the account cited by Harrison for a Roman baptistry.

So what happened to the cistern on Stratford Place? It was not deemed to be worthy of protection. Miller’s report concludes that “Archaeological features of national importance suitable for preservation in situ not anticipated. The mitigation strategy is therefore one of further investigation and record (preservation by record) to be undertaken prior to and during the construction process.”

The cistern was at least partially destroyed during the recent renovations. Miller writes,

An archaeological watching brief in 1979 (site code STP79) recorded a masonry structure, thought to be a water cistern, beneath the pavement vaults of 2 Stratford Place. These were filled in during construction of subway access to Bond Street Station from Stratford Place. Features associated with it may continue outside the infilled pavement vaults and subway if these areas have not been disturbed.

The section of the cistern under 356-360 Oxford Street would not likely have been affected by the filling-in of the section under 2 Stratford Place. However it is unknown what if any damage has been sustained. The cistern is no longer accessible through the former Lilley & Skinner building due to remodeling after it was sold, as Antony Clayton has confirmed. But it is presumably still there.

See also: A Subterranean Mystery on Oxford Street.

Sources:

Miller, Pat. (2010) Site-Specific Written Scheme of Investigation for Archaeological Investigations—LUL Bond Street Station Upgrade. London: Museum of London. https://learninglegacy.crossrail.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Bond_Street_Station_Upgrade_WSI_2.pdf

Various. (January-August, 2014) Comments posted to: “Secret London: more streets beneath London streets,” The Great Wen. https://greatwen.com/2013/11/21/secret-london-more-streets-beneath-london-streets/


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