Wednesday, 10 April 2013

The Mystery of Subterranean Selfridge’s (Repost)


Addendum 24th January 2017

As Forever 21 has not replied to my enquiries I paid a visit to the store on Sunday when I was in London.  I have no recollection of visiting the Lillley & Skinner shop in my youth.  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 .A couple of useful and comprehensive documents about the site here and on Westminster City Council's site here under Stratford Place where you can download a pdf.

Addendum 28th November 2016
Unfortunately - as yet - Forever 21 have not replied to my enquiries regarding the rumoured subterranean street;  Selfridges responded very promptly - we shall wait and see.  Otherwise, I'll try to go there in person in the next couple of weeks.

Addendum 19th April 2016
The mystery of the Victorian street under Oxford Street deepens (perhaps).  A fairly old post, that somehow eluded me previously, states that in fact the remnant of Victorian shops could be found several levels below what was the Lilley & Skinner shoe shop at 356-360 Oxford Street (very near to Selfridges) and it was this location that Malcolm McLaren used when filming The Ghosts of Oxford Street.  The cobbled street gets a mention and we are also told that the council had a 'preservation order' on it.  The building is now a branch of Forever 21.  I shall endeavour to check this out as soon as I can, both with the shop and Westminster City Council.

Another personal account was given to me in the pub (so my recall may not be perfect) after the hugely successful Subterranean Saturday talks at Conway Hall on the 9th of this month.  A man told me that he had delivered some clothes to Selfridges in the late 1960s - he had to take them down to a basement area that had been dressed to resemble a Victorian street.  Now this is all very possible: that period did start to become fashionable in the late 60s and it is understandable that a large department store would want to evoke a Dickensian/Victorian atmosphere, especially around Christmas.  But surely this would have been a temporary arrangement and would not have survived for another 20 years or so when The Ghosts of Oxford Street came to be filmed?  See also the comment by Michael Johnson below. 

Addendum 23rd June 2015
During research for my next book, due out in September 2015, I found out that Selfridges is adding to its underground domain.  

'In 2014 Selfridges announced a multi-million pound refurbishment and expansion programme for the store, which will include the construction of a tunnel connecting it to the recently-acquired Nations House in Wigmore Street, probably for the use of its 3000 staff rather than customers.[1]'

[1] Iain Withers ‘Selfridges picks team for revamp of flagship Oxford Street store’ Building 27 February 2014, available online.

Addendum: 10th April 2013
As I intend to talk about this topic tomorrow night at Kensington Central Library (Standard article here) I thought it was about time that I asked Selfridge's press office about this long-standing rumour.  They told me it was a myth started by the Ghosts of Oxford Street film, as I always suspected.  Funnily enough, a few months ago, I was emailed by the City of Westminster Archives Centre who had been contacted by a man who swore that he had visited a street of shops beneath Selfridge's in his youth.  Text of the original post (one of my most popular) below:

At the talk for the South East London Folklore Society last week an audience question came up yet again about the existence of a perfectly preserved Victorian street of shops somewhere beneath Oxford Street. I think that the first time this came to my notice was when I was asked about it by Robert Elms during my first appearance on his radio show c.2001; at the time I honestly professed to know nothing about it and the whole thing seemed pretty absurd to me. It has since resurfaced (so to speak) on numerous occasions. I did say at the SELFS talk that I would look into this tale one more time and put my findings on the blog. The result has turned out to be more interesting than I might have thought.

Searching on the internet you can find a number of threads devoted to this topic. On one for example someone poses the question:

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 [sic] facias of Victorian shops. Or is this just an urban myth?

In my Folklore of London book (2008) I wrote this [original text not the edited published version]:

‘Viewers of the 1991 Channel 4 Christmas Special The Ghosts of Oxford Street, directed and narrated by Malcolm McLaren were treated to a rare sight: behind a door in the basement of Selfridges there survives a complete underground Victorian street, perfectly preserved, with period frontages intact, supposedly lying directly beneath the modern street above. This piece of trickery has since entered London’s subterranean folklore and references to it continue to appear in magazines and on websites.’ My information was taken from various discussions about the film on the internet; perhaps naively I assumed that one or two of these participants had actually viewed it.

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.

Selfridge’s certainly features heavily (the whole of part 2 of the 54 minute film is devoted to it) and there is a scene where Tom Jones dressed in Edwardian [?] costume (as Gordon Selfridge presumably) descends on an escalator to a floor of the store where the staff are dressed in period clothes – Twenties-looking to me, although the displays and products are modern. Other scenes take place inside Regency/Victorian rooms or sets or outside modern Oxford Street shops.

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. On the same thread mentioned above another contributor claims that:

‘John Altman who played Nick Cotton in Eastenders… was in a bit of the film apparently actually under Oxford Street where there still exists part of this Victorian Street…He claimed Malcolm McLaren let him through a hole in the basement of Selfridges.’

In another scene the present-day (1991) McLaren chases an actor playing his younger self into the Eisenhower Centre secure storage facility in Chenies Street. The boy descends in an old-fashioned ‘cage’ lift to a dimly lit tunnel that could be part of the former deep level shelter beneath Goodge Street tube station (you can also hear a tube train in the background, although this could have been added in post-production). Security Archives appear in the credits, so it seems that this sequence was filmed within that facility.

By a strange coincidence the deep level shelter was used by Eisenhower (in his capacity as Supreme Commander of COSSAC, later absorbed into SHAEF) and his officers for a period during the Second World War, after he had rejected an annexe of Selfridge’s at No.14 Duke Street W1 - ‘a sizeable steel and concrete structure blessed with deep basements running 45 feet down’ - which later housed the SIGSALY code-scrambling computer.

It should also be borne in mind that the now defunct Mail Rail/Post Office Railway (opened 1927, closed 2003) runs around 70 feet down, just to the north of the section of Oxford Street on which Selfridge’s stands. The Central line, opened as the Central London Railway from Bank to Shepherd’s Bush on 30th July 1900, also runs under the bustling thoroughfare. All the above is covered in my book Subterranean City, beneath the streets of London.

My copy of The Twopenny Tube by Bruce & Croome (1996) says on p23: ‘The large store of Harry Gordon Selfridge was being built near Bond Street station in 1908 and opened on 15th March 1909. Selfridge used many innovative marketing initiatives, but his suggestion that Bond Street station be renamed Selfridge’s was cold shouldered by the railway.’

If you think about it logically, had this street really managed to survive intact, it is incredible that it has not been opened to the public as an attraction or 'vintage retail experience' – especially given its hugely busy and tourist-heavy location.

I have never had a behind-the-scenes tour of Selfridge’s myself, but a reporter from Time Out who has, certainly did not uncover anything unusual, although it’s interesting that while she makes no mention of the ‘preserved street’ she does refer to an alleged ‘abandoned tube station’ (article posted on the Time Out website on 10 November 2006):

‘We start by heading down into the basements. Myths abound about this subterranean world and, sadly, most of them are just that. There is no abandoned tube station, though Selfridge did lobby to get an underground tunnel built from Bond Street station up into the store – and have the station renamed ‘Selfridges’. Neither was there a river running through it – though there was an artesian well that served the building for years.

There are two levels of basement beneath the lower-ground shop floor: the ‘sub’ and the ‘sub-sub’, descending 60 metres below street level. These are split into two more areas: the dry sub and sub-sub, and their ‘wet’ equivalents. The wet area, more dank than watery, is beneath the original building, while the dry is under the rear building, known as the SWOD (after the four streets – Somerset, Wigmore, Orchard and Duke – that once enclosed it).

During WWII, the SWOD’s basement was used by 50 soldiers from the US Army Signal Corps; there were even visits from Eisenhower and Churchill. The building had one of the only secure telex lines, was safe from bombing, and was close to the US Embassy on Grosvenor Square. According to Jarvis, a tunnel was built from Selfridges to the embassy so that personnel could move between the two in safety. Interrogation cells for prisoners were hewn from the uneven space available.’

With reference to the last two sentences, do we have another folkloric ‘secret tunnel’ to add to the hundreds supposedly under London? This is the first time I've seen reference to a tunnel from Selfridge’s to the American Embassy, but as it was constructed during wartime, as many other similar tunnels and shelters were, it cannot be dismissed totally. Perhaps when the American Embassy site is vacated in 2017 more details will come to light.

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 (Robert Elms asked me about it ten years later). The film had not subsequently been readily available on video or dvd (although some people must have taped it presumably?) so this fascinating misinterpretation (possibly coupled with the John Altman comment –if indeed that was ever actually said - or deliberate misinformation from the arch-prankster and former Situationist McLaren) became known through word of mouth, programmes such as the Robert Elms show and the internet? I shall have to go with this theory for now.


Unknown said...

Hey, if anyone is Interested the Victorian street is certainly street is certainly shown on "The Ghosts of Oxford Street". 31.30 mins into the film it is certainly shown as a small scary looking row of shops/houses. I must admit it does look amazing down there, i would love to see it in person.

4od has it on their site at the moment...Here it is

Celeste Rhiannon said...

Hi There, I know this blog was a while back I came across an article in a newspaper from 1875, where sewer workers on Oxford Street uncovered a subterranean building just up from Selfridges (entrance to Stratford Place) . It was quite large and resembled a cistern, with an entrance and steps down and a couple of addtional rooms.It was believed to be a few centuries old.

Perhaps this was where the rumour came from.

Michael Johnson said...

Does anyone remember the Oxford walk shopping centre - a rather tacky arcade/covered market affair, with lots of small retail units, located at 156 Oxford Street?

It was notable for having a small branch of Virgin Records in the basement - a rather more punky and alternative shop compared to the Virgin Megastore down the road.

The shopping centre was in operation up to the mid-80s, when the building became HMV's flagship London store. (HMV recently moved out; I don't know, offhand, what 156 Oxford Street is used for today).

However, the point of all this is that the basement area, where the Virgin shop was located, was mocked-up as several streets of small Victorian shops, with stallholders occupying each one. It was very much like a film set kind of thing, and obviously not real - unless you'd had a few drinks.

But perhaps thats the source for the myth that there was a street of Victorian shops under Oxford Street?

Antony Clayton said...

Michael, thanks for this information. I don't think I ever visited this arcade, but it does seem likely that it is the main source of the myth, later embroidered by Mclaren and relocated to Selfridges.

Jenny Woolf said...

Yes that sounds credible to me too. Pity, though!

Unknown said...

Hi, I can add a bit more info to this. The claim that The Ghost of Oxford St had shots of a subterranean Victorian street weren't made during the show itself but were made by actor John Altman on Channel 4's list show '100 Greatest Christmas Moments' when The Ghosts of Oxford Street featured on the show at number 85. He speaks about the Thomas de Quincey sequence being shot in front of the old shop-fronts in the basement of Selfridges. Whether it's true or not is another matter though.