The History of Shaftesbury Avenue


London is a vibrant, bustling metropolis and England’s capital city. London is the United Kingdom’s most popular tourist destination, with more than 16 million visitors taking in its rich variety of sights and sounds every year. Among the myriad attractions that draw people from all over the world are a number of streets that are steeped in historical significance for a number of reasons; among these is Shaftesbury Avenue in the city’s famed West End. Running for over a mile in a north-easterly direction from Piccadilly Circus to New Oxford Street, Shaftesbury Avenue takes in a number of the city’s more notable locales including Charing Cross Road and Cambridge Circus, and its length means that it straddles both the City of Westminster and the borough of Camden.

Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury by John Collier

Anthony Ashley Cooper, the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury

Named for Anthony Ashley Cooper, the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, the street was built late in the nineteenth century and has a history of housing a number of culturally-significant buildings. Its position at the heart of the West End means that many of the city’s most notable theatres can be found on the avenue; the Lyric Theatre (opened in 1888), Queen’s Theatre (opened in 1907), Gielgud Theatre (opened in 1906 and originally called the Hicks theatre) and the Apollo Theatre (opened in 1901) are clustered together on the road’s north side. The iconic red brick façade of the Palace Theatre (opened in 1891) stands proudly at the intersection of Shaftesbury and Charing Cross Road, and a final theatre that shares its name with the street (Shaftesbury Theatre) was opened in 1911 at the north-eastern end. The avenue was also formerly home to the Saville Theatre, which was opened in 1931 and ultimately converted – by way of a music hall – into what is now the Odeon Covent Garden cinema at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Shaftesbury Avenue is iconic today, but the avenue’s history is far from a story of smooth sailing. Although the parliamentary act authorising its construction was passed in 1877, it took a full decade before the street itself was opened to the public. Early building designs did not sit well with those who observed them, and the legitimacy of the entire project was called into question in 1888 regarding dishonest practices in the disposal of surplus land from the area. Despite this, however, the completion of this new thoroughfare represented a step forward for the city; in addition to reducing the existing traffic strain on some particularly tight streets, its implementation meant that some of London’s most notorious slums were finally abolished. Speaking more contemporarily, the 1970s saw an influx of Chinese culture to the area. So much so, in fact, that as well as being a veritable shrine to London’s theatrical heritage, Shaftesbury Avenue also marks the beginning of what is presently London’s Chinatown, an area that hosts over 80 authentic Chinese restaurants and a steadily-increasing number of other businesses.

Further Reading:

  Fun Facts about Shaftesbury Avenue