The Marylebone of today is a busy, vibrant place, deeply embedded within the centre of London—but it wasn’t always so. When London was first settled by the Romans, this space by the banks of the River Tyburn sat several miles outside of the city. By the time William the Conqueror was compiling the Domesday Book in 1086, the manor of Tyburn, which had been granted by the crown to the abbess and convent of Barking, had a value of 52 shillings and a population of no more than 50 people—fewer than the current number of traffic wardens on the high street at any given time.
In 1400, the old Tyburn church, which was located in a lonely and dangerous spot just off Oxford Street, was pulled down and relocated to a more salubrious location at the top of what is now Marylebone High Street. The new church was named St Mary’s. The area soon became known as St Mary’s on the Bourne, then—with a rather pretentious French flourish—St Mary-la-Bourne, then finally St Marylebone, although the rather fluid standards of historical spelling saw it rendered as Marybone, Mary-le-burn, Mary-la-bonne, Mariburn and even Marrowbone. Still today, its correct pronunciation is the subject of impassioned—and ultimately fruitless—debate.
The manor of Tyburn passed through a succession of aristocratic hands until 1544, when the large and extremely persuasive Henry VIII encouraged its owners to swap the area for some freshly plundered church lands elsewhere. Henry had his eyes on the fields and woodland to the north of the area, and Marylebone struck him as the perfect place for a hunting lodge. The fields and woods became a royal park and—now known as Regent’s Park—have remained so ever since.
Henry’s heirs soon leased the manor back to a fresh succession of royal favourites until, in 1611, King James sold it for £829 3s 4d to Edward Forset, one of the prosecutors of Guy Fawkes and author of A Defence of the Right of Kings—a good piece of work to have on your CV if you’re looking for a cheap royal land grant. Almost a century later, in 1708, John Holles, Duke of Newcastle, was made to pay rather more for the estate—£17,500. In 1711, the manor passed to the duke’s daughter, Henrietta Cavendish Holles, who later married Edward Harley, 2nd Earl of Oxford.
At the start of the 18th century, Marylebone was still a quiet country village. A plan dating from 1708 shows a small number of houses dotted along the high street, beyond which lie open fields. The wealthy and socially ambitious Lord and Lady Oxford commissioned the architect John Prince to draw up a plan to convert this rural backwater into a fashionable estate with Cavendish Square at its focal point.
The pleasure gardens
Before its redevelopment, Marylebone was viewed by the gentry as a place to visit rather than a place to live. To the east of the high street stood the Rose of Normandy pub, which had been famous since Stuart times for its bowling greens and garden. In 1738, the landlord of the tavern, Daniel Gough, saw a chance to make some money by setting up the grounds as a ‘pleasure garden’ and charging admission. Marylebone Gardens became a popular place for London’s wealthy to promenade and listen to specially commissioned works by Handel and Arne. The gardens were also famous for their fireworks. Fireworks of the metaphorical variety were also available—despite lacking the bacchanalian spirit of the famous Vauxhall Gardens, Marylebone was a place where the rich came to find love or, failing that, buy it.
The gardens were complemented by a spectacular grotto, built in 1737 by shell-work artist and entrepreneur John Castles, which became a short-lived but hugely popular tourist attraction. Grotto Passage, to the west of the high street, is named in its memory.
As the development of the estate spread north towards Marylebone Road, the pleasure gardens were forced to close and in 1791 the old manor house, which had been used as a boys’ school since 1703, was pulled down. The Rose tavern became a music hall, which enjoyed a modicum of success before being converted to a cinema. It was bombed out in 1941.
John Prince drew up his first plan for the estate in 1719, but progress was initially very slow, not helped by the financial shambles of the South Sea Bubble of 1720 which battered London’s economy. The scheme accelerated under Lord and Lady Oxford’s daughter, Margaret Cavendish Harley, who married the second Duke of Portland. Building continued on what was then known as the Portland Estate, and today’s tall Georgian houses began to emerge along the wide roads of Harley Street, Portland Place and Wimpole Street. John Rocque’s map of London of 1746 shows that building had only reached as far north as Wigmore Street and Mortimer Street, but the rapid pace of development meant that by 1799 virtually the whole area from Oxford Street to Marylebone Road was covered with houses.
Numerous architects and builders placed their stamp upon this burgeoning quarter, the most celebrated being the Adam brothers, who were responsible for Mansfield Street and the overall design and layout of Portland Place, which architect John Nash later called “the most magnificent street in London”.
Marylebone became home to the city’s wealthy elite, but it was also scarred by pockets of extreme poverty. In Marylebone’s large and notorious workhouse, opened in 1775 on land donated by the Portland Estate on the north side of Paddington Street, society’s poorest and most vulnerable exchanged unpaid labour for food and shelter. A Ragged School, founded in 1846 on Grotto Passage, was set up to provide education for destitute children. The Ossington Buildings estate, off Moxon Street, was built between 1888 and 1892 to house some of the area’s working class poor, who had previously lived at the same site in miserable slum dwellings.
The Howard de Walden years
The Portland Estate flourished for five generations until 1879 when the death of the childless fifth Duke saw the land pass to his sister, Lucy Joan Bentinck, widow of the 6th Baron Howard de Walden. The Portland Estate became the Howard de Walden Estate, and the development of the area continued apace. Most of the buildings on the high street today date from around 1900 when the area was given a major facelift.
The late 19th century was a defining period for Marylebone’s most famous road, Harley Street, as doctors began to set up consulting rooms in large numbers, drawn to the area by its attractive building stock and close proximity to several hospitals. There were around 20 doctors in the area in 1860, 80 by 1900 and almost 200 by 1914. When the National Health Service was established in 1948 there were around 1,500. This stampede was given additional impetus when the Medical Society of London moved to Chandos Street in 1872 and the Royal Society of Medicine to Wimpole Street in 1912. The street remains synonymous with private medicine.
The last hundred years have seen the area continue to evolve. Marylebone escaped relatively unscathed from World War II, but it did begin to stagnate somewhat in the second half of the century, losing some of the lustre of its heyday. This all began to change in the 1990s, thanks to the inspired management of the Howard de Walden Estate, which surmised that the creation of a distinctive retail environment would have a positive impact on every aspect of Marylebone life. As more and more high streets became clones of each other, Marylebone opted instead for character, quality and distinctiveness. This strategy has been carried through into an equally progressive approach to office, residential and medical developments. As a result, the Estate has slowly evolved into the highly prosperous, culturally vibrant and hugely popular urban village that we see today. And it will continue to evolve—carefully and thoughtfully—in the years to come.