The news is abuzz with news that the huge branch of Top Shop at Oxford Circus is up for sale, but what was there before it was Top Shop?
As it turns out, indirectly, the current occupant has been there since 1889.
As the area developed from fields to shops and houses, the block occupied by Top Shop today was largely as you might have expected, lots of narrow shops backing onto a back access alley. When Regents Street was built in the 1820s, clearing away a lot of smaller streets in the area, this block was cut back to allow for the wider road.
One of the occupants of those small shops, a Mr Peter Robinson started a drapers store in 1833 and was to become significant later on, but in 1858 much of the eastern half of the site was taken over by an early department store – the London Crystal Palace Bazaar.
In style and name, it was clearly trading off the Crystal Palace itself, and was designed by the architect Owen Jones who had been involved with the Crystal Palace and also worked on a number of other important buildings.
The London Crystal Palace Bazaar’s sumptuous polychromed interiors of cast iron, plaster and stained glass were described as “monuments to leisure and consumption”. The great arcade ran east-west direction inside the building, with the main entrance on Great Portland Street, coincidentally along the line of a former alleyway that used to give back door access to the shops fronting onto Oxford Street and Regents Street.
It’s notable that at the time, there was only a modest entrance on Oxford Street, which was still at the time not a major shopping road.
It wasn’t a success, being put up for sale unsuccessfully in 1866, and again in 1876 when the Bazaar was sold at auction for £15,600 to – Peter Robinson, who had been slowly expanding his own clothing store by taking over the smaller shops next to the Bazaar.
It was time to expand again, but it seems that he took a decade or so to get around to a major redevelopment of the site, reopening the expanded Peter Robinson department store in early 1889.
In 1910-12, the entire block was demolished and the footprint of the current site was largely laid out at the time to a design by the architect Henry Tanner. The Peter Robinson department store occupied the lower floors. He also opened a restaurant on the fourth floor with a domed ceiling to let in the light and painted murals along the top.
The original facade didn’t last long though as it was badly damaged in September 1940, during WW2, and the top floors of the building also ruined. During the war, they covered up the building with advertising, a bit like Piccadilly Circus, although most of the adverts were for the war effort, not fizzy drinks. During the war, the basement was also taken over by the BBC as studios for its Eastern Service.
What we see today is largely post-war restoration and rebuilding that wasn’t completed until the 1950s. There are some still photos from 1957 here.
While this was going on, Peter Robinson was expanding into a chain of stores, and in 1946 had been bought by the menswear chain, Burton (now owned by Sir Philip Green’s Arcadia). Burton and Peter Robinson were quite old fashioned brands, and to try and attract the 60s shoppers, they opened a new chain of shops in 1964 – Peter Robinson’s TopShop, with the basement of the Oxford Street store given over to the new brand in 1965.
Top Shop proved hugely popular, so much so that it effectively took over Peter Robinsons, with the older department store brand disappearing entirely in the 1970s.
At the Oxford Cirus store, Top Shop kept expanding, and by the 1990s had taken over most of the building, with a secondary lease to Nike on the corner signed in 1999.
And that is pretty much how the building has remained to this day. So while it’s a Top Shop brand, the site has been effectively in the same ownership since at least 1889.
But soon someone else will take over the site, and they’ll get a very nice office space as well – the former Peter Robinson restaurant.