The history of Harley Street, Marylebone

The history of Harley Street in Marylebone, London

Words: Mark Riddaway

Harley Street began, as the name suggests, with a man called Harley, Edward Harley. He was a man of means, having married Henrietta Cavendish Holles, daughter of the late Duke of Newcastle and heiress to an estate that included Marylebone, then a small village on the banks of the river Tyburn. In 1719, the couple decided to spend their fortune on turning this land into a grand grid of buildings, including a north-south street that would carry their name.

Edward, who died in 1741, didn’t live to see much progress made on Harley Street. Work eventually began at the southern end, with the street first rated in 1753, and the opening of Marylebone Road in 1756 provided impetus to its steady progress north. By the time Richard Horwood completed his map of London in the 1790s, Harley Street (or Upper Harley Street, as the top section was once designated) fell just tantalisingly short of Marylebone Road. It was completed in the 1820s.

Attractive but affordable
While beautifully proportioned, Harley Street lacked the grandeur of some other parts of the estate, and its modest townhouses attracted professionals rather than aristocrats—scientists, politicians, military officers, artists. Medical men began arriving in the mid-19th century. By the 1860s there were a dozen or so doctors. By 1873 there were 36. After that, the numbers increased rapidly. The building stock was ideal—attractive but affordable, with space for a consulting room on the ground floor and a spacious family home upstairs.

In the early years of the 20th century, as Marylebone became more urbanised and transport links more efficient, doctors chose to live in the leafier parts of town rather than setting up home above the surgery. This led to the development of multiple tenancies, with entire buildings being converted into consulting rooms.

Beautiful detailing
The north end of the street remains almost entirely Georgian in character, its narrow, elegant townhouses blessed with beautiful detailing: cast iron balconies, arched doorways, vast first-floor windows. The southern half is dotted with more flamboyant Victorian and Edwardian styles—notably the Tudor gothic of number 51, dating from 1894, and the beaux arts stylings of number 37—as well as a few unloved 1970s constructions.

The street remains inextricably linked to the high quality private medicine of the Harley Street Medical Area. Its character presents a unique challenge to the landlord, the Howard de Walden Estate, which is tasked with providing 21st century medical facilities in period buildings, most of which are listed.

Dr Grantley Dick-Read (gynaecologist)
William Gladstone (politician)
Charles Lyell (geologist)
Florence Nightingale (nurse)
Arthur Wing Pinero (playwright)

Harley Street has no shortage of architectural gems, including 18 Grade II* Listed buildings and dozens more with a Grade II ranking. The most significant buildings are the Georgian townhouses, but while charming, their individual significance can escape the untrained eye. Amid such understated beauty, the Victorian and Edwardian infills stand out like the loud kids in a classroom of studious high achievers. 37 Harley Street, designed in 1899 by Arthur Beresford Pite, with its fancy slate roof and sandy-coloured stone is the true class clown, with its Baroque details and showy use of sculpture.

37 Harley Street


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