By the time I was able to get to Carnaby Street under my own steam, it would have been around the early/mid 1970s. By then, its ‘Swinging London’ heyday had all but gone, and a faded glamour had taken its place and replaced it with rows and rows of tacky tourist shops and a orange and black rubberised floor, which seemed especially good at attracting chewing gum.
Still, for a few years as I began to explore the West End as a youth, it was a destination I made for every time I was over there and that became more frequent as my interest in all things Mod grew. Every book or article I soaked up around then, informed me this backwater street was ‘The place‘ once upon a time.
Talking of once upon a time, it was all fields round there hundreds of years before, belonging to the Convent of Abingdon, which the Crown took control of in 1536. The Poultney family then took on the lease in 1590 and on their land, stood a windmill and a well.
Karnaby House was erected to the East of the fields in 1683 constructed by one Richard Tyler, the name thought to have been inspired by a village in Yorkshire called Carnaby. A Street of houses and shops followed from 1685, with many occupied by newly arrived Greeks and French Huguenots, nearly all of who existed in extreme poverty.
Lowndes Market, later Carnaby Market, selling fish and vegetables, arrived in the early part of the 1700s.
The 1720s saw a lot of rebuilding of the poorly built existing housing, with a Shakespeare’s Head pub being established in 1735 near to Fouberts Place. A pub with that name is of course still there, or at least was BC – Before Covid.
By 1823, Regent Street as we know it now and which borders the Carnaby area, was completed by architect John Nash, the first purpose built shopping arcade of its type, which heralded the retail future to come.
The schmutter trade was active in and around Carnaby Street from the mid 1850s, with an abundance of workshops and sweatshops servicing the tailors and outfitters on nearby Savile Row, which runs parallel with Carnaby directly across Regent Street.
In more recent times, like nearby Soho, the area has always had a touch of the unspoken underworld about it, with underground nightclubs hiding patrons up to all sorts of shenanigans.
Number 50 for example was the one time ‘Florence Mills Social /Jazz Club’ visited by many of our early Afro/Caribbean community. It later became ‘Club Eleven’ set up by and for, the early UK Jazz Be-Boppers in 1948, which had started originally on Great Windmill Street. Founder members included Ronnie Scott and Johnny Dankworth.
In the early ‘60s it then became ‘The Roaring Twenties’ with the legendary Count Suckle at the DJ controls.
Vince’s Man’s Shop opened at number 5 Newburgh Street from 1954 and was the pioneer of the male boutiques that were to follow. Vince’s offered menswear to a more discerning clientele, including stage performers and those with a ‘show off’ persona. It also had a strong gay following. The owner was photographer Bill Green, and his male model for its mail order catalogue was one time Edinburgh milkman and future Mr Universe Sean Connery.
‘It was the sort of the place that when you went in to purchase a tie, they’d measure your inside leg’ – George Melly.
One time shop assistant at Vince’s, John Stephen, branched out with his own shop ‘His Clothes’ on nearby Beak Street, before it was destroyed in a fire. He reopened it on Carnaby Street in 1957, thus becoming the first boutique to appear there, aimed at the burgeoning teenage market and well, the rest is history.
Within a few years, Stephens, later known as the ‘Million Pound Mod’ had at least five more shops on the street. Influential womenswear designers Foale and Tuffin also had their design studio there.
In April 1966, Time Magazine signalled the ‘Carnaby Effect’ to the world and then the world came calling, as the ‘Carnabetian Army’ converged on the area.
Other shop names often recalled from those days and later include ‘Lady Jane’ ‘Ravel’ ‘Take Six’ ‘I was Lord Kitchener’s Valet’ ‘Kleptomania’ ‘Mates’ ‘Carnaby Cavern’ ‘Melanndi’ and ‘Merc.’
Regular shoppers in the street would include The Small Faces and The Who, who could be regularly seen fighting off crowds of well-wishers and Pathe film crews. As Pete Townshend once said of Carnaby Street: ‘at night, big spliffs and Blue Beat. During the day Purple Hearts and pink shirts.’
As the 60s became the 70s, things were changing rapidly as the street lost its mojo. Westminster Council tried a £60,000 refurb in 1973, making it pedestrianised at certain hours, and down went the rubberised floor by Iona Gibson of Donald Insall Associates, as mentioned previously, as well as the ‘Carnaby Street Welcomes The World sign.
But in truth, the rot had set in for a few years.
As the Noughties kicked in however, the areas landlord ‘Shaftesbury’ set about making the street a destination once again. Old leases were not renewed, instead small independents and major branded companies were invited in to take a unit. Names such Puma, Pretty Green, Office, Ray Ban, CP Company GH Bass, Redwing, Dr Martens New Era, Levis Birkenstock, Camper, Fred Perry Onisuka Tiger, Superga have all set up shop in recent years, which has gradually turned to tide with a new generation arriving who had little thought and no memory to its glory days.
However, the importance of Carnaby Street is still celebrated for its 1960s fashion & Pop legacy, by way of green Westiminter Council plaques erected in the memory of the likes of John Stephens, Vince’s, The Small Faces, and Warren Gold who traded there as Lord John. Further evidence of all that could be seen in 2020 with the opening of a shop dedicated to The Rolling Stones.
I still walk down it from time to time and often recall my time there in the early 70s and then later as a ‘Merc Mod’ being noised up by the other street tribes of those times.
Once there, you still quickly find yourself surrounded by day-trippers and tour parties who have obviously made a beeline for the street, grabbing photos at every turn.
Carnaby Street it would appear, all these years later, still welcomes the world.
The Mumper of SE5
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