Above: Looking south from near the north end of Carnaby Street. These days it is not as busy as it was in the 1960s.
Carnaby Street is now a pedestrianised shopping street in Soho. Being close to Oxford Street, Oxford Circus and Regent Street it is one of the busiest tourist spots in the West End. Since the 1960s it has become home to fashion and lifestyle retailers, including a large number of independent fashion boutiques.
That is a brief summary of Carnaby Street over the last half-century but it was not always like that. It derives its name from a Karnaby House, which was built in 1683 on land to the east of today’s street. Why that house was so-called is not known. It is a very unusual spelling for an English name at such an early time. Carnaby Street was probably laid out in 1685 or 1686 because it first appeared in the rate-books for 1687. By 1690 the records show that it was almost completely lined with small houses. A street market came into existence in the 1820s. From that time onwards the street just became one of many in Soho and it was no more famous than any of other surrounding streets. It was not until the 20th century that its name travelled around the world.
As early as 1934, Amy Ashwood Garvey and Sam Manning opened the Florence Mills Social Club – a jazz club that became a gathering place for supporters of Pan-Africanism, at number 50 Carnaby Street.
The first boutique in Carnaby Street came with the opening of ‘His Clothes’ in 1957 by John Stephen after his shop in Beak Street burned down. Others who started in those times included ‘I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet’, ‘Gear’, ‘Lady Jane’, ‘Mates’ and ‘Ravel’. In nearby Kingly Street, Tommy Roberts opened his gift shop called ‘Kleptomania’ and he later moved to Carnaby Street in 1967, later becoming famous in the King’s Road (in Chelsea) with his ‘Mr Freedom’ shop.
By the 1960s, Carnaby Street was popular with followers of the mod and hippie styles. Many independent fashion boutiques such as ‘Ariella’ as well as designers like Mary Quant, Marion Foale and Sally Tuffin, Lord John, Merc and Take Six were there. Looking back, it is interesting to observe that Irvine Sellar opened a fashion shop in the street in 1965. He made his money from this shop and other fashion shops that he owned and he became the owner of Britain’s largest fashion chain with 90 shops. After selling the business, he formed the development group that built the Shard of Glass (near London Bridge Station), costing £2 billion to develop, which is London’s tallest skyscraper. Sellar died in 2017.
Various underground music bars such as the ‘Roaring Twenties’ opened in the surrounding streets. Bands such as the ‘Small Faces’, ‘The Who’, and ‘The Rolling Stones’ – who you might have heard of – appeared at the legendary ‘Marquee Club’ (nearby in Wardour Street). Carnaby Street was one of the main players in the 1960s trend for shopping and socialising. It became one of the coolest destinations associated with 1960s ‘Swinging London’. It was one of the ‘coolest places’ in London to see the latest fashion and to be seen. What had been ‘just one of the back streets in Soho’ – behind the grand shops of Regent Street – was suddenly propelled to fame and fortune.
It was also a street in the sense that there was a road with narrow pavements on either side. Some of the young shop owners who had suddenly become rich would park their Rolls Royce motor cars outside their premises to demonstrate their new-found wealth. In October 1973, the Greater London Council (GLC) pedestrianised the street with all vehicles being banned between 11.00 am and 8.00 pm each day. Pedestrian numbers increased as a result and the street remains pedestrianised to this day.
In the 21st century, further alterations were made to the street with large arches being erected at either end. Because Carnaby Street made such an impact in the 1960s, visitors are still curious about it and still visit the shops but its heigh-day has long since passed.
On a personal note, one of my memories was that one of the souvenir shops in the street in the 1960s used to sell cans which were about the same size as a drink can. On the side, it had the label ‘London Fog’. I doubt that anyone ever opened those cans and they were probably empty inside. It was, no doubt, a profitable line of merchandise.
I also remember taking a group of young teenage visitors to London to see Carnaby Street. It was their ‘Number One’ place that they wanted to see. One of them was keen to buy postcards just printed with a photograph of the street nameplate. Don’t forget that, in the 1960s, nobody had a mobile phone and so everyone who went on holiday sent back postcards of where they had been.
Being in Carnaby Street you would have thought that buying such a card was an easy matter. We visited every souvenir shop in the street but no shop had any of those cards. After walking down Carnaby Street our route took us to Regent Street where we walked south to Piccadilly Circus. There were several postcard sellers on the side of the street. At last we found one man selling these cards. He had just a few on display. I mentioned to him how he seemed to be the only stall with the name of Carnaby Street on the postcard to which he replied that he had sold over 400 postcards of that design during that day! Such was the demand for mementoes of Carnaby Street at that time that even selling postcards at that rate was obviously a profitable business.