The eastern continuation of the already well-established Oxford Street, it is named after Edward Harley, 2nd Earl of Oxford (June 2, 1689 – June 16, 1741), a politician, bibliophile, collector and patron of the arts. It was through his marriage to Lady Henrietta Cavendish Holles, that he inherited a considerable amount of land in the West End which was developed during his life, though this street wasn’t built until 1847. Harley entered the House of Lords in 1724, having previously been MP for Radnor and Cambridgeshire, though he took little interest in public affairs, preferring the arts and collecting. He built up a huge collection of coins which were sold at auction by Christopher Cock in the Great Piazza, Covent Garden over six days, from March 18, 1742. When the street was built it acted as a cut through allowing traffic to go west from High Holborn without having to wind around St Giles High Street, but more importantly, it was part of a wider early-Victorian campaign to tidy up what had become a very unsavoury neighbourhood. The new road cut a swathe through St Giles’s Rookery, a notorious slum. John Timbs, in Curiosities of London described it as “one dense mass of houses, through which curved narrow tortuous lanes, from which again diverged close courts”. He went on: “The lanes were thronged with loiterers, and stagnant gutters, and piles of garbage and filth infested the air.” Many of the old streets were abolished in the development and others underwent name changes. Part of the motivation behind these plans came from moral campaigns to reform people considered to be to some extent responsible for their own poverty and criminality. Or indeed, just plain gentrification, dispersing the undesirables. In this case, the poor benefitted little from this act of mercy, they were simply moved on to King’s Cross which became the new slum district. Several other famous West End streets took their name from Harley connections – primarily Harley Street and Oxford Street, while others like Wigmore Street and Wimpole Street are named after his properties.
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