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Entrance to Carnaby Street|©Grobie/Flickr
Entrance to Carnaby Street|©Grobie/Flickr
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A History of London's Carnaby Street in One Minute

Picture of Harriet Clugston
Updated: 2 December 2016
One of the most iconic streets in the world, colourful Carnaby Street was the epicentre of 1960s London, a decade of unprecedented and revolutionary social, cultural and political upheaval. Though Carnaby Street was to enjoy a renewed period of cultural buzz in the 70s and 80s, drawing subcultures including punk, rock and goth, it is the colourful, psychedelic decade of the miniskirt and the tailor-made suit with whom it continues to be identified around the world. We take a brief look at its fascinating history.

Carnaby Street’s early years were a far cry away from the glamour it’s famed for. Mapped out in about 1685 or 1686, it was built up with houses by the 1690s, with a market developing in the 1820s. It wasn’t until the 1850s, however, that the street became noteworthy, when surrounding Soho was hit by a cholera endemic. The physician and pioneer in medical hygiene, John Snow, recognised that the outbreak was concentrated around a pump on Broad Street; the council was persuaded to disable the pump, cases of cholera declined, and the link between contaminated water and disease was established. This was to prove a landmark event in the foundation of epidemiology (the control of disease via public health planning and preventive healthcare), with Carnaby Street and the surrounding area benefiting from the principles.

The famous Irvine Sellars boutique on Carnaby Street, 19698| ©H. Grobe/WIkicommons
The famous Irvine Sellars boutique on Carnaby Street, 19698 | ©H. Grobe/WIkicommons

However, Carnaby Street continued to be run-down and dominated by cheap rental properties and workshops almost until the 1960s— though the opening of the Florence Mills jazz club by Amy Ashwood Garvey and Sam Manning in 1934 made the area a hotspot for supporters of burgeoning Pan-Africanist politics. In 1952, a 19-year-old Scottish clothing entrepreneur named John Stephen, arrived in London. Initially working for Moss Bros, Stephen began his own menswear workshop on Beak Street before relocating to nearby Carnaby in 1958, where he also opened a store— Carnaby Street’s first boutique.

The entrance to Carnaby Street|©Grobie/Flickr
The entrance to Carnaby Street | ©Grobie/Flickr

Stephen’s designs were characterised by a distinct flamboyance not seen in other menswear brands, with clothes geared towards a newly emerging mass youth, in possession of a disposable income for the first time following Britain’s recovery from post-war austerity. Other retailers and designers followed suit, and by the early 1960s, Carnaby Street had been taken over by boutiques catering towards the mod and hippie crowds, with its shops and bars popular with bands including The Rolling Stones and The Who. By 1967, Stephen, was the ‘King of Carnaby Street’, which had become the epicentre of Swinging London— by the end of the decade, it had become London’s second most visited attraction after Buckingham Palace.

Carnaby Stree, at the height of Swinging London, 1969|©The National Archives/Wikicommons
Carnaby Stree, at the height of Swinging London, 1969 | ©The National Archives/Wikicommons

Today, Carnaby Street remains a pedestrianised shopping avenue with the main thoroughfare and its side street offshoots home to 150 shops, from global brands and flagship concept stores to small boutiques, and more than 50 independent bars and restaurants, meaning this iconic street continues to draw scores of tourists and locals alike.