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Harley Street – what’s in its name?

This is an article on Sir Robert Harley and the origins and naming of Harley Street in London UK, where Clinica London is situated.
How many roads, streets and lanes are there in London? This would be an impossible question even for the most experienced London Black Cab driver in total command of “The Knowledge”.
Harley Street, London W1 Harley Street, London W1
The answer probably runs into hundreds of thousands; but, short of mindlessly counting the index pages of an A to Z, the exact number will remain an irrelevant mystery. It is, however, an interesting piece of trivia to note that technically there are no roads at all within the square mile of the original City of London (up until the boundary changes in 1994). There are plenty of streets, squares and alleys; but no actual roads. This factoid is explained by the use of the word ‘road’ which appears to have only arrived in the English language during the late 16th century. “Roads” were adopted when, due to its rapid growth, London ran out of streets to name. That said, there has never been a shortage of people to name them after.
Portrait of Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer (1661-1724), by Jonathan Richardson, c1710 Portrait of Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer (1661-1724), by Jonathan Richardson, c1710
As London began to expand during the Georgian period it became popular to name streets after the land-owners, landlords, property developers and architects who created them; rather than historical figures.
One can only imagine the kudos gained from taking a stroll along a street bearing your name – be it Savile Row (after Lady Dorothy Savile wife of the architect and developer), Downing Street (built by Sir George Downing), Bond Street (property developer Sir Thomas Bond) or Jermyn Street in Westminster named after Henry Jermyn the 1st Earl of St Albans who developed the St James area around 1667. Even Robert Sidney, the 2nd Earl of Leicester received the small consolation of giving his title to name Leicester Square after being forced by the Privy Council to allow public access to his land on which it was built.
At that time the Harley family would have needed a fine horse-drawn carriage, or some exceptionally comfortable shoes, to survey the full extent of their namesake territory. Cavendish Square and adjoining streets were given their names after the various relatives of Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer; and his son Edward.
Oxford Street, Cavendish Square, Mortimer Street, Wigmore Street, Wimpole Street as well as the world famous Harley Street can all trace their origins to the Harley dynasty.
So who was Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer (1661-1724)?
It would be satisfying to think that he might have had some – however tenuous – connection with health matters; but unfortunately this is not the case.
Lord Robert Harley was in fact a politician and statesman who, between 1711 and 1714 served as First Lord of the Treasury effectively becoming Queen Anne’s chief minister.
It was his government that agreed the Treaty of Utrecht the implications of which are still felt today in the sensitive issue of Gibraltar’s autonomy. In 1714, under Kind George I, he fell from favour and even spent some time imprisoned in the Tower of London.
A somewhat controversial political figure, he survived two assassination attempts one – known as the Bandbox Plot – was thwarted by Jonathan Swift. At the time the author of Gulliver’s Travels was employed to write Harley’s political pamphlets. Robert Harley’s use of Swift’s talents and those of another contemporary writer, Daniel Defoe, has lead historians to consider him one of the first politicians to practice “spin” and to place value on the importance of managing the media.
His major legacy, however, was his influence on more lasting forms of writing. As a patron of the arts, he promoted the careers of many writers of the day including Alexander Pope. He also commissioned ballads and poems and used his wealth and power to assemble an unparalleled library,which included literature from the Renaissance, Anglo Saxon as well as Middle English periods. Known today as the Harley Collection, these works are now housed in the British Library.
Lord Robert Harley had four children including his only son Edward (1689 – 1741) who succeeded him and famously was responsible for building Harley Street. The 2nd Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer continued in his father’s footsteps as a politician, bibliophile, collector and patron of the arts. Through his wife, Henrietta Cavendish Holles, he inherited Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire as well as Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire. He also acquired a considerable amount of land in the West End of London, which was developed during his lifetime.
The 1st Earl of Oxford died in 1724 at his home in Albermarle Street in Westminster (built in 1684 and named after the 2nd Duke of Albermarle who owned the land).
As first minister during Queen Anne’s reign Lord Robert Harley was considered by some to have been the “Prime Minister” although it is more generally accepted that this position was first held by Sir Robert Walpole in 1721.
Today one would have to travel far from London’s West End to find a new development to match with worthy contemporary figures. However, there is an alternative… in the North London constituency of Finchley the council is currently considering re-naming an existing road after the woman who served as its MP for 33 years and was Britain’s first female Prime Minster – Baroness Margaret Thatcher. Despite being the first politician to use “spin” with his persuasive pamphlets and media tricks, one can only wonder what Sir Robert Harley would have thought about that.
April 30th 2013


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