Marylebone

Marylebone – or Saint Marylebone – gets its name from its parish church, which is the church of St Marylebone on the Marylebone Road.

St Marylebone Church
in 1890

Obviously the church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, but the “-lebone” bit is not, as you might imagine, from the French la bonne (the good). In fact its “bone” was originally “bourne” or “burn” (a small river, in other words), so St Marylebone actually meant St Mary by the Burn. The burn in question was the Tyburn, which ran past the church and through the parish from north to south (there’s more about the Tyburn here). Marylebone Lane follows its course, which is why it’s all wiggly on the map while the neighbouring streets either lie down perfectly flat, or stand to attention with a stiff upper lip.

Lebanese restaurant on Edgware Road
from a photo by bob walker (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Even more unnervingly straight is Marylebone’s western boundary, the Edgware Road, which looks on a map of London like a ramrod lying in a plate of spaghetti. That’s because it was built by the Romans, who had no time for meandering lanes, and liked to get from A to B by the shortest possible route (but if you’re feeling a bit wiggly yourself, see if you can spot any original Roman traffic lights on it). Nowadays, this end of the Edgware Road is London’s Little Beirut, and the top place in town for falafels, shawarma, baklawa, and fruit-flavoured sheesha pipes.

John Nash

In Norman times, what’s now Marylebone was largely within the Manor of Tyburn, which is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086, when it was valued at 52/- (£2.60). It later belonged to the Earls of Oxford (whose street forms Marylebone’s southern boundary), before falling into the hands of Henry VIII, who made the northern part into a hunting park for deer. His descendant, George the Prince Regent, then got his favourite architect, John Nash, to lay that out properly as Regent’s Park, but Georgie-Porgie didn’t stump any money for the project, which was funded by local property developer James Burton.

Cavendish Sq in 1820

In the meantime, land was acquired here by posh familes such as the Portmans and the Cavendishes, which is why there are squares and streets named after them. Harley Street on the other hand was named after Thomas Harley, who was Lord Mayor of London in 1767, and represented the City (not Marylebone) as a Tory MP. Harley Street only became a centre for medical practitioners in the late nineteenth century. Before abortion was legalized in 1967, it was still possible, if you had the money, to get a private “Harley Street abortion”. The alternative was the prospect of a backstreet operation, the sordid, dangerous and often horrifically lethal resort of so many poor desperate girls in trouble, who couldn’t afford to pay their way out. Today, fortunately, such arrangements are no longer necessary, and Harley Street clinics are more likely to specialize in plastic surgery.

Holmes & Watson
take the train

A few blocks to the west, Baker Street’s most famous resident was of course Arthur Conan Doyle’s coke-fiend detective Sherlock Holmes, who lived at number 221b. Despite being a fictional character, Holmes received (and continues to receive) mail from around the world. At one time, the Abbey National Building Society, whose head office was at 219–229 Baker Street, had an employee whose duties included answering Holmes's mail, but in 1990, Westminster council’s infamous gerrymandering Tory leader Shirley Porter (once described as “the most corrupt British public figure in living memory”) assigned the number to a tourist-oriented private museum at what was previously number 239. She did so despite the fact that it is now out of numerical sequence, and that this stretch was not part of Baker Street in Holmes’s day.

Baker Street bank from a photo by
Simon Harriyott (CC BY-SA 2.0)

It was a Sherlock Holmes story that inspired the 1971 Baker Street bank robbery, which in turn inspired Roger Donaldson's 2008 movie The Bank Job. The robbery still has several mysteries outstanding, not least the fact that papers relating to it in the Public Records Office have been specially restricted as secret, and public access to them is unexplainedly blocked until 2071.

London Planetarium

Marylebone contains one of London’s top tourist attractions, Madame Tussauds famous waxworks. The domed building on its west side was originally the London Planetarium, a big favourite among science-loving schoolkids. Sadly, celebs and super-heroes replaced science in the public’s affections and the planetarium closed in 2006, to be replaced by a super-hero show. Marylebone’s other attraction is the Wallace Collection, a museum of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art and furnishings located on Manchester Square.

Baker Street tube station, detail from a
photo by CJMoss (Kelisi) (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Those with an interest in railways may also enjoy the Circle Line platforms at Baker Street station, which try to preserve its period features from 1863, when it opened as part of the original Meropolitan Railway, the world’s first tube line. Sights aside however, many tourists just like Marylebone for its genteel backstreets and villagey atmosphere. It also has one of London’s last surviving elm trees.

In 1965, the metropolitan borough of Marylebone was incorporated (together with Paddington) into an enlarged City of Westminster, complete with gerrymandering, corruption and all the Tory trimmings.