Harley Street is world-renowned as the home to London’s private medical services. In this article I want to touch on how the street and the surrounding area of London became so intrinsically linked with the medical profession.
The term Harley Street is itself synonymous with high class private medical care and many medical establishments rely on the prestige of the address to denote a certain quality in their service. As a result the street is now home to over 3,000 people employed in around 1,500 organisations covering the full spectrum of health care establishments ranging from general practices, clinics and cosmetic surgeons to dental practices; even private hospitals. Patients come from around the country and the world due to the reputation the small area of London has built up and it is estimated that the services provided in the area contribute a sizable £300 million to the county’s economy every year.
The land around Harley Street originally belonged to the Dukes of Newcastle, forming part of their Marylebone Estate, before the passing down of the female side of the family through the late 17th and early 18th centuries, ending up in the hands of Henrietta Cavendish Harley, wife of Edward Harley. The connection to the Harley family lent the most famous street in the area its name, but Edward Harley was also responsible for the initial development of the area having built Cavendish Square in 1715.
In 1741 when Edward died the estate passed to his daughter Margaret Cavendish Harley who was already married to William Bentinck, 2nd Duke of Portland and so the area became know as Portland, passing through the Portland family until 1879 when the childless 5th Duke of Portland died. The estate was divided between the duke’s sisters and cousin and when the last sister, the widow of Lord Howard de Walden, died it passed to her husband’s family in which it is still held, constituting part of the de Walden estate.
Due to the extensive growth and prosperity of the area during the 18th and 19th centuries, under the Harley and Portland families, the area around Harley Street became home to some of London’s best examples of Georgian architecture. It is believed that the primary reason that the area attracted so many medical organisations from the 19th century onwards was that these buildings were so suitable in size, layout and location for the development of medical establishments with high levels of comfort and patient care. The area is close to some of London’s major transport hubs too, including the stations at Paddington and Kings Cross, making it the ideal location for the gentry of the Victorian era to commute by using the nation’s burgeoning rail network.
Harley Street can not only boast a rich medical history and reputation but can also lay claim to being the residential address of some repute in the Victorian era with residents such as the four time Prime Minister William Gladstone and perhaps the biggest name in art from that period, J. M. W. Turner. Whilst in more recent times the street has become more famous as the home to leading lights in the medical arena and was notably the residence of Lionel Logue – the Australian who treated George VI for his stutter in the episode that was recently the subject of the Oscar winning film The King’s Speech. The street is further renowned as the home of the girl’s school dating from 1848, Queen’s College – one of the oldest in the country.
The architecture of Harley Street is testament to the wealth that was flowing through some sections of Georgian Society and laid the perfect foundation for the area’s industry that was to follow. However it was the prosperity of the Victorian era, the desire for medical care and the leaps in science and medicine witnessed by that age that helped establish the area as the hub of medical care that it is today.