Next time you're going down Oxford Street, have a good look at the Marks & Spencer on the corner of Poland Street.
Look at the top of the building. What's that sign?
That's the only visible reminder of the Pantheon, which was built as Assembly Rooms in 1772. Like all Assembly Rooms, it was designed to look very grand. The main ballroom was, at the time, one of the largest in England and its central dome was modelled to resemble the Pantheon in Rome. It was initially very successful but fashions come and go and it was eventually converted into an opera house. Unfortunately, in 1792, after only one complete season of opera, it was burnt down. It was rebuilt and reopened in 1795, but it never regained its initial popularity and, after briefly being converted to a theatre, it was closed in 1814.
In 1834 it was rebuilt as a bazaar and it was still in use as, essentially, an early shopping mall in 1859 when Back Home is set. My 1862 Bradshaw says that the ground floor houses "a well-arranged bazaar, with a conservatory, laid out in exquisite taste, and abundant in birds and flowers". There were also fish swimming in a central fountain and, to add to the zoological theme, more animals in pet shops.
In 1859, the place was past its best, but Bradshaw features it in its list of 'Places worth seeing' noting that it has "a very agreeable lounge".
It was demolished in 1837 and replaced in 1838 by the branch of Marks & Spencer, which is still there.
In this excerpt from Back Home, William and Susan, who are in the West End to pass counterfeit coinage, go to the Pantheon for a break from their felonious activities.
We took our lunch at the Pantheon, walking through the imposing columns of the Oxford Street entrance like a couple of swells. We had yet to work our business in this place. It called itself a bazaar rather than a department store and, despite its elaborate architecture, I had not realised what a great variety of goods were sold there. Its appearance suggested that it had once been very grand, but it was clearly past its best. Many of the shops catered for children and Susan was captivated by the monkeys gambolling in a pet shop window. While she was thus occupied I looked about and noticed that the variety of businesses operating under this roof provided an ideal opportunity for us to pass off a considerable amount of coin in one afternoon.
Susan’s excitement as the monkeys bounded over to grimace at her through the glass drew me back to the present. I wished I could share her simple delight in small things. For myself, I was appalled at how quickly and completely I had taken to the criminal life, so that where others saw innocent amusement, I saw only the opportunity for deception.
At least I could pause from my felonious labour and enjoy our meal. We made our way to the tea rooms, where a light luncheon (cold ham and tongue with salad) was served while we watched the fish swimming around the fountain that decorated the centre of the place. Despite the background bustle of women – for they were mainly women – coming and going, it was peaceful and, for the first time in a while, I felt I could relax. The lettuce was wilting and the pieces of celery in the salad far from crisp, but my companion pronounced it excellent. She was, under it all, a nice girl, and I imagine that, if life had been kinder to her, she might have worked in a shop or, perhaps, even been a governess. As it was, her outings with me were a pleasant break from the usual way she earned her bread. I could see no obvious signs of pox, but if she were not infected now, I was sure she would be soon.
‘Let’s order arrowroot cake.’ She sounded like a little girl being treated for her birthday. ‘They say that’s special here.’
I had not the heart to deny her. We both ate the arrowroot cake. It was lighter than most cakes – an advantage of the arrowroot, I supposed – but there was a trace of bitterness to it that the sugar liberally sprinkled on top failed to disguise. I must admit that I was unimpressed, but Susan was thrilled. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘I’ve eaten at the Pantheon and had their famous cake. Won’t the other girls be jealous?’
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