Appendix 3: Problems of Short-term Leasing, an Episode

Page 198

Survey of London: Volume 39, the Grosvenor Estate in Mayfair, Part 1 (General History). Originally published by London County Council, London, 1977.

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Problems of short-term leasing: an episode

Short-term speculation and improvement played a vital part in the leasehold system, especially in the complex period at the end of one lease and the beginning of another one. But though they were essential for the needs of fashionable society in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, short-term occupiers could also by their nature, habits and interests dissuade other potential lessees from taking on the longer tenancies that were the lifeblood of the system. Nowhere is this better highlighted than by the history of No. 51 Brook Street in 1802–6, as recorded chiefly in letters (now in the North Yorkshire County Record Office) from the architect P. F. Robinson to Mrs. Osbaldeston of Hutton Buscel, Yorkshire, a prospective lessee.

The head lease of No. 51 Brook Street, due to run out at Lady Day (25 March) 1804, was held by General Thomas Davies, who for some years had been sub-letting to tenants, the last of them a Frenchman, Mr. Grillion, who may have been running the house as a private hotel. Since the renewal terms offered by the Estate were high, both Davies and Grillion successively declined them. But Robinson, hearing of the house through an agent and having after inspecting it received 'very satisfactory answers' about the 'disagreeables to which Houses are liable', clinched the terms verbally on behalf of his client Mrs. Osbaldeston early in January 1803. Mrs. Osbaldeston was to have a sixty-two-year term from Lady Day 1804. Though the fine was higher than he had at first been led to believe, Robinson still thought the house a bargain, telling Mrs. Osbaldeston 'if I had money to lay out I do not know a speculation I would more willingly engage in than that of purchasing Houses in the neighbourhood of Grosvenor Square, improving and selling them. I think I could make a fortune. Houses in this quarter are so much sought after that the value encreases rather than otherwise.'

Nevertheless the fine was never paid and the deal was to fall through for two connected reasons. Firstly, Mrs. Osbaldeston was primarily interested in a town house which she could occupy for short periods, at most for the duration of the London Season, and not as the long-term investment which her architect was urging upon her. So much is clear from Robinson's letters of subsequent years about other London houses he looked into for her. Secondly, the subtenants were left in a confusing situation during the last year of General Davies's term.

Grillion's sub-lease expired in March 1803 and he was anxious to be relieved of his tenancy before that date if possible. But though Mrs. Osbaldeston herself took on a sub-lease of the following six months from April to September under General Davies, so as to be able to have a house for the Season of 1803 while postponing her final decision about a new lease, she declined to take over Grillion's last two months as well. This put Grillion 'in so great a rage', Robinson reported, 'that he swears neither I nor any person on your account shall enter the House while he has any power to prevent it. I calculate however upon his getting cool and seeing his interest a little better.' This duly occurred; Grillion performed some minor repairs and made over these two months to Mr. Polton, an upholsterer, who in his turn prepared to refurbish the house and looked for a short-term tenant. Polton naturally wanted the house for a longer period than two months; thinking of letting it for the Season, he applied to Robinson for the ensuing six months (April-September 1803). But Robinson advised against this unless Mrs. Osbaldeston were herself to live in the house as furnished by Polton during the period, 'as we otherwise shall get possession of the House at a Season when it will be impossible to put workmen in it [i.e. too late in the year] and you would have it on your hands during a winter in its present state.'

Mrs. Osbaldeston therefore kept these six months in reserve with a possible view to living in the house for the Season of 1803, while Polton found a two-month tenant in the shape of the Danish Ambassador. But in February 1803, Robinson was reporting gloomily that the house was 'dirty enough indeed, I believe it is in vain to look for cleanliness from a Frenchman and if Grillion or his agents are so unwise as to neglect their interest in not rendering it tolerable, we must search for another house pro tempora [sic]'. Whether Mrs. Osbaldeston actually did take the house for the Season is unclear, but the likelihood is that in the light of these reports she did not. Her enthusiasm for a long lease was also beginning to wane. In June 1803 Robinson sent sketches to her for proposed permanent alterations in stages and attempted to reconcile her to taking on the lease with the thought that the house could be easily sold at any time. 'The present time has the effect of encreasing the value of Houses' he argued; 'I have had some conversation with intelligent Builders, who agree in believing that Rents will universally be raised.' But by August Mrs. Osbaldeston had taken fright, and by Autumn 1803 she had definitely decided against taking the long lease. Though this led to difficulties with the Grosvenor Board and some talk in December 1803 of litigation, the subsequent immediate history of No. 51 Brook Street suggests that she was right and her architect wrong. After General Davies had surrendered the house empty in April 1804, it hung heavy on the Estate's hands for several years. Despite various proposals, one to convert it into a bookshop, no permanent tenant could be found until December 1806, when Sir Joseph Copley agreed to take a new long lease from Lady Day 1807. Even then the house remained private for only a few years, for in 1813 it was to become the first of a series of houses to be taken over as Mivart's Hotel, chief ancestor of the modern Claridge's.