The Development of the Estate 1720-1785: Building Agreements

Pages 13-16

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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Building Agreements

Over the long period which was required to cover The Hundred Acres with buildings some ninety-three or more pre-lease building agreements were concluded with prospective undertakers, (fn. 1) the vast majority of whom were building tradesmen. The originals or counterparts of ninety of these agreements have survived among the Grosvenor Estate records, and the existence of three others is recorded although the documents themselves are lost. (fn. 4) There are a few plots for which no agreements have been found, but in at least two instances it is likely that no agreements were made before leases were granted —a frontage to Oxford Street taken by a brickmaker in exchange for an existing lease of a brickfield there, and 185 feet on the south side of Grosvenor Square leased to Robert Grosvenor. (fn. 5) The areas taken under building agreements are shown on plan A in the end pocket. They varied from single house sites to large plots covering several acres, the biggest being that taken by Thomas Barlow and Robert Andrews in 1725 (no. 55 on plan A). In most cases the agreements were made some considerable time before leases were granted of the land covered by them, and as soon as they had been signed they became negotiable documents. In 1728, for instance, Robert Grosvenor bought an existing agreement for a plot on the west side of Park Street (no. 61 on plan A) for thirty guineas 'and divers other good Causes and valuable Considerations', (fn. 6) and the houses subsequently built there became part of his trust estate. In a few instances agreements were surrendered and replaced later by others, but in most cases where the original undertaker was unable to fulfil his contract the benefit of his agreement was assigned to someone else.

Although the agreements do not follow a standard form they are generally similar in wording and indicate, at least on paper, a marked degree of laxity in the control of building operations. Under them Sir Richard Grosvenor or his successors (or in some cases Robert Myddelton, for the reasons indicated earlier) agreed to grant a lease or leases of the ground when building had reached a certain stage. This was usually expressed as within forty days of the first and second floors of the house or houses being laid, or within forty days of tiling-in. Sometimes it was specified that the street before the front of the house(s) should be levelled and paved to the middle before leases were granted, but more specific paving clauses were contained later in the documents.

When the ground taken included a frontage to a stable yard a stipulation was usually made that future lessees were to be granted the right of use of the stable yard and the horse pond, watering place, pump, water and dung place to be made available there on paying to the ground landlord a share of the costs of making the yard and its appurtenances proportionate to the amount of foot frontage to the yard. This requirement was invariably repeated later in the document, perhaps to emphasise the responsibility of the undertaker to ensure that such costs were met, and lessees were also required to pay their share of keeping the mews in repair on the same basis of assessment. Most stable yards were, however, situated entirely within the limits of the areas taken and in the majority of these cases no reference was made to them in agreements, the provision of mews presumably being at the cost (and possibly also the discretion) of the undertaker. Clauses relating to the use of such yards were, however, often inserted in leases, specifying that the lessee was to pay his share of the cost of making the mews, but not to whom the cost was to be paid. (fn. 7)

Clauses specified the term of years for which leases were to be granted and the ground rent payable for the whole ground taken under each agreement. These ground rents are discussed in detail on pages 17–19. As stated earlier, the leasehold terms not only varied from one agreement to another but were sometimes exceeded when leases were granted; and little attempt was made to provide a common starting or ending date for such terms, even at the beginning of the development. Under the first agreement of all the terms were calculated from Lady Day 1721, but the second and several subsequent contracts merely stipulated that they were to begin on the last quarter day before the date of each lease. From time to time, notably in the 1730's and in the 1750's, attempts were made to achieve some degree of uniformity in the dates on which leases would fall in, but the long delay before the development was completed nullified such efforts, and the last leases granted did not expire until 1864, (fn. 8) over sixty years later than the earliest ones.

Besides his ground rent each lessee was, in almost every instance, required to pay an extra rent if he allowed his premises to be used for certain noxious trades. This extra rent was usually fixed at £30 in the main streets, but was sometimes only £10 in the lesser ones, such as Mount Street. The list of such trades varied, being generally longer for plots fronting on to the principal streets, but some of the variations appear to have been arbitrary, and some leases contained longer or shorter lists than their parent agreements. (fn. 9) The most commonly restricted trades were:—butcher (both shop and slaughter-house), tallow chandler, soapmaker, tobacco-pipe maker, brewer, victualler, coffee-house proprietor, distiller, farrier, pewterer, working brazier and blacksmith. Occasionally in later agreements sugar baker and glassmaker were added, and in the leases of No. 88 Brook Street, No. 9 Grosvenor Square and a plot in Duke Street the occupations of roasting cook, boiling cook, silk dyer, hatmaker and 'scowerer of cloths' were also discouraged in this way. (fn. 10) More usually trades were omitted from the list, either in agreements or individual leases, particularly those of butcher (although slaughter-houses were generally still included), victualler, coffee-house keeper, farrier, pewterer, brazier and blacksmith. In some of the extensive back land of large plots only a common brewer or a melter of tallow was required to pay the increased rent. (fn. 11) However, in the whole area fronting north on Grosvenor Street and west on Davies Street, which was taken by the estate surveyor, Thomas Barlow, at the beginning of the development, no trades at all were restricted. (fn. 12)

The assumption implicit in this general policy was, evidently, that the extra rent would be a sufficient deterrent to the establishment of undesirable trades. The Grosvenors could hardly have been satisfied with the relatively insignificant additions to their income as compensation for the damaging effects of some of these trades if they had been conducted near to expensive houses. A tallow chandler was unlikely to prove a satisfactory neighbour for an earl or a marquis. A similar device had been used when building leases of Alexander Davies's land at Millbank were granted in 1663 but there the penalty for noxious trades had been assessed at £200 per annum, (fn. 13) a sum more likely to discourage would-be practitioners of undesirable arts. In the eighteenth century, however, in this as in so many other matters on the estate, much seems to have been left to the good sense of builders and future tenants.

The agreements also stipulated that all leases were to contain 'Common usuall and necessary Covenants', a remarkably vague phrase to cover a crucial area of estate management, embellished in the first agreement to read, 'such common and reasonable Covenants and Agreements as are usually contained in Leases of Houses in London'. No doubt builders knew what to expect and the leases were somewhat more explicit (see below).

Although the clauses relating to the actual building operations varied in detail from document to document they followed in essentials a formula worked out in several early agreements. By this the undertaker was at his own costs within eighteen months to build, tile in and enclose on the ground floors (i.e., put in the doors, windows and internal shutters), or cause to be built, on the front of his plot, a good and substantial brick dwelling house or houses to range uniform in the fronts (i.e., follow a common building line with adjoining houses). Within twenty-four months he was to finish the house or houses and back buildings, put up good iron rails before the front and posts in the street, and do the rough and smooth paving work in the street. The work was to be completed 'as fully and amply in every Respect as if all the Particulars for Building had been herein expressly mencioned and Sett Down'. He was also to make the stables and back buildings as low as they conveniently could be and cover them with slate. The time allowed for completion was often varied, Barlow for instance being simply enjoined to proceed 'with all convenient speed', and was, in any case, rarely adhered to. (fn. 14) In some instances where agreements covered ground with more than one street frontage the undertaker was only required to build houses on the principal frontages, while other brick buildings, or brick walls where there were no buildings, sufficed for the other fronts (including Park Lane, as stated earlier). (fn. 15) In later agreements the type of paving to be used was more clearly indicated: footways up to the posts separating them from the roadways were to be laid with Purbeck stone, and the roadways before each plot with good rag or other paving stones to the middle.

What is perhaps most remarkable about these building requirements is their lack of precision, even by the relatively lax standards of the day. (fn. 2) In the absence of any further contracts (and the only others that have been found are between the principal undertakers and other builders taking plots from them or between builders and prospective purchasers) these agreements seemingly provided the only form of control in writing which the landlord and his officers had over the buildings to be erected on the estate. All that could be ensured under them was that a house would be of brick, would adhere to a uniform building line with its terrace neighbours, and being 'good and substantial' would presumably not fall down. Of course, it was also supposed to conform to the London Building Acts of 1707 and 1709 which required certain standards of construction, chiefly in order to prevent the spread of fires. (fn. 3) In only two instances was the amount of money to be spent on building specified—both, surprisingly, in Mount Street, where one undertaker was required to expend £300 within two years and another £200 within twelve months in erecting buildings 'for dwelling in'. (fn. 16) Under some agreements for Brook Street the houses to be built were required to be 'large' (fn. 17) while in Grosvenor Square (where the agreements tended to be slightly more comprehensive and will be discussed more fully below) it was sometimes stipulated that houses were to be not less than thirty feet wide by thirty feet deep. In general, however, throughout the long course of the whole development it was not considered necessary to modify substantially the terminology first employed, and the last agreement made in 1765 was hardly more explicit than those of 1720.

The undertaker had to guarantee that the leases offered by the ground landlord would be accepted, and on the execution of his lease, the lessee was to pay for the use of any sewer built in front of his plot, usually at the rate of six shillings per foot. At first this sum was paid to Sir Richard Grosvenor, but after his death in 1732 it was more usual to specify that the money was to be paid to whomsoever was entitled to receive it, and the phrase 'if he [the undertaker] doesn't build same' was occasionally inserted. (fn. 18) It was also usually stated in early agreements that a separate lease was to be granted of each house built, but this was often ignored and it became common practice to let large areas of ground under one lease after the total ground rent to be obtained from any particular plot had been secured by leases already granted, and in some cases even before.

The final clause in all but a handful of agreements required all disputes between the parties concerned, or between one builder and another, to be submitted to three named referees, or any two of them. Any decision made by them was to be accepted and obeyed within forty days. Exactly how this proviso worked out in practice is not known, but it may have made up for some of the deficiencies in the earlier clauses. In theory, at least, if the Grosvenors or their estate officers were not satisfied with the way building operations were being conducted they could submit a complaint to this panel of arbitrators. Unfortunately no record has survived of the way in which this procedure operated in practice—if it did at all—but it may be significant that provision for it was still being made in the last agreements concluded. One agreement stipulated that the parties concerned should act upon any decisions made in this manner 'without having recourse to Law or Equity', (fn. 19) and behind the employment of this device there may have been a desire to prevent the protracted lawsuits which so often arose in the course of building operations.

The referees who were chosen to adjudicate on disputes included some of the best-known architects and building tradesmen of the time. For agreements made between 1720 and April 1724 they were almost invariably Nicholas Dubois, James Gibbs and Thomas Barlow, although there is no indication that Dubois or Gibbs were in any other way connected with the development of the estate. Until his death in 1730 Barlow was always a member of the panel. Others who served as referees were Edward Bussey junior, surveyor; Benjamin Timbrell, carpenter; Joseph Stallwood, bricklayer; Edward Shepherd; Colen Campbell (for the last four agreements dated before his death in 1729); John James; — Barton, surveyor; Thomas Phillips, carpenter; Roger Morris; Robert Andrews; James Horne; Robert Scott, carpenter; John Phillips, carpenter; Thomas Walley Partington; William Timbrell, carpenter; and George Shakespear, carpenter.

Some agreements contained additional stipulations relating to the specific circumstances of a particular plot. In an agreement of 1723 with Edward Shepherd for an area on the north side of Brook Street with long frontages to Davies Street and Gilbert Street it was laid down that no stables or coach-houses were to be built in these 'cross streets' within two hundred feet of Brook Street. (fn. 20) Restrictions on the siting of stabling can be found in other agreements but were more frequently inserted in leases. Later agreements for the south-western area of the estate contained clauses reserving to the ground landlord the right to grant free passage to and from neighbouring estates along South Street or South Audley Street, with power to stop up the roads leaving only a footway. (fn. 21) Edward Shepherd, who contracted for part of the west side of South Audley Street as far as the southern boundary of the estate, received a concession granting him right of way into the adjoining property of the Dean and Chapter of Westminster which he held on lease, but this privilege did not extend to other nearby estate owners (such as Lord Berkeley and Sir William Pulteney) or their tenants without permission. (fn. 15) It is doubtful whether these conditions had any practical effect, but they were no doubt inserted in case undesirable developments on adjoining properties should require the restriction of communication with them. An agreement of 1720 for the eastern end of Brook Street made reference to the construction of arches and shores over the Tyburn brook to carry the roadway. One of the joint undertakers of this agreement also held adjoining land in Conduit Mead on lease and covenanted to continue Brook Street into that estate at its full width as far as his holding permitted. (fn. 22) When Augustin Woollaston, who may have been a brickmaker by trade, took land at the western edge of the estate in 1725 he had to contract to use any bricks which he might make from brick earth dug out of the ground there for his building operations on the estate, particularly the north side of Grosvenor Square, where he also held land under agreement. (fn. 23)

Even for Grosvenor Square itself, however, there were remarkably few extra provisions. The first agreements for the east and west sides in November 1724 and February 1725 were, indeed, hardly more explicit than those for other streets, but by March and April 1725 more clauses were being written into agreements for the other sides, and these were also inserted in leases of houses on the east and west sides. A share of the costs of making the enclosure in the centre of the square and maintaining the garden was to be paid, but the only additional requirements affecting the building operations were that an area eight feet wide from house front to pavement was to be made in front of each house, a ten-foot-wide pavement was to be laid with Purbeck stone, and the roadway from thence 'quite home to the said intended Square' was to be laid with 'common paving'. In fact the paving work around the enclosure was done at Sir Richard Grosvenor's initial expense and was subsequently added to the charge of laying out the garden, as stated earlier. A surprisingly late addition to such agreements (although contained in all leases or sub-leases of individual house sites in the square) was a clause granting to tenants the 'Liberty and Privilege in Common with other Tenants fronting on the said new intended Square of walking within the Garden designed to be made in the said new intended Square and of having and keeping a Key or Keys to the Gate or Gates thereof'. (fn. 24) Endorsements were added to some of the agreements for ground fronting on to the square stipulating that the houses erected should be at least thirty feet wide and thirty feet deep. (fn. 25) This condition was included in the last agreement (for the south side), but was still ignored in the case of No. 35, which, according to the dimensions given in the building lease, had only a twentyfive-foot frontage to the square. (fn. 24) Several other houses on corner sites in the square were also less than thirty feet in width.


  • 1. The term undertaker is here used to mean someone who undertakes the development of a parcel of land under a building agreement.
  • 2. A model agreement of 1724 for developing the Cavendish-Harley estate in St. Marylebone, although also couched in general terms, contains more detailed provisions relating to the building work including the types of materials to be used; and an agreement of 1711 for building on the Bedford estate in Covent Garden also specified the storey heights and timber scantlings to be employed.
  • 3. But the Acts were not always scrupulously observed, e.g. No. 72 Park Street where in the first three storeys the window frames are not set back the requisite four inches from the front of the reveals.
  • 4. The information in this section is largely based on GBA passim.
  • 5. GLB 11/66, IV/120: M.L.R. 1719/6/36; 1727/1/62.
  • 6. G.O., Sir Rbt. Grosvenor's Trust Estate boxes, agreement of 5 June 1727 with T. Goff and endorsement.
  • 7. E.g. GLB V/132–3.
  • 8. Ibid., XVII 444–53, XVIII, 454 60.
  • 9. E.g. GBA 10 and GLB X/275, XI/276 7: GBA 16 and GLB VII/191: GBA 38 and GLB 111/90.
  • 10. GLB 11/67, 111/70, IV/109.
  • 11. GBA 51: GLB V/142.
  • 12. GBA 1: GLB 12.
  • 13. G.O., early deeds and papers, no. 149.
  • 14. GBA 1, 23.
  • 15. Ibid., 75.
  • 16. GBA 29, 30.
  • 17. Ibid., 36, 38.
  • 18. Ibid., 85, 87.
  • 19. Ibid., 30.
  • 20. Ibid., 36.
  • 21. Ibid., 72, 74, 81.
  • 22. Ibid., 9.
  • 23. Ibid., 53.
  • 24. Ibid., 57.
  • 25. Ibid., 48, 52.
  • 26. B.L., Add. MS. 18, 238, ff. 30–2: Survey of London, vol. XXXVI, 1970, p. 38.