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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The development of the Grosvenor estate in Mayfair proceeded with great pace until 1740, and then in a more desultory fashion as the momentum of building slowed throughout the metropolis. In 1741 the builder Roger Blagrave was complaining about paying rates on several of his houses in South Street which were standing empty, (fn. 2) and of the thirty-eight builders on the estate who are known to have become bankrupt, nine suffered this fate during the years 1740 to 1742. In 1754 the parish Vestry drew attention to the unsatisfactory state of the western end of Upper Brook Street, where land on the south side had stood vacant for some time, (fn. 3) and the twenty-year gap between the dates when sub-leases were granted to the builders of No. 35 (1737) and No. 34 (1756) (fn. 4) suggests a considerable slackening in demand over this period. Nevertheless, despite the lapse of over fifty years before building work on the estate was completed, the basic layout scheme was adhered to with little alteration, and on the whole the development can be accounted a success. Horwood's map of 1792–9 shows that some 1,375 houses were built on the estate, besides many other buildings such as coach-houses, stables, workshops, riding houses, chapels and a workhouse. The evidence of ratebooks suggests that there were few very long delays in filling houses once built and the presence among the early occupants of many people of rank and wealth indicates that fashionable society was well represented from the very start (see Chapter V).
Sir John Summerson has remarked that in the eighteenth century 'Ground landlords rarely found it practicable to dictate the architectural character of the buildings on their land. They might set out the lines of the streets and squares, but once the building agreements were signed the control of elevations was virtually out of their hands'. (fn. 5) This was certainly true on the Grosvenor estate. The Grosvenors commissioned the severely rectilinear layout and provided a good deal of practical assistance to builders but they appear to have eschewed any overall aesthetic control. The only notable case in which architectural uniformity was achieved was on the east side of Grosvenor Square, where a composite elevation with centre and wings was created by the undertaker John Simmons. Edward Shepherd did the same in a slightly grander style with three houses on the north side, but they were not even in the centre of the long range of thirteen houses there. In the description of the square in the 1754 edition of Stow's Survey the author remarks that the lack of uniformity in the houses had been criticized but concludes that 'they are so far uniform, as to be all sashed and of pretty near an equal Height'. (fn. 6) Much the same could be said of the other streets. The kind of overall architectural composition which John Crunden achieved in the 1770's with a small group of three houses in Park Street between North Row and Hereford Street (Plate 13c) was very much the exception, and, of course, in this case dated from the end of the development. Elsewhere the generality of plain brick façades no doubt provided a measure of homogeneity, and most houses appear to have been of three storeys with basements and garrets (an effect now largely obscured by the addition of one or more extra storeys to many houses), but the storey heights were by no means uniform and the width of frontages differed widely. (fn. 1)
An example of the suspicion with which building tradesmen regarded attempts to produce uniformity occurs in the agreement of 1742 to build a group of seven houses in Upper Brook Street, previously mentioned on page 24. Here the words 'that the said Houses shall have a continued Brick Facie through the same and the several Windows thereof shall respectively rainge with each other so as to make a regular Line of Building as to the said Facie and Windows' have all been struck through, the alteration being insisted upon by the several building tradesmen who were parties to the agreement before they would execute the deed. (fn. 7)
The most important houses were generally built in Grosvenor Square and the principal east-west streets, viz.: Brook Street and Upper Brook Street, Grosvenor Street and Upper Grosvenor Street. There were exceptions, notably Bourdon House in Davies Street, Roger Morris's own house at No. 61 Green Street, Ligonier's house at No. 12 North Audley Street, the range for which Edward Shepherd was undertaker at Nos. 71–75 (consec.) South Audley Street and the group of houses opposite at Nos. 9–16 (consec.), all of which survive in some form. Some of the larger houses built in Park Lane and the north-western corner of the estate at a late date also deviated from the general pattern, and, from the evidence of the social status of their occupants, the houses at the south end of Park Street with gardens extending to Park Lane were of some quality. Even some of the smaller houses in streets like North Audley Street, Duke Street or South Street—selling at about £200 to £300 or renting at approximately £25 per annum—were, however, by no means insubstantial. The house on the east side of North Audley Street which Richard Barlow rented from Edward Shepherd in 1733 for £24 had a yard or garden and a stable behind, and consisted of three storeys and a basement. The rooms above ground were 'wainscotted all round from bottom to top' and had Portland stone or marble chimneypieces. (fn. 8) Houses built by John Jenner on the south side of Mount Row, which was essentially a mews, were of low annual value, but an insurance policy on one of them for £200 shows that it had three storeys and a garret with four rooms wainscotted and four Portland stone chimneypieces. (fn. 9)
Some of the houses in Mount Row were sub-divided from the time of first letting, and, despite the reputation of Mayfair as a preserve of the rich, there was originally a good deal of accommodation for the less well-to-do, not least on the Grosvenor estate. There were a number of courts and passages, some of them opening out of the principal streets, and several of the mews had dwelling houses as well as stables and coach-houses built in them, particularly Adams Mews (now Row), Grosvenor Mews (now Grosvenor Hill, Bourdon Street and Bourdon Place), Lees Mews (now Place), Mount Row and Reeves Mews. In the northern part of the estate, where large blocks of land had been let under single leases with few restrictive covenants, streets like James (now Gilbert) Street and Bird (now Binney) Street were laid out in rows of narrow-fronted houses which had very little open space at the rear. These houses in the vicinity of Gilbert Street were rebuilt during the years 1822 to 1833 in the first major redevelopment scheme to take place on the estate, but there is no evidence that any desire to raise the social cachet of the area lay behind the decision of the Grosvenor Estate to sanction this speculative venture by the builder Seth Smith.
Brown's Court, which lay between North Row and Green Street, and was one of several such alleys on the south side of North Row, is an example of the lower level of housing provided on the estate. The ground on which it was laid out was part of the large area bounded by North Row, North Audley Street, Green Street and Park Street which was leased en bloc in 1728 at a ground rent of four shillings per annum. (fn. 10) The lease stipulated merely that 'good and substantial' houses should be built on the main street frontages and the only restricted trade was that of a brewer. In 1730 John Brown, bricklayer, was granted a sub-lease of part of this ground (fn. 11) and by 1739 (fn. 12) he had built nine tiny two-storey houses along a ten-foot-wide court entered from Green Street and North Row through even narrower arched passageways. Some of the houses had garrets and cellars but several had neither. Each house was virtually one room deep with a yard behind, and the small closet wings belonging to some of the houses shown in the ground plan of the court at the end of the eighteenth century (fig. 1) may have been additions. Brown's Court was largely, or perhaps completely, rebuilt in 1824 (fn. 13) and was swept away during the redevelopment of the north side of Green Street at the end of the nineteenth century.
Some idea of the unsatisfactory condition of that area of the estate which lay immediately to the south of Oxford Street at the beginning of the nineteenth century can be gleaned from a letter written in 1816 to Lord Grosvenor by Edward Boodle, his lawyer. He had been induced, he wrote, 'to be of a Committee of Inhabitants to go round a part of the Parish between the North side of Grosvenor Square and Green Street, and the South side of Oxford Street', and he had 'never experienced in one day more scenes of distress and misery than presented themselves to us in the course of that day's investigation'. (fn. 14) The first Duke of Westminster was later to make the improvement of this area one of his major philanthropic concerns, and in the late nineteenth century several blocks of working-class dwellings were erected to the north of Grosvenor Square and Brook Street. They replaced the run-down houses which were the legacy of the treatment of this part of the estate as a relative backwater from the start of development.
The extensive stabling required by the occupants of the larger houses—many had more than one coach-house—spilled out from the mews into the lesser streets. Some attempt was made to limit this by provisions in building agreements, but stabling with access directly into the roadway was built in South Street, Park Lane and Oxford Street among others, and parts of the frontages of the 'cross streets' (as the north-south streets were called) were taken up with either garden walls or the flank walls of coach-houses and stables. Several large blocks of stables and 'riding houses' were also built, usually for army regiments, the largest being that provided in the 1730's by Roger Morris for the Second Troop of Horse Guards between Green Street and Wood's Mews. The presence of such buildings does not seem to have been considered detrimental to the amenities of the estate; no specific restrictions appear to have been placed on their use, and care was taken in the leasing of adjoining plots to preserve their light: (fn. 15) for the stables built by Morris a plot on the south side of Green Street was even left vacant to be used as a 'dung place'. (fn. 16)
For the ground landlords the principal benefit of the development lay, of course, in the distant future when the terms of the first building leases would come to an end, and renewals could be granted at greatly enhanced rents with premiums or fines payable on renewal. In the meantime, however, some years elapsed before their income from the new buildings even matched their expenditure. The agricultural rent received from the fields in Mayfair in the early eighteenth century was between £3 and £4 an acre, (fn. 17) or probably somewhat less than £400 for the whole estate there. Once the land had been turned over to the builders the income from ground rents did not begin to exceed this figure until 1725, (fn. 18) and it was during these early years that the Grosvenors were spending heavily in the promotion of their new development. If the account of Dame Mary Grosvenor's personal estate at her death in 1730 is taken at its face value, the money spent for this purpose up to that time exceeded the total income received from the speculation by over £4,500. (fn. 19) In 1732, however, Sir Richard Grosvenor was able to reap an early advantage from the whole project by borrowing £10,000 at 4 per cent interest from one of his tenants, the loan being made on the security of the newly created ground rents of houses in Brook Street, Grosvenor Street and Grosvenor Square. (fn. 20) As more and more houses were built the income gradually increased, and in 1743 this loan was repaid. (fn. 21) Eventually the ground rents received from the whole of The Hundred Acres amounted in 1768 (before any leases had been renewed) to £3,133 per annum, or £31 per acre, (fn. 22) plus £312 per annum received in improved rents from Sir Robert Grosvenor's trust estate. (fn. 23)
Because of the great extent of their landholdings in various parts of England and Wales, it is difficult to determine the effect of the development of Mayfair upon the Grosvenor family's finances, but there is little doubt that the reversionary value of the houses there as building leases began to fall in was a crucial factor in helping to preserve solvency at a difficult period. By the 1770's the affairs of Lord Grosvenor had reached a parlous state: besides his establishment at Eaton he maintained a racing stable at Newmarket costing over £7,000 a year and paid out another £9,400 annually in jointures, annuities and interest charges on mortgages (including £1,200 to his estranged wife). He had apparently been living beyond his means for some time and in 1779 his debts amounted to over £150,000. (fn. 24) On the advice in particular of his London agent, Thomas Walley Partington, he contemplated selling all of his estates in Middlesex with the exception of The Hundred Acres in Mayfair and Grosvenor Place in Belgravia. He prevaricated, however, much to the annoyance of Partington, who concluded one letter with remarkable frankness, 'Do my Lord recollect what I laid before you . . . and for Gods sake as you value your own peace of mind, resolve upon something before Lady Day'. (fn. 25) Eventually in 1785 his estates were conveyed to five trustees, viz.: his brother Thomas Grosvenor, the Right Honourable Thomas Harley, the bankers Robert and Henry Drummond, and Thomas Walley Partington, to sell some lands and use the money, together with the remaining rents, to discharge the debts. (fn. 26) Over the next twenty years the increasing income from fines and higher rents as leases were renewed in Mayfair helped to retrieve the situation (see page 38), and in the event none of the London estates had to be sold. With the management of the estate passing to trustees and the appointment of an estate surveyor to advise on policy with regard to lease renewals in the 1780's, however, a new stage in the history of the estate had effectively begun.