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 Free Estate, 1808–45
Robert, second Earl Grosvenor, and from 1831 first Marquess of Westminster, held the family estates from 1802 until his death in 1845. He had inherited them from his father unentailed, but still subject to the trust created in 1785 for the payment of massive debts. These he had, as we have already seen, virtually discharged by 1808, when the trust was dissolved; thereafter he was the absolute master of all his numerous properties.
At the time of his succession in 1802 the second Earl was aged thirty-five. In his marriage, the Grosvenors' 'old luck with heiresses had not deserted them', his wife being Eleanor, only surviving daughter and heiress of Thomas Egerton, first Earl of Wilton. He had sat in the House of Commons since 1788 as a supporter of Pitt, but after the latter's death in 1806 he joined the Whigs. In later years he supported the Reform Bill, and in 1831 was raised to the rank of Marquess of Westminster. A nearcontemporary, writing in 1865, described him as 'An admirable man of business, an honest politician, his character was deformed only by a thrift, always more or less apparent in the family, which in him rose to a mania . . . the thrift which gives rise to stories such as those told of the Marquess is unusual, and has done much to lower the great popularity of the house'. (fn. 1)
Within a year or two of his succession he began to use his vast wealth to the full—or if not quite to the full, with more purpose than his father in recent years. While still paying off the old debts he bought more lands in Cheshire 'very desirable to him' for some £30,000, (fn. 2) and in 1804 he began the rebuilding of Eaton Hall on a huge scale to Gothic designs by Porden. (fn. 3) In 1806 he bought the Agar Ellis collection of pictures for 30,000 guineas, having previously spent £20,000 on a suitably impressive house in which to house it and his own family. This was Gloucester House in Upper Grosvenor Street, hitherto occupied by George III's brother, the Duke of Gloucester, until his death in 1805. (fn. 4) Renamed Grosvenor House, this now became the family's principal London residence. Old Grosvenor House at Millbank was pulled down in 1809, (fn. 5) and No. 45 Grosvenor Square, where Earl Grosvenor's father had lived in preference to Millbank, was sold. After spending large sums on alterations and redecorations Earl Grosvenor moved into the new Grosvenor House in 1808. (fn. 6)
After this tremendous initial burst of expenditure the pace slackened somewhat, but in later years he continued to buy pictures, enlarge Grosvenor House, and above all, buy more land—notably the Pulford estate in Cheshire (1813, £80,000), the Shaftesbury estate in Dorset (1820, £70,000, much enlarged in later years), the Stockbridge estate in Hampshire (1825, £81,000) and Moor Park, Hertfordshire (1827, £120,000). He also kept up his father's racing stud. (fn. 7)
The growth of the Earl's income was, however, well able to support these outlays. Between 1768 and 1782 the rental of the Mayfair estate only had been about £3,450 per annum, but by the time of the second Earl's succession in 1802 it had risen to £5,550. This modest increase was largely due to the expiry around 1801 of a number of the original leases granted only for eighty years, and to the grant of a few short-term leases on rack rents. But by far the greater part of the yield from the estate at this period took the form of fines, which (as previously mentioned) amounted between 1789 and 1808 to over £180,000. After 1808 there is a gap in the records of fines received, but the yield no doubt continued high, for many leases were being renewed.
By 1820 the rental had risen to over £8,000, but in the following year it bounded up to nearly £20,000. (fn. 8) The reason for this was that the increased reversionary ground rents due on leases renewed on fine in previous years now became payable for the first time, the original ninetynine-year leases granted in 1721 having now expired. This was, of course, a continuing process, reflecting the rate of building and the grant of leases a century earlier; and there were also a great many original leases still to be renewed at greatly enhanced rents. So by 1825 the Mayfair rental rose to over £41,000, (fn. 8) and by 1835 to some £60,000. (fn. 9) Nor was this and the unrecorded fines anything like all, for it was in these years that the largescale development of the great estate in Belgravia and Pimlico began to yield a much increased crop of ground rents. The Earl's expenditure, colossal as it was, was not therefore excessive in relation to his resources, and although he had between 1826 and 1829 to mortgage his estates for £130,000, he was still able to repay the whole amount in 1835–6. (fn. 10) When he died in 1845 he left his estate with no encumbrances other than those providing for his family.
As well as being thrifty he was, indeed, 'an admirable man of business' (at least until his latter years), and being dissatisfied with the existing administration of his properties he began in 1807 to attempt to reform the workings of Edward Boodle's office. In this uphill struggle—started evidently in anticipation of the forthcoming dissolution of the trust of 1785—he was assisted by his friend John Hailstone, the geologist, whom he had first met at Trinity College, Cambridge, in the 1780's. Boodle, it appears, was in financial difficulties of his own, and he was also dilatory beyond belief, some of his clients not having received any bills for his services since 1780. This must have adversely affected Lord Grosvenor's affairs, relying so heavily as he (even with the active Abraham Moore as his agent) and his forbears did, almost of necessity, upon the firm of Boodle and Partington. So for some years, and particularly during the Earl's frequent absences from London, Hailstone concerned himself with introducing a semblance of efficiency into the management of the Grosvenor business in Boodle's office in Brook Street.
In February 1807 Boodle was complaining of 'great fatigue and headache owing to his exertions', possibly caused by an 'experiment' made by Hailstone, which a few days later was said to have 'failed intirely. At the rate he is capable of travelling the business would not be finished in the next generation.' A year later Hailstone was reporting that 'Our operations have certainly wrought an evident change for the better in Mr. B. who now seems to exert himself in good ernest' (fn. 11) —a reference, probably, to the installation of Lord Grosvenor's own clerk, Edmund Empy, in Boodle's office (see page 35). This seems, indeed, to have been the only enduring success of the whole campaign, for Hailstone continued to refer sarcastically to Boodle as 'the energetick', and in February 1808 he concluded that 'It is equally impossible to drive him beyond his easy amble as the bold P out of his curvets'. (fn. 12)
'The bold P' was, of course, a facetious reference— habitual in this correspondence —to the Earl's surveyor, William Porden, who was also a victim of this early attempt at the introduction of 'business efficiency' methods. From his house in Berners Street Porden himself had at first joined in the game of making fun of Boodle, describing him (in a letter of 1803 to the Earl) in his rather incongruous capacity of an officer in the volunteers as 'armed cap-a-pie, in Sash and Gorget, and Kavan-Hullar Beaver, going, to be comfortably inspected in a heavy Rain'. (fn. 13) But pleasantries of this kind soon ceased, for Porden too was incurably dilatory. In 1807 Hailstone wrote that 'I seldom miss a day but I walk to the House [Grosvenor House] and sometimes spur the bold P. till he is ready to lash out at me'. (fn. 14) In 1808 Lord Grosvenor, at Eaton, was exasperated with Porden because there was no mason working there, the last having departed after 'a tiff' with Porden—'this, you know, must be the effect of P. rages'. Two years later he was 'out of all Patience at Porden's delays about things here', and soon afterwards Hailstone was told that 'if you can give any elastic Vigour in Brook or Berners Street, you will do great things'. (fn. 15) Indeed, of all the professional men employed by the Earl, only the agent, Abraham Moore, escaped criticism—at least until his massive embezzlements were discovered in 1821.
It is, however, easier to get rid of an architect than of the family solicitor, and so Edward Boodle survived until his death in 1828, while Porden was eventually superseded in September 1821. (fn. 16) By then he was aged about sixty-six, and in addition to his exasperating dilatoriness there had in the past been disagreements with the Earl about his fees (fn. 17) and possibly also about matters of estate policy. Porden was certainly not the man to have day-today charge of the impending development of Belgravia, and he died a year later at his house in Berners Street, in September 1822. (fn. 18) His successor, Thomas Cundy I, an architect and builder of Ranelagh Street (now Beeston Place and the eastern end of Ebury Street), where he owned several leasehold houses, (fn. 19) at once initiated a rebuilding policy in Mayfair—possibly at the Earl's behest— but he died in 1825 without having had enough time to make any great impact there. He was succeeded by his son, Thomas Cundy II, who held the post for over forty years and whose influence upon the fabric of the Grosvenor properties in Mayfair—greater, perhaps, than that of any single other architect except Edmund Wimperis—may still be seen, in one way or another, in many of the main streets on the estate.
Porden's departure coincided with the discovery of Abraham Moore's defalcations, and although Porden was in no way involved in Moore's crimes, this simultaneous change of architect and agent does seem to have inaugurated a new and more autocratic régime. Having to rely upon a new surveyor, a new agent (Empy) of substantially lower status than his predecessor, and the irremovable Edward Boodle, Lord Grosvenor was evidently very much in personal command of his estates in the remaining years of his life. And there is no doubt that he liked to have his own way, for his daughter-in-law said of him that 'When Lord Grosvenor is possessed of an idea one might just as well talk to the winds'. (fn. 20)
But if the day-to-day administration of the Grosvenor estates in London in the first two decades of the nineteenth century does not seem to have been very efficient, the basic principle of management adopted in c. 1786—renewal for long terms on fine—was sound; and its long-term as well as its financially immediate effects were beginning to become apparent, as the hard-pressed Edward Boodle pointed out in 1814 in a letter to Lord Grosvenor. In 1809 the fourth Viscount Grimston (later first Earl of Verulam) had in the normal way been granted on fine a reversionary term of sixty-three years to come on his house, No. 47 Grosvenor Square, only to find, four years later, that 'a radical defect in the original building of the house' required its complete rebuilding, which he duly undertook at a cost of £12,900. (fn. 21) This prompted Boodle to make one of the rare general comments to be found in the records of the Grosvenor Office: 'it is, I confess, highly gratifying to me to witness the good effects of that system of renewal which was peculiar to your Lordship's Estate, altho' it has been since adopted by other considerable Proprietors of Ground and houses in this Metropolis. Lord Grimston has furnished a striking instance in favor of it, by having followed his renewal with completely rebuilding his House, and upon a very improved Plan. While this system shall be pursued the Estate will be kept not merely in good heart and condition, but will keep pace in modern improvements with all the Neighbouring property, and having from its situation so much the advantage of all the adjacent Estates, will preserve its consequence as long as Hyde Park remains unbuilt upon.' (fn. 22)
Under the second Earl the detailed application of the 'sixty-three year reversionary renewal on fine' policy was frequently altered. This was particularly evident in his decisions about the ratio between the rent and the fine. During the course of the nineteenth century this ratio was reversed, the low rent and high fine of the early years being gradually replaced by a high rent and a low fine. The change was not a smooth one, however, and its ups and downs evidently reflected disagreements between the current possessors of the estate on the one hand and their legal and professional advisers on the other.
The latter always advocated high fines and low rents, by means of which (to quote Messrs. Boodle in 1845) the tenant 'has a larger Interest in the House and is more likely to improve the Property': (fn. 23) or (to quote Porden in 1821) 'the making the Rents on renewal too high, causes the Property to be neglected near the expiration of the lease'. (fn. 24) The attitude of the current possessors varied, however. Generally, they favoured higher rents and lower fines, but although they could and did overrule their professional advisers, there were other factors—notably their own expectation of life—to be taken into account.
Connected with the ratio between rent and fine was the question of how long before the expiry of a lease the current possessor of the estate was prepared to treat for its renewal. As we have already seen, the first Earl had at first renewed to any of his tenants willing to pay a fine, but the effect of this had been to commit the estate far ahead without any long-term policy and to create wide divergences in the expiry dates of such renewed leases. In 1794 he had therefore decided not to renew when the existing lease had more than fifty years still to run, (fn. 25) and the second Earl reduced the period still further, by 1815 to thirty years, (fn. 26) and by 1823 to ten years. (fn. 27) Subsequently, however, he reversed this policy, by 1834 his rule being not to renew when the unexpired term had more than twenty years to run, (fn. 28) and at this level it remained until his death in 1845. (fn. 29)
In the years prior to 1808, when the first Earl's debts were being paid off, the reversionary rent fixed at each renewal was kept extremely low in order to maximise the fine; generally it amounted to only about one tenth of the annual value of the property. After 1808 it was fixed at 'one fifth (or at most one fourth) of the improved annual value of the house', (fn. 30) and in 1816 the ground rent was sometimes as much as one third of the annual value. (fn. 31) In 1821 Porden was resisting an applicant who wanted the rent to be well over half the total value—'he should be absolutely required to pay half in Fine and half in Rent, which will bring our practice back to nearly what it was, till lately'—and he asked Lord Grosvenor to make this a standing order. But 'His Lordship thinks otherwise at present'. (fn. 32) Shortly afterwards this upward movement of the rent went even further, an applicant for stables in North Row having to be told that 'he must pay a fine of at least 1/5 part' of the annual value. (fn. 33)
In order to understand why in the early 1820's the second Earl favoured high rents and lower fines it is necessary to bear in mind that by greatly reducing the length of time before the expiry of a current lease in which he was prepared to treat for its renewal, he had postponed a great many such renewals. At that time he knew that about one third of all the original leases on the Mayfair estate were still unrenewed, and that most of them would expire during the next decade or so. As in 1820 he was aged fifty-three, he seems to have thought that it was in his own best interests to charge a high rent and a low fine on such renewals in order to maximise his future income when the old leases expired — hence his disagreement with Porden, concerned with the long-term standards of upkeep of the estate.
Later on, however, his interests changed. By 1835 almost all the original leases had been renewed at greatly increased rents, (fn. 9) and his own expectation of life had, of course, diminished. Relatively few more renewals were to be expected before his death, and in any case he might not live to enjoy the benefit of the enhanced reversionary rents arising from them. So in the last decade of his life it was better for him to have higher fines and lower reversionary rents, for thereby he had the immediate use of the fines, either as capital or, invested, as income. By 1834, therefore, he was encouraging applications to renew by extending the period in which he was prepared to treat from ten to twenty years before the expiry of the existing lease, and at some unknown date he reverted to his earlier ratio of one quarter rent and three quarters fine—much to the satisfaction, no doubt, of Cundy and Messrs. Boodle. (fn. 34)
His son, the second Marquess of Westminster, reversed this policy immediately after his succession in 1845. In order to facilitate rebuilding he inaugurated a more flexible leasing policy (though still normally based on the sixty-three-year term) and he therefore reduced the period for renewal negotiations in anticipation of the expiry of existing leases from twenty to ten years, where it remained for the rest of the century and beyond. Contrary to Messrs. Boodle's advice, however, he raised the proportion of the rent from one quarter to one half. (fn. 35) In 1845 he was aged fifty, and just as his father had done at the same age, he favoured higher reversionary rents, payable within not more than ten years. By this means he evidently hoped to enjoy both the fine and at least some years of the enhanced rents. By the time of his death in 1869 the rental of the Mayfair estate had risen from some £60,000 in 1835 to £80,000 in 1870. (fn. 36)
In 1866, however, the 'half rent, half fine' formula was changed to two-thirds rent and one-third fine (fn. 37) —a change possibly caused by tenants' inability to raise capital in that year of financial crisis. This policy was continued by his son, the third Marquess (later first Duke), who succeeded to the title in 1869 at the age of forty-four. (fn. 38)
But whatever variations were from time to time made, it was always an essential object of successive owners to keep the estate, as Edward Boodle phrased it, 'in good heart and condition'. In the early years of the nineteenth century this had been comparatively easy, for the value of all individual properties on the estate were rising. Thus, to take one of many examples, Porden valued Colonel (later Field-Marshal) Thomas Grosvenor's house at the corner of Grosvenor Street and Grosvenor Square at £300 per annum in 1797, £360 in 1803, and £500 in 1808, and his reports in these years constantly refer to 'the general increase in the value of property'. (fn. 39) But after reaching a peak in about 1812 a decline began, and from 1814 to at least his retirement in 1821 he was often reporting that 'the value of property is falling'. (fn. 40) Tenants often had such difficulty in paying their fines that they were allowed to pay them in two six-monthly instalments (with interest), and B. F. Hardenburg, the sculptor, was even permitted to pay his over a five-year period without interest. (fn. 41) This fall in values corresponded in date with the slump of 1811–16 in London building, but its continuance after building had picked up again may perhaps have been due to competition from the great new residential districts then being built in Tyburnia and on the Portman and Crown estates in St. Marylebone.
The existence of these new rivals for aristocratic patronage may have prompted a more positive attitude to rebuilding on the Grosvenor estate in Mayfair. This new policy was started very shortly after the appointment of Thomas Cundy I as the new surveyor in the autumn of 1821, and he was instrumental in enforcing it: but it may equally well have originated with the Earl himself, who, with the vast increase of the 1820's in rents from the Mayfair estate, could now well afford to forgo a little of this extra revenue by encouraging rebuilding.
From 1822 onwards applicants for the renewal of dilapidated properties were encouraged, or occasionally required, to rebuild, and in such cases they were also required to do so in accordance with 'a plan approved by Lord Grosvenor's surveyor' (i.e. Cundy). (fn. 42) Usually the term granted did not exceed sixty-three years, and despite the lessee's rebuilding expenses, he still often had to pay a fine as well as a ground rent, even in such streets as Upper Grosvenor Street and Park Lane, where rebuilding would no doubt be costly. (fn. 43) In South Street and on the north side of Berkeley Square, however, where a number of 'first rate' houses were built in the 1820's, terms ranging between ninety-six and ninety-nine years were granted, those in South Street being also subject to a fine. (fn. 44) Some of these houses still survive (Plate 24c).
Thus the foundations of the Grosvenor rebuilding policy, by which large parts of the estate were in later years to be transformed, were laid in the early 1820's by the second Earl and Thomas Cundy I. In the next two decades some rebuilding took place, notably in Green Street, Bourdon Street and around South Street, while in the Weighhouse Street area substantial redevelopment was undertaken by the builder Seth Smith, some sixtythree small houses being built there between 1822 and 1833. But when the original houses were still in good condition, the second Earl and first Marquess was generally content, until almost the end of his life, to pursue in renewal negotiations the old policy of adding to the existing term to give sixty-three years to come, without requiring rebuilding or even alterations to the front. (fn. 45) And he would probably have agreed with Messrs. Boodle's verdict of 1845 upon the satisfactory results of this policy: 'very few renewals which have been negociated have gone off [i.e. proved abortive] and for many years not a single House has been on hand [i.e. untenanted], and the Marquess of Westminster's name as a Landlord has obtained that Opinion with the Public that nearly every person would give more for a Lease on His Lordship's Estate than on any other'. (fn. 46)
But Thomas Cundy II was evidently not so satisfied, and in May 1844 he had an interview with the Marquess, who agreed 'to Mr Cundy's suggestion for improving the appearance of the houses in Grosvenor Square by the addition of stucco work to the fronts with porticos, window dressings, cornices and balustrades to such of the houses as may be thought to require it'. In future, in terms for the renewal of leases of houses in the square, stipulations to this effect were to be included, and a design was to be submitted by the applicant. (fn. 47)
Before anything could be done, however, the first Marquess died, on 17 February 1845; and it was to be under the aegis of his son, the second Marquess, that the transformation of the outward appearance of the estate was to be commenced.