The Development of the Estate 1720-1785: The Ground Landlord and his Role

Pages 6-9

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

This free content was digitised by double rekeying and sponsored by English Heritage. All rights reserved.


The Ground Landlord and his Role

A certain circumspection on the part of the ground landlord was to be expected on the Grosvenor estate during the first half of the eighteenth century, for Sir Richard Grosvenor and his brothers were country gentlemen rather than metropolitan entrepreneurs. Worthy, honest and perhaps a trifle dull, they appear to have made little mark on the national scene. They represented Chester at Westminster on the family interest as Tories, and in 1722 Sir Richard's name was included in a secret list drawn up by the Jacobites of those members of the nobility and gentry who, they thought, 'may be inclinable to join' a rebellion. (fn. 2) The Grosvenors were, however, Protestants, and there is no overt evidence that they were disloyal to the Hanoverian dynasty. The decision to erect a statue of George I as the centrepiece of the grand square which was to dominate the estate layout was probably prompted not merely by considerations of expediency, and architects and speculators more generally associated with Whig patrons apparently found little difficulty in co-operating with them. Of the three brothers who succeeded in turn to the baronetey, Richard, the eldest, and Robert, the youngest, appear to have been most concerned with events in Mayfair. Indeed a dispute which occurred when Thomas Grosvenor became fifth baronet in 1732 suggests some degree of estrangement from his younger brother. He replaced the agents who managed the Middlesex estates, Richard and Robert Andrews, by a man of his own choice, but was apparently unable to persuade them to hand over the documents in their custody, and eventually brought a case against them in the Court of Exchequer. (fn. 3) They were supported in their resistance by Robert Grosvenor, ostensibly on the grounds that they were also acting for him as one of the executors of Sir Richard Grosvenor's will. A consideration in the minds of Sir Thomas Grosvenor's opponents was that he was a sick man (he died in Naples in February 1733) and that it might in turn prove difficult for them to obtain the papers necessary for running the estate from his executors on his death. (fn. 4) Robert Grosvenor was actively involved in the development of Mayfair even before he became sixth baronet in 1733. He often looked after the family's interest in London while Sir Richard Grosvenor was at Eaton and lived in a new house on the site of the present No. 10 Upper Grosvenor Street from 1730 to 1733, (fn. 5) probably while Grosvenor House, Millbank, was being reconstructed. He was also a lessee (from his brother) of parts of the estate, particularly on the south side of Grosvenor Square, (fn. 6) and this property, which was largely developed by speculative builders under sub-leases in the normal manner, was referred to as his trust estate.

Robert Grosvenor's son Richard, who succeeded his father as seventh baronet in 1755 and was created Baron Grosvenor in 1761 and Viscount Belgrave and Earl Grosvenor in 1784, appears to have been a different type of person from his father and uncles. With a disastrous marital life which led to a notorious scandal when he brought an action for adultery against George III's brother, the Duke of Cumberland, (fn. 7) and with a fondness for the turf which brought him to near ruin, he represents a transition between the country gentry and the sophisticated aristocracy of the Grosvenor family in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A series of sycophantic letters written to him by William Pitt the elder (fn. 8) suggests that he was also fully aware of the advantages to be gained by bestowing his political favours shrewdly and it was through Pitt's influence that he was raised to the peerage. He once described Pitt as 'the shining light or rather the blazing star of this country'. (fn. 9) The hectoring tone of some of the letters written to him by his London agent, however, suggests an exasperation at delays in obtaining crucial decisions affecting his affairs, and indicates that he was less than decisive in matters of estate policy. (fn. 10)

Until 1730 the position of the Grosvenor family as landlords was complicated by the mental derangement of Dame Mary Grosvenor and the different tenures under which the land in Mayfair was held. By the Act of 1711 Sir Richard Grosvenor had power to grant leases for up to sixty years of those parts of the estate in which his mother held a life interest, but not of the land which was then held in dower by his grandmother, Mrs. Tregonwell, and which his mother was to inherit in fee simple in 1717. The lands in which Dame Mary Grosvenor had only a life interest were in the eastern part of The Hundred Acres, and as this was the quarter from which development would naturally proceed, the problem of the feesimple land was not an immediate one. The first difficulty was that the Grosvenors thought a term of sixty years would not be a sufficient inducement to builders, even though sixty-one- and sixty-two-year leases were accepted during the contemporary development of the Burlington estate, and even shorter terms were granted in Conduit Mead. From the beginning a longer term was evidently intended for parts of the Grosvenor estate for in the very first building agreement, concluded with the estate surveyor, Thomas Barlow, in August 1720, it was specified that leases were to be granted for sixty years and 'a further term of years …as shall be agreed to be granted for building the new intended Square'. (fn. 11) Other agreements made in 1720 were either for sixty years (although the leases granted under them were for longer periods), or for ninety-nine years even though no power existed as yet to grant such a term. (fn. 12) The first lease (dated 15 July 1721) was for sixty years from Midsummer 1721, but this term was extended by a subsequent deed. (fn. 13)

This unsatisfactory situation was resolved in 1721 by a deed dated 2 June in which forty-three acres were conveyed in trust for the use of Sir Richard Grosvenor and his heirs with a proviso that leases could be granted for any term not exceeding ninety-nine years. (fn. 14) This deed explains the peculiar terminology of the early estate leases which were granted for sixty years under the Act of 1711 and a further term under the deed of 2 June 1721. This further period was generally thirty-nine years making ninety-nine in all, but for the area to the east of Davies Street an eighty-year term overall was more usual, the ninety-nine-year lease to Thomas Barlow of a large plot on the south side of Grosvenor Street to which he was entitled under the building agreement referred to above being the one notable exception. (fn. 15) Barlow, himself, granted only one sub-lease for a longer term than eighty years and several, chiefly of plots for stables, were for sixty or less, (fn. 16) the reversionary term under his direct Grosvenor lease eventually considerably enhancing the value of his estate (see page 19).

Although no leases of the western part of The Hundred Acres, which was held by Dame Mary Grosvenor in fee simple, were granted until 1727, builders were interested in staking a claim in this territory as soon as the development of the estate got under way. (fn. 17) Accordingly a petition was presented to Chancery in 1721 asking that Robert Myddelton of Chirk Castle in Denbighshire, who was then the legal guardian of Dame Mary Grosvenor, should be empowered to grant leases of this land for up to ninetynine years. The necessity for such a term was explained by 'the intended buildings being very large'. The request was granted, subject, however, to the approval of each lease by the Master in Chancery who administered the revenues from Dame Mary's estates a costly and timeconsuming procedure. (fn. 18) The laying out of Grosvenor Square, the site of which included part of Dame Mary's lands, made the matter urgent, and after more abortive approaches to Chancery another Act of Parliament was obtained in 1726 by which Myddelton (or any subsequent guardian) acquired power to grant ninety-nine-year leases, the consent only of Dame Mary's heir apparent being required. (fn. 19)

Myddelton was a party to all the agreements and leases concluded while Dame Mary Grosvenor was still alive. In leases of the land in which she held only a life interest Sir Richard Grosvenor was the grantor or first party and Myddelton the second, the latter nominally consenting to the transaction on behalf of Dame Mary; but in leases of the fee-simple land, Myddelton was the first party with Sir Richard Grosvenor as consenting party. The precise niceties of the correct order were not always followed in agreements, which did not have the same long-term legal force as leases.

Dame Mary Grosvenor died in January 1730 and within a few months Sir Richard Grosvenor had taken steps to simplify the whole tenure of the estate by means of the legal device of a common recovery which abolished the entail imposed in the settlement of 1694. (fn. 20) He now held all the London estates in fee simple, but in his will he established a new entail by bequeathing his property to his next brother Thomas and his male heirs in order of birth, and failing issue in that line, to his youngest brother Robert and his male heirs likewise. (fn. 21) It was not until 1755 that Sir Richard (later first Earl) Grosvenor, who had recently succeeded to the estate, abolished this entail by similar legal means. (fn. 22) For the rest of the eighteenth century encumbrances on the title to the estate did not arise through complexities of tenure but were monetary, eventually leading to the establishment of a trust whereby the control of the estate was taken out of Lord Grosvenor's sole charge (see page 37).

The peculiar circumstances that over several years the revenues from Dame Mary Grosvenor's estates, after expenses and allowances, had been 'frozen' in the Court of Chancery enabled the Grosvenors to aid the development of their Mayfair lands in a practical manner. By 1721 £8,490 was held in Chancery besides any interest which might have accrued on this sum. (fn. 23) Although they had some difficulty in freeing this money, as several Chancery petitions testify, the Grosvenors were eventually able to use it (and a good deal more) in a series of measures designed to assist the builders who took land on their estate.

Until Sir Richard Grosvenor's death the sewers which were laid under most of the new streets were built at his initial cost, the money being recovered from lessees on the granting of their leases, usually at the rate of six shillings per foot frontage for those plots which fronted on to the streets under which the sewers lay. (fn. 24) The sewers drained into 'the Great Sewer called Aybrooke' and were at first constructed without the leave of the Westminster Commission of Sewers. It was not until 1726 that the Commissioners discovered this, but they then gave permission for the work to be continued on payment of a lump sum of £204 (computed at £2 per acre on 102 acres) to the Commission. (fn. 25) Cash books among the Grosvenor records contain a day by day account of income and expenditure on the London estates beginning in 1729; these include several payments 'for sewering' to building tradesmen who also worked on the houses being erected. George Barlow, John Barnes and Thomas Hipsley, bricklayers, Lawrence Neale, carpenter, and Stephen Whitaker, brickmaker, 'on account of digging work', were paid some £300 between them for such work in 1729. (fn. 26) In the later years of the development, however, the building agreements suggest that the construction of sewers was often undertaken by the developers rather than the ground landlord. (fn. 27)

Although under the terms of agreements and leases road-making was the responsibility of undertakers and their lessees, some stable yards which formed the boundary between blocks of land taken under building agreements were laid out at the Grosvenors' expense, the money being recovered, as in the case of sewers, from lessees according to the footage of their plots abutting on the yard. (fn. 28) John Mist, paviour, was paid for 'paving the stable yard between Grosvenor Street and Brook Street with the horsepond and way leading thereto'. (fn. 26) The majority of mews, however, lay completely within large areas developed under one agreement and were not, therefore, made at the Grosvenors' cost.

Apart from the expense of the sewers, the principal capital cost met by the Grosvenor family and retrieved later, where possible, from builders, was in the laying out of Grosvenor Square. By an agreement of June 1725 (fn. 29) between Sir Richard Grosvenor and the various building tradesmen and others who were already in possession of the land fronting on to the square under building agreements, Sir Richard undertook to lay out the square garden (fn. 1) and surround it with a brick wall topped by a wooden fence, access being provided through four iron gates. In the centre of the enclosure was to be a gilded equestrian statue of George I (by John Nost). The cost of the garden (£350) and the statue (£262 10s.) was specified and rates for the other work set out. The signatories agreed to repay Sir Richard's costs within one month of the work being completed, the sum due from each being determined by the extent of his frontage to the square. An initial rate of 20s. per foot frontage was assessed, but later Sir Richard also met the cost of paving the square around the oval enclosure and a final payment of 40s. 9d. per foot frontage was eventually sought, not always successfully, from the building lessees of the houses in the square. (fn. 30)

The sums laid out by the Grosvenors in these ways were in effect interest-free loans (not always repaid) which were designed to advance the progress of development. Another and more important method of achieving this object was by the granting of mortgages. An Order in Chancery of October 1722 required the Master to whom the administration of Dame Mary Grosvenor's finances had been entrusted, John Borrett, to provide mortgages at 5 per cent interest to builders approved by Sir Richard Grosvenor, his brothers and sister and Robert Myddelton. The first such loans were made in December 1722 for various amounts, generally between £400 and £600. (fn. 31) Borrett died shortly afterwards and some difficulties being encountered in securing the co-operation of his successor as Master in Chancery, permission was granted for Richard Andrews, the Grosvenors' London agent, to execute mortgages in his own name. (fn. 32) Between 1726 and 1729 Andrews lent £11,800, mostly to builders working in and around Grosvenor Square, in a series of transactions which have been preserved among the estate records. (fn. 33) Although he appears also to have been lending money on his own account, the survival of these records suggests that he was here acting as trustee for the Grosvenors. When Dame Mary Grosvenor died in 1730 an account was drawn up of her personal estate in which were itemized the various sums owing to her on mortgages to builders. Several correspond with the amounts advanced in Andrews' name and they totalled in all £9,450 (some of the principal no doubt having been repaid). (fn. 34)

The Grosvenors took a particularly direct concern in the building of Grosvenor Square, no doubt regarding its successful prosecution as the key to the progress of the whole enterprise. As already indicated, Robert Grosvenor was the head lessee for most of the south side and several of the mortgages referred to above were granted to builders who had sub-leases from him. He also apparently had one house built directly (No. 42), which he sold to the master builder Benjamin Timbrell in 1731. (fn. 35) He also assisted in the building of the important east side, which was developed uniformly by another master builder, John Simmons, by purchasing improved ground rents from Simmons while the building operations were still in progress. Between 1731 and 1733 he provided over £2,000 in this manner towards the completion of four houses, including the large centre house with a seventy-foot frontage. (fn. 36) Robert Grosvenor was also prepared to intervene elsewhere to bail out builders who found themselves in difficulties, (fn. 37) and after he succeeded to the baronetcy in 1733 he continued the policy of providing mortgages; at his death in 1755 he was owed £7,700 by builders (including £1,700 by Elizabeth Simmons, the widow of John Simmons). (fn. 38)

A less direct but probably equally valuable way of assisting builders was by allowing arrears of ground rent to accumulate. Sometimes quite substantial sums were involved. At Christmas 1731 £3,600 was owing, but Lady Day appears to have been the quarter day on which most accounts were settled, and the arrears at the end of that quarter are therefore probably more significant, the highest such total—£2,595—being at Lady Day 1732. At Sir Richard Grosvenor's death shortly afterwards the debt amounted to £2,988 and some attempt was made to clear this, but £1,239 remained outstanding and was probably never recovered. (fn. 39) In 1733 (on the succession of Sir Robert Grosvenor) a new account was begun, but arrears continued to mount up and by Lady Day 1744 totalled £2,060. (fn. 40) This was reduced in succeeding years, and on the succession of Sir Richard (later first Earl) Grosvenor in 1755 the practice of allowing rent to stand uncollected for long periods was discontinued. (fn. 41) Although evidence about the administration of the estate in these years is scanty, there is no indication that builders were hounded for back rent, and a willingness on the part of the Grosvenors to condone such casualness in the payment of rent must have helped builders to maintain an essential cash flow, particularly in the early years.

A measure of the extent to which the development of its estate was fostered by the Grosvenor family is shown in the previously cited account of Dame Mary Grosvenor's personal estate drawn up after her death in January 1730. Besides the £9,450 due on mortgages granted to builders, £12,000 was owed on a mortgage by Sir Richard Grosvenor (not necessarily, of course, used to promote the development) and £2,000 similarly by Robert Grosvenor. A further item was a debt of £4,747 due from Sir Richard Grosvenor 'to make good to the Personal Estate all such Sums of Money as have been disburst thereout to Carry on the new buildings, more than has been received from those buildings'. (fn. 34)


  • 1. The work was to be done by one of his own tenants, John Alston, a gardener from Pimlico, who also provided the design for the garden layout.
  • 2. Romney Sedgwick, The House of Commons 1715–1754, 1970, vol. 1, pp. 64–5, 113, 203–4, vol. II, pp. 87–8.
  • 3. P.R.O., E112/1181/954.
  • 4. E.H.P., box 42 2, 23 Nov. 1732 and 9 Jan. 1732/3.
  • 5. R.B.: M.L.R. 1731/2/382 3.
  • 6. GLB 11/66, IV/114.
  • 7. G.E.C.: D.N.B.
  • 8. E.H.P., personal papers, 1st Earl, letters from W. Pitt, 1759–60.
  • 9. Sir Lewis Namier and John Brooke, The House of Commons 1754–1790, 1964, p. 557.
  • 10. E.H.P., box 42/4, 14 Nov. 1772, 20 Feb. 1781, 17 May [? 1784].
  • 11. GBA 1.
  • 12. Ibid., 2–7, 9–20.
  • 13. GLB 1/1, II/55.
  • 14. G.O., chest B, bundle 6, 2 June 1721.
  • 15. GLB 1/2.
  • 16. E.H.P., box 77/2, 'A Particular of Ground-Rents, and other Leasehold Premises, Late the Estate of Mr. Richard Barlow, deceased.'
  • 17. G.O., chest B, bundle 6, 10 July 1723: E.H.P., item 1193, lease and plan book, p. 5.
  • 18. G.O., misc. box 3, draft petition with accompanying letter of 27 Nov. 1725.
  • 19. 12 Geo. I, c. 23, private.
  • 20. G.O., chest B, bundle 7, 9–10 April and 11 May 1730.
  • 21. P.R.O., PROB 11/655/284.
  • 22. G.O., chest B, bundle 9, 14 Nov. 1755.
  • 23. E.H.P., personal papers, 4th Bt., undated petition to Ld. Chancellor and letter from J. Sharp of 17 April 1722.
  • 24. GBA passim.
  • 25. G.L.R.O.(L), W.C.S. 51, pp. 229, 275, 378.
  • 26. G.O., cash book no. 1.
  • 27. GBA 87.
  • 28. E.g. Ibid., 13.
  • 29. W.C.L., deed 143/1 (copy: original in possession of Williams and Glyn's Bank Ltd.).
  • 30. Ibid., 'The State of the Accot for making up Grosvenor Sq.'.
  • 31. Ibid., chest B, bundle 6.
  • 32. Ibid., misc. box 3, draft petition with accompanying letter of 27 Nov. 1725: E.H.P., personal papers, 4th Bt., letter from Rbt. Grosvenor of 27 May 1725.
  • 33. G.O., chest B, bundle 7.
  • 34. E.H.P., personal papers, 3rd Bt., 'An Account of Lady Grosvenor's Personal Estate made up to 12 Jan. 1729'.
  • 35. Ibid., box 77/2, rough note of receipts and expenditure up to 1737: G.O., chest B, bundle 7, 19 May 1730: M.L.R. 1731/3/65.
  • 36. G.O., Sir Rbt. Grosvenor's Trust Estate boxes, bundles of deeds relating to purchase of ground rents in Grosvenor Square.
  • 37. Ibid., bundle of deeds concerning leaseholds purchased from E. Bennett.
  • 38. E.H.P., box 77/2, 'An account of the late Sir Robert Grosvenor's several Securities and Moneys due to him in Middlesex'.
  • 39. G.O., rent books, Mayfair estate, 1724–9, 1730–2.
  • 40. Ibid., 1733–47.
  • 41. Ibid., 1755 63.
  • 42. G.O., agreement of 11 Nov. 1725, J. Alston and Sir Rd. Grosvenor; rent book, 'Old Estate', 1725–9.