The Social Character of the Estate: Introduction

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. All rights reserved.


'The Social Character of the Estate: Introduction', Survey of London: Volume 39, the Grosvenor Estate in Mayfair, Part 1 (General History), (London, 1977), pp. 83-86. British History Online [accessed 22 June 2024].

. "The Social Character of the Estate: Introduction", in Survey of London: Volume 39, the Grosvenor Estate in Mayfair, Part 1 (General History), (London, 1977) 83-86. British History Online, accessed June 22, 2024,

. "The Social Character of the Estate: Introduction", Survey of London: Volume 39, the Grosvenor Estate in Mayfair, Part 1 (General History), (London, 1977). 83-86. British History Online. Web. 22 June 2024,

In this section


The Social Character of the Estate

At Michaelmas 1726 Sir Thomas Hanmer, baronet, Member of Parliament for the County of Suffolk and ex-Speaker of the House of Commons, vacated his town residence at No. 12 Old Burlington Street, and his household moved into a new house at No. 52 Grosvenor Street for which the price was £4,250 (Plate 8c; fig. 16 on page 136). Sir Thomas himself was then still at his country seat at Mildenhall in Suffolk and his housekeeper supervised the move in good time for the master's return to town in November for the new London Season. Sir Thomas had only lived in Old Burlington Street, where he was also one of the first occupants, since about 1723, but his new house in Grosvenor Street was much larger and no doubt better fitted to accommodate his retinue of some fourteen servants. (fn. 2) In being so soon prepared to move to another newly developing district further to the west, where he would inevitably be once more surrounded by the noise and clutter of building operations, he was following the lead of his compeers, for several of his new neighbours belonged to the titled ranks of society. The Earl of Arran lived on one side of him and on the other was Sir John Werden, baronet, father-in-law of the second Duke of St. Albans who was also living here at about this time, while two doors away at No. 50 the first Earl of Uxbridge was a new arrival. (fn. 3)

An indication of the attraction of the new suburb around Grosvenor Square for the social élite can be gathered from the standing of the first occupants, i.e. householders, of the houses in the principal streets, viz. Brook Street and Upper Brook Street, Grosvenor Street and Upper Grosvenor Street, and the square itself. A full list of these occupants is given in the tables on pages 172–95, but it should be noted that they were not all resident at the same time, as the houses were erected over several years. Of the 277 houses built in these streets, 41 were first inhabited by peers and seven more by persons who were created peers or succeeded to peerages while living on the estate, making 48 (17.3 per cent) in all. A further 69 houses were first occupied by other persons of title, i.e. the wives, widows, sons or daughters of peers; baronets and knights (or their widows); and foreign nobility. Thus, in all, the initial householders of 117 of the 277 houses (42.2 per cent) belonged to the titled classes of society. The proportion was naturally highest in Grosvenor Square itself, where of the 51 houses 16 were taken by peers (31.4 per cent) and 19 more by other persons of title, making 35 (or 68.6 per cent) in all. In these principal streets 54 of the first occupants (19.5 per cent) sat in the House of Commons at some time during their residence on the estate, 19 of them living in Grosvenor Square. Several of these M.P.'s also come into the category of persons of title and a few were Irish peers, who did not sit in the House of Lords and were thus eligible for election to the lower House.

The gathering momentum of the migration of fashionable society to the new estate can be seen from the number of members of both Houses of Parliament who had their town addresses there. In 1733 30 members of the Commons (5.4 per cent of the whole House) and 16 peers who could attend the Lords (8.3 per cent of the upper House) lived on the estate. By 1741 the numbers had increased to 45 (8 per cent) and 31 (16.3 per cent) respectively, and by 1751 to 49 (8.8 per cent) and 39 (23.3 per cent). (fn. 4)

On the whole the aristocracy and the gentry lived in the broad belt across the centre of the estate formed by the principal streets referred to above, but a few lived elsewhere, notably at the south ends of Park Street and South Audley Street, and later in Norfolk (now Dunraven) Street and Hereford Street, and, much later, in Park Lane. It was generally in these streets that the large households were concentrated, such as that of Sir Thomas Hanmer, already mentioned, or of Baron Conway (later Marquess of Hertford), who in 1746 had twenty-two servants at No. 16 Grosvenor Street. His steward kept a 'Grosvenor Street House Account' which shows that his annual expenses there amounted to little short of £3,000, of which £345 or only about 12 per cent was accounted for by his servants' wages, most of the remainder being spent on the payment of tradesmen's bills. (fn. 5)

The house account also itemised some of the travelling costs, including the carriage of trunks to London from other places, chiefly the Conways' seat at Ragley Hall in Warwickshire, and in these streets the comings and goings of the London Season must have been particularly marked. The influx of carriages into town at the beginning of the parliamentary session (in the eighteenth century usually in November, December or January) was quite noticeable. The World in January 1790 reported that 'London is now almost at the fullest:— every avenue yesterday was crowded with carriages coming into town.' (fn. 6) In the first half of the eighteenth century the parliamentary sessions generally lasted into the early summer, but in the latter half they usually extended into June, July or occasionally even August. Whenever it occurred, the commencement of the summer recess was soon followed by the departure of many of those residents who also had country houses. In September 1734 Mrs. Delany, who was then living at No. 48 Upper Brook Street, remarked with characteristic independence to Dean Swift, 'The town is now empty, and by most people called dull; to me it is just agreeable, for I have most of my particular friends in town.' (fn. 7) It was during these uncomfortable, dusty months that the builders and upholsterers were called into the grand houses to prepare them for the next social round.

Even within those streets where the momentum of life must often have been regulated by the social calendar there were, however, a number of incursions from the world of trade. Victuallers established themselves, generally on corner sites, at the Mount Coffee House, the Three Tuns and the Red Lion in Grosvenor Street; the Barley Mow, the Cock and Bottle and John Dickins's coffee house in Upper Brook Street; and the Oval and the Wheatsheaf in Upper Grosvenor Street. Other first occupants known to have been tradesmen included an apothecary and a shoemaker on the north side of Brook Street, a grocer at the corner of Brook Street and Davies Street, and a cheesemonger and a tailor in Upper Brook Street; while William Campbell, upholsterer, had established himself in Grosvenor Street by 1727. (fn. 8) In a somewhat different category were the building tradesmen who occupied the houses they built in the main streets, sometimes for lengthy periods.

If trade made inroads into the principal streets, however, it dominated the lesser ones. The Westminster poll books of 1749 (fn. 9) give a useful though imperfect guide to the occupations of many of the inhabitants of the estate at a time when such evidence is generally unavailable. In Westminster there was a particularly wide franchise, for the right to vote was vested in male householders paying 'scot and lot', i.e. the parish rates; of course the large class of women householders and the much smaller one of peers were excluded, and not all of those eligible to vote actually did so. The Westminster by-election of 1749–50 was, however, 'one of the most fiercely contested elections in the first half of the eighteenth century' and there was a very high poll. Charges of malpractice were brought, and the high bailiff was accused of 'allowing many votes by people who did not pay scot and lot and refusing those of others who did, and of having declined to produce the parish books showing who the legal voters were.' (fn. 10) Whatever the substance of these allegations the record has to be treated with caution. It consists of a meticulously written account of the names and occupations of the voters and the streets in which they lived. Some of the names in the poll books do not appear in the ratebooks but a close comparison is not always possible because of the loss of some ratebooks for the period of the poll. Nevertheless by correlating the two sources for certain streets and using only those names which can with reasonable certainty be confirmed as the occupants of the houses, a generalized picture can be built up.

In Mount Street, for instance, there were 116 houses entered in the ratebooks; 91 householders were seemingly qualified to vote and 66 of them did so. Of these 66 only nine described themselves as gentlemen or esquires, and one other (a schoolmaster) can be considered to belong to the professional classes. Excluding two coachmen and a turncock, 53 of the remainder (or 80 per cent of those who voted) were tradesmen. Thus almost one half of the ratepaying inhabitants of Mount Street were certainly tradesmen and the actual proportion was undoubtedly higher. Not only would many of the non-voting male householders have been engaged in trade, but so also would some of the female ratepayers, including the landlady of the Wheatsheaf tavern, and, quite possibly, a number of milliners; while at the poll the landlord of the Swan described himself as a gentleman. Of the 53 tradesmen who voted, 20 (37.7 per cent) belonged to the building and decorating trades; 14 (26.4 per cent) were purveyors of food and drink, including three victuallers and three chandlers; and 13 (24.5 per cent) were concerned with clothing or other wearing apparel. (fn. 1)

North Audley Street is a much shorter street with direct access from Grosvenor Square, but there the predominance of the trading element was just as pronounced. Of 36 householders paying rates 27 were eligible to vote and 25 did so. Of these 25 only five were gentlemen, esquires, or, in the case of Sir John Ligonier, a knight; one other was a schoolmaster but the remaining 19 (76 per cent of those who voted) were tradesmen. Five of them were builders or decorators, including a cabinet-maker; eight supplied food and drink, including three victuallers; and six worked in the world of clothing and fashion, including a staymaker and two peruke-makers.

In Davies Street, where most of the houses had been standing for twenty years or more, the pattern only varied slightly. Of 55 householders, 51 were entitled to vote and 44 of them did so. Three were gentlemen or esquires, and there were also a surgeon, a cook and a beadle, but 38, well over half of all the ratepayers in the street, were tradesmen. Of these 38, some five (13.2 per cent) were connected with building or decorating; 21 (55.3 per cent) were in the food and drink trades, including the resident victuallers of six taverns in the street and three chandlers; and six (15.8 per cent) supplied clothes, materials or wigs.

South Audley Street had its fashionable element, particularly at the south end, but over the whole street the tradesmen were still apparently dominant. Of 66 householders, 49 were eligible to vote and 38 exercised their franchise; 13 of these 38 were gentlemen or esquires and there was also one chairman, but the remaining 24 (63.2 per cent of the voters) were all tradesmen. Five of the 24 (20.8 per cent) pursued building or allied occupations; 14 (58.3 per cent) worked in the food and drink trades; only one, a peruke-maker, was concerned with clothing and fashion, but it is possible that some of the many single female householders were milliners. One at least was in trade, for Elizabeth Jones was the licensed victualler of the Albemarle Arms.

Some of the less salubrious areas of the estate lay immediately to the south of Oxford Street where land had been parcelled out in large blocks at low rents with few restrictive covenants in the original building leases. Two of these enclaves where building had progressed sufficiently by the mid eighteenth century for a coherent pattern of occupation to be established were the hinterlands behind the north side of Grosvenor Square between North Audley Street and Duke Street, and behind the north side of Brook Street between Duke Street and Davies Street. Here developers had laid out several narrow streets, viz. George (now Balderton), Queen (now Lumley), Brown and Hart Streets (now combined into Brown Hart Gardens) north of Grosvenor Square; and Bird (now Binney), James (now Gilbert) and Chandler (now Weighhouse) Streets north of Brook Street. The ratebooks show that by 1749 some 150 houses had been built in these streets and along the south side of Oxford Street. Several of them were let to tenants who did not pay rates and were thus ineligible to vote; against one such entry in the ratebooks where the ratepayer's name was left blank the collector had noted 'takes in vagabonds for Lodgers'. Nevertheless 92 ratepaying occupants of these streets did vote in the election of that year. Eleven were gentlemen, some of these being landlords like John Taylor who lived in one house in James Street himself and let half a dozen others to tenants; six fall into the general category of servants, including two coachmen and two chairmen; and 71 (77.2 per cent of the voters) were tradesmen. The remainder included a schoolmaster, a surgeon, a yeoman and a gardener. Of the tradesmen 26 (36.6 per cent) worked in the building trades, 22 (31 per cent) supplied food and drink including no fewer than eight victuallers, and 11 (15.5 per cent) were concerned with dress.

The impression created by the occupations of the voters in these streets could also be found in other parts of the estate. There were, however, some differences in the distribution of trades. Building workers were under-standably most numerous in those parts of the estate where development was still in progress, in the streets to the north of Brook Street and Grosvenor Square, in the south-west corner around South Street and Chapel (now Aldford) Street, in Park Street and Green Street, and, more surprisingly, in Mount Street. Those involved in some capacity with horses or carriages, the wheel-wrights, farriers, stable-keepers and coachmen, tended to live in the mews where there was clearly a good deal of residential accommodation. But, at this period, by no means all mews dwellers belonged to these or allied trades; in Grosvenor Mews, for instance, there were also victuallers, chandlers, builders, servants and a chimney-sweep among others. There was, however, no obvious concentration of food retailers and the numerous victuallers who presided over some 75 taverns or licensed coffee houses (fn. 11) were scattered throughout the estate. The chandler, that eighteenth-century Jack-of-all-trades, could also be found almost everywhere outside the five main streets.

The poll provides less evidence about the inhabitants of the principal streets, both because the presence of numerous peers and female householders (the latter accounting for over a third of the ratepaying occupants of Upper Brook Street alone) meant that fewer of them were eligible to vote, and because, of those who could have voted, a lower proportion exercised their right. Westminster tradesmen appear to have been more assiduous in using their political rights than the titled classes or country gentlemen. Many of these may indeed have been out of town, although the poll was taken during a parliamentary session. For comparative purposes the examples of Brook Street (that part on the Grosvenor estate only) and Upper Brook Street may be cited. There were then 94 houses already erected in the two streets and the householders of 54 of them were eligible to vote, but only 33 did so. Of these 33, gentlemen, esquires, 'honourables', knights, baronets, a general, a physician and a clerk account for 20, and the remaining 13 (39.4 per cent of the voters) were tradesmen, a surprisingly high number (considering that there may have been others who did not vote) for these august thoroughfares. They included two victuallers and a 'coffee man', all in Upper Brook Street at corner sites, two apothecaries, a linen-draper, a tailor, a wine merchant, a cheesemonger, a saddler, a smith, a glassman, and the master carpenter John Phillips at No. 39 Brook Street.

Thus by the mid eighteenth century, when the estate was still by no means completely built over, a coherent picture of its social composition had begun to emerge. It was that of a fashionable core of streets and a grand square occupied by the beau monde, encroached upon to a limited degree by residents engaged in trade, who in turn were to be found in overwhelming preponderance in the surrounding streets. Just as some tradesmen lived in the preserves of the socially distinguished, so also there were small coteries of the fashionable gathered in the outlying streets, and except in Grosvenor Square there was no strict segregation. The houses of the upper classes dominated physically by their size and by their large plots with long gardens extending to mews stabling at the rear, but they account for only about a quarter of the building fabric of the estate. The tradesmen, who formed such a substantial element of the population, evidently varied greatly in wealth and status, there being no doubt a considerable difference between, for instance, John Edmonson, saddler, of Upper Brook Street, who was listed in Mortimer's Universal Director of 1763, and the chandlers of Grosvenor Mews; and the gulf between the tradesmen of North Audley Street and the nearby inhabitants of Brown's Court or Parr's Buildings off North Row must have been almost as great as that between a well-established tradesman and his fashionable clientèle. Many of these tradesmen would have relied greatly on the patronage of the rich and titled inhabitants, as Lord Conway's household accounts testify; and in the case of the perukemakers, of whom there were at least sixteen on the estate in 1749 (four of them in Mount Street), their dependence must have been almost complete.

Over fifty years ago Mrs. Dorothy George commented that 'Eighteenth-century London inevitably suggests the brilliant society which made up the world of politics and fashion. This small world of statesmen and politicians and placemen, of wits and rakes and fops, was so self-sufficient, so conscious that it was the only world that counted, that it imposes its point of view on us… We know little of the artisans and labourers, the shopkeepers and clerks and street-sellers, who made up the mass of the population.' (fn. 12) The nature of the evidence is such that it could hardly be otherwise, but at least sufficient can be gleaned from very fragmentary information to suggest that the impression generally prevalent that this part of Mayfair was the almost exclusive province of the well-to-do and the well-connected is in some respects highly misleading. Fortunately the somewhat crude outline of the social composition of the area that can be drawn from such evidence as that provided by the poll books of 1749 can be filled in by more detailed and reliable evidence in later years.


  • 1. The occupations of the 53 tradesmen who voted in Mount Street were: (building and decorating trades) bricklayer, carpenter (6), carver, glassman, glazier, mason (3), painter (2), plasterer, plumber, smith, turner, upholsterer; (food and drink trades) baker, brewer, butcher (2), chandler (3), corn chandler, distiller, greengrocer, poulterer, victualler (3); (dress trades) breeches-maker, cutter, dyer, framework-knitter, laceman, linen-draper, peruke-maker (4), shoemaker, tailor (2); (other trades) apothecary, coachmaker, dealer in horses, lampman, saddler and snuffman.
  • 2. Suffolk Record Office, Bury St. Edmunds, Bunbury Papers, E18/660.2: Survey of London, vol. XXXII, 1963, p. 557.
  • 3. R.B.
  • 4. The Court Kalendar, 1733, 1741: The Court and City Register for 1751.
  • 5. Warwickshire Record Office, CR114A/253.
  • 6. The World, 14 Jan. 1790.
  • 7. The Autobiography and Correspondence of Mary Granville, Mrs. Delany, ed. Lady Llanover, part I, vol. I, 1861, p. 492.
  • 8. R.B.: Ambrose Heal, The London Furniture Makers from the Restoration to the Victorian Era 1660–1840, 1953, p. 33.
  • 9. G.L.R.O.(M), WR/PP, Reg. 5, 1749.
  • 10. Romney Sedgwick, The House of Commons 1715–1754, 1970, vol. I, p. 287.
  • 11. G.L.R.O.(M), L.V.(W) 68/449 56.
  • 12. M. Dorothy George, London Life in the Eighteenth Century, 1925, p. 155.