The Social Character of the Estate: The Last Hundred Years

Pages 98-102

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 Last Hundred Years

The census of 1871 was taken about a decade before the commencement of the period of greatest change in the whole history of the Grosvenor estate in Mayfair since its first development for building. The widespread rebuildings initiated by the first Duke in the 1880's and 1890's have already been described from the historical viewpoint. Socially, they seem to have had two main effects—they increased the segregation both between class and class and between the private residents and the men of commerce; and they increased the proportion of private residents in a number of important streets on the estate, at least in part at the expense of the tradesmen.

These, at all events, are the impressions gained from such evidence—mainly the Post Office Directories—as is at present available. Sometimes they were the results of deliberate policies laid down by the Duke, and always they reflected the immiscibility of the numerous social gradations prevalent in the late Victorian and Edwardian world.

The provision of churches, schools, artisans' dwellings, a library and two public gardens, the removal of the workhouse and the drastic reduction in the number of public houses, were all as much a part of the first Duke's achievement as the replacement of hundreds of old and often dingy houses by solid expensive new ranges of shops and chambers and private dwellings. In many parts of the estate this tremendous tidying-up operation stamped Victorian social discipline and formality upon the more easy-going attitudes of earlier times, and even when it was not intentional, physical changes of this order of magnitude could not fail to produce correspondingly great social change as well.

The elimination of trade from certain streets or parts of them, and its concentration in others, were certainly intentional. This was done in Park Street, Green Street, Charles Street (now Carlos Place) and the western part of Mount Street which became exclusively residential, while shops were encouraged in South Audley Street. (fn. 2) Between 1871 and 1914 the number of both commercially and professionally occupied houses in the eastern part of Grosvenor Street was reduced, with a corresponding increase in private residence, and in Upper Grosvenor Street even the successful physicians and surgeons who had gained a foothold in the 1870's were eliminated. Only in the eastern part of Brook Street, where the proportion of commercial occupation increased between 1871 and 1914, did the Duke's separatist policies not prevail. (fn. 3)

Policies of this kind undoubtedly enjoyed the support of well-to-do residents, and after the first Duke's death in 1899 they were continued by his successor and his advisers. Some residents, indeed, notably those of Grosvenor Street and Park Street, were even successful in insisting that they should be adhered to in circumstances in which the Estate Board would have preferred to relax them. (fn. 4)

The new buildings erected in the 1880's and subsequent years also had a marked effect on the social composition of the residents. The houses built in Green Street, the western part of Mount Street and in South Street (Nos. 39–47 odd) always found ready buyers, (fn. 5) but their high price restricted the market to purchasers with substantial means. And so too, in somewhat lesser degree, did the price of the new flats built over shops in such streets as South Audley Street and the eastern part of Mount Street. Wealth was what counted in the recruitment of residents, and even though the first and second Dukes both wanted to have what they regarded as 'small private houses' such as those in South Street, no concession was made to slender pockets, as Miss Walpole was crushingly informed when she inquired in 1895 'if it is the intention of the Duke to build middle class dwellings in South Street. She wishes to live near Farm Street Roman Catholic Church and the flats in Mount Street are too expensive.' (fn. 6)

As early as 1880 H. T. Boodle had foreseen that 'flats should be encouraged for the upper classes as well as the working classes as they are found of great use'. (fn. 7) At first these had been built over shops in the commercial streets, one of the earliest examples being Audley Mansions in South Audley Street of 1884–6 (Plate 33d). This type of building was evidently extremely successful, for it provided a good address for both shopkeepers and private residents while keeping them quite apart from each other, the flats being approached by separate entrances. At corner sites, such as Audley Mansions, the private entrances could even be placed in a residential street (in this case the western part of Mount Street) while the commercial entrance could be at or round the corner in a shopping street.

By means of these large, carefully designed dualpurpose buildings the proportion of floor space in private use even in avowedly commercial streets could be substantially increased. Although there is no firm evidence on this point, the internal disposition of the buildings themselves suggests that the shopkeepers now generally lived elsewhere instead of generally upstairs, as the census of 1871 (made before rebuilding) shows to have been hitherto the usual practice. Taking the number of entries in the Post Office Directories as a rough guide (the only one available) the proportion of tradesmen fell substantially, and that of private residents rose correspondingly, between 1871 and 1914, in Mount Street, North and South Audley Streets and Duke Street. In Brook Street and Grosvenor Street (the whole of these streets on the estate being here considered) there were similar changes, though of lesser degree, and as we have already seen, trade was wholly excluded from Park Street, Green Street and the new Carlos Place. In about 1914, it may be hazarded, the private residents formed a larger proportion of the total population of the estate than ever before or since.

This increase finds indirect expression in the new social and financial origins of many rich residents willing and anxious to pay for a good address on the Grosvenor estate in late Victorian and Edwardian times— origins very different from those of the traditional landed aristocracy and gentry. Following the earlier example of the oldestablished brewers, it was now the turn of the new industrialists and capitalists, both native and foreign, to edge their way into even the innermost social sanctuary of Grosvenor Square itself, where at various times lived, for instance, Sir John Kelk the building contractor, Baron Furness the Hartlepool shipping magnate, Sir Edward Mackay Edgar the Canadian company director, Samuel Lewis the moneylender, and the financiers John Pierpont Morgan junior and Sir Ernest Cassel. In Park Lane lived two Duveens, in Park Street (in houses looking out across the garden of Grosvenor House to Hyde Park), two Rothschilds; and so on. (fn. 3)

It was in the houses of such people as these, and in those of such old families as were still able to afford to compete at the highest level in the fashionable world, that in the years before the war of 1914–18 the traditional social round of the London Season reached its last opulent and glitteringly artificial climax. Entry to and status within even the innermost circles could now generally be bought, for the cost in itself provided the necessary degree of exclusiveness. In 1905 Sir Ernest Cassel paid a premium of £10,000 for the renewal of the leases of Brook House, Park Lane, and the adjoining house, and spent £20,000 on adapting them to provide an appropriately magnificent setting for his receptions there, the proposed approach to the dining-room being specially designed 'level with the ground floor … (for the convenience of the King)'. (fn. 8) A few years later Mrs. Keppel, before starting to spend some £15,000 on the renovation of No. 16 Grosvenor Street, submitted her plans to the King, 'who had approved of them', but who probably only visited the house on a single occasion before his death in May 1910. (fn. 9) And from such central points as these a succession of ever-widening ripples spread out all over both the fashionable and the would-be fashionable worlds, powerful enough to confer a rent 'for the season' of up to £1,000 on even a house in noisy dusty Hereford Gardens. (fn. 10)

Matching the increased private residential use of parts of the estate after the great rebuilding was the apparent decline in the proportion of commercial use. If there were fewer businesses after the first Duke's reconstructions, it was, evidently, because the weakest had gone to the wall. In his evidence before the Select Committee of the House of Commons on Town Holdings, H. T. Boodle had said that 'in many cases of rebuilding it is impossible to let the old tenants rebuild. The tenants would not be equal to it', and he had admitted that compulsory displacements had been made. (fn. 11) These casualties had been amongst the little men (and women) with a shop or business at home or round the corner, and whose numbers (attested in the census of 1871) must have made much shopping and petty commerce so local in character before the rebuildings. The survivors, on the other hand, were the strongest and fittest—men like W. J. Goode, the South Audley Street china-dealer, whose business expanded from a single house (where he lived with his family) (fn. 12) to take in the whole frontage between South Street and the Grosvenor Chapel; or James Purdey the gunsmith, who after building his own premises in South Audley Street, was only too anxious to speculate elsewhere on the estate; or T. B. Linscott, the confectioner, whose shop in Oxford Street flourished greatly after he had reluctantly rebuilt it. (fn. 13) These were the men able to stimulate and then cater for the demands of a wealthy clientèle, primarily in the luxury and semi-luxury trades in which many of the shops of the area were now engaged. And in its hotels—now the other commercial speciality of the estate—the change from the old-fashioned comforts provided by William Claridge and Auguste Scorrier in adapted private dwellings to the discreetly spacious splendours newly built by Claridge's Hotel Company Limited and the Coburg Hotel Company Limited must have been just as great.

For the working-class residents on the estate the principal result of the first Duke's rebuildings was a great improvement in the standard of their housing. The blocks of artisans' dwellings built immediately south of Oxford Street, mainly between 1886 and 1892, provided new accommodation for nearly two thousand people—equivalent almost to fourteen per cent of the total population of the estate in 1871—and in the early years of the twentieth century the flats there were in very great demand, often from locally employed servants (butlers and valets in particular) and policemen. (fn. 14) In addition an unknown but very substantial number of residents in the mews were rehoused by the widespread rebuilding of coach-houses and stables in such places as Adams Row, Balfour Mews, Bourdon Street, Mount Row and Three Kings Yard. Some of these premises were of considerable size, space for six or seven stalls and three or four carriages being sometimes provided, (fn. 15) and even when complete rebuilding did not take place, tenants were often required, as a condition for the renewal of their leases, to execute extensive works of modernisation. (fn. 16)

Much of this great surge of improvement in the mews took place in the years immediately preceding the gradual eclipse of the horse by the motor car. By 1910 tenants on the estate were said to have a 'general desire to get rid of horses', (fn. 17) and the second Duke and his Board were granting increasing numbers of licences for the use of coachhouses and stables as garages. At about this time this process was taken a stage further by the occasional conversion of stables into dwelling houses, the first known example being at No. 2 Aldford Street in 1908; (fn. 18) and in later years the size and quality of these equine palaces was such that many of them proved well suited for adaptation to domestic use for residents no longer able or willing to live in a great house in one of the fashionable streets.

The outbreak of war in 1914 marked the commencement of fundamental changes in the social character of the estate. Throughout Mayfair as a whole the population had been falling slowly since as early as 1851, and although the first Duke's rebuilding may have temporarily reversed this process on the Grosvenor estate, numbers in Mayfair as a whole were again falling in the early twentieth century. For the estate by itself no reliable figures can be calculated for some sixty years after 1871, but during that period the resident population fell from 14,829 in 1871 to some 8,775 in 1931. (fn. 1) By 1961 it had declined still further to an estimated 4,354. (fn. 19)

It has already been conjectured that in the years before 1914 the private residents formed a larger proportion of the total population of the estate than ever before or since. Whether this conjecture is correct or not, the steep decline in the aggregate resident population reflects the great increase in the number of non-resident business users which has transformed the social make-up of the estate since 1914.

At the very top of the social scale the evidence of the Post Office Directories suggests that in the 1920's and 1930's there was little change in the number of peers, baronets, knights and other persons of title resident on the estate, despite the numerous new creations made in those years. The ritual of the social Season still continued, and in the unfashionable months cruises to the Mediterranean or the West Indies, or forays to shoot big game in Africa replaced the visits of earlier days to the German spas. But cocktail parties ('by far the cheapest way of entertaining') and 'Cheap cabarets and intime night clubs' were replacing the lavish private receptions of Edwardian times; and the prevalence of jokes about income tax collectors showed that it was now becoming 'almost a social stigma to be rich. It is fashionable to pretend to be poorer, not richer, than you are.' (fn. 20)

The lack of change in the number of residents of title obscures important internal changes, however. Old families were giving place to new, and by 1947 the titles of approximately half the peers resident on the estate had been created since 1900. Between 1921 and 1939 the Dukes of Portland and Somerset and Earl Fitzwilliam and the Earl of Durham all left Grosvenor Square, whilst the newcomers included two new barons (Illingworth and Selsdon). By 1939 four of the eight peers resident in the square lived in the new flats there, and the fifteenth Earl of Pembroke, one of whose eighteenth-century ancestors had had a house in the square, now lived in Three Kings Yard. In 1933 the first Viscount Furness left Grosvenor Square for Lees Place, and by 1947 even such a traditional grandee as the Duke of Sutherland had moved from Hampden House in Green Street to a flat in Park Lane. (fn. 3)

In addition to the continuing decline in their absolute numbers, many residents were thus occupying less space individually. By 1939 only about a quarter of all the houses in Brook Street, for instance, were still in private occupation, and a diagram prepared for The Grosvenor Estate Strategy for Mayfair and Belgravia, published in 1971, shows not a single building in the whole of either Brook Street or Grosvenor Street still in solely residential use. (fn. 21) By that time a substantial proportion of the surviving residents lived either in modern blocks of flats or in the mews and the lesser streets—Adams Row, Reeves Mews, Balfour Mews and Culross Street are cases in point—and Grosvenor Square itself could only be considered to be still predominantly residential by virtue of the two large hotels recently built there. The fall in the number of residents had, indeed, gone so far that throughout the whole estate only about one third of all the floor space was still, in 1960, in residential occupation (fn. 22) — a remarkable reversal of the traditional character of the area.

Some of the buildings hitherto in private use are now occupied by foreign diplomatic missions, for which imposing mansions provide an appropriate setting. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries embassies and legations had from time to time alighted for a while on different parts of the estate, but in 1910 there was only one—the Italian Embassy, then at No. 20 Grosvenor Square—and the permanent presence of a foreign diplomatic community here dates only from the 1920's. In 1921 there were seven embassies and legations (four of them in Grosvenor Square), but to-day there are nine, plus five high commissions and two consulates; and some of them are very large—notably the embassies of Egypt and the United States and the Canadian High Commission—and with their ancillary premises occupy more than one building.

A much greater proportion of the accommodation previously in private residential use had, however, been converted into offices, which in 1960 occupied about one third of all the floor space on the estate. (fn. 22) As early as 1929 The Evening News reported that 'Ancient families are leaving Mayfair and modern dressmakers or beauty or health specialists are arriving'; and 'a West End property expert' declared that Mayfair 'is going over to business as fast as it can … Not so long ago a large house… remained to let for a year without a single inquiry. At last a condition against the use of any part of it for business was withdrawn. It was snapped up then within the next 48 hours.' (fn. 23)

In the 1920's and 30's the Grosvenor Estate itself was 'strongly opposed' (fn. 24) to the spread of offices, but in 1934 the second Duke's advisers acknowledged that trade and business had for many years been moving westward, and in streets such as Brook Street and Grosvenor Street they had conducted a slow rearguard action, here and there permitting first a professional occupation (usually by a doctor or dentist), then an inconspicuous business (usually dressmaking) and finally, perhaps, a shop window. By 1939, however, this process had advanced a little further, for some of the doctors and dentists in their turn were beginning to move out of Brook Street and Grosvenor Street. Those that remained, instead of living there in individual houses as at first had been the practice, were congregating together in houses evidently used only as non-resident consulting rooms, of which No. 86 Brook Street, for instance, contained some twenty sets. Even in Upper Grosvenor Street, where a few physicians and surgeons had again settled in the 1870's (only to be subsequently eased out again in favour of private residents), clubs, couturiers and other businesses began to appear in the late 1920's, soon after the building of the new Grosvenor House on the south side.

It was at this time of delicate transition that the impact of the war of 1939–45 tilted the balance heavily towards office use. During the war a number of buildings were requisitioned for this purpose, and after the destruction of large parts of the City of London by bombing, many businesses moved into the mansions of Mayfair, then often vacant through the departure of the residents to the country, and in rapidly changing social conditions no longer suitable for private occupation. (fn. 25) The Grosvenor Estate itself reversed its previous opposition to the growth of offices on its Mayfair properties, leaving Belgravia unchallenged as London's principal fashionable residential quarter. On the Mayfair estate the professions— no longer dominated by the doctors and dentists, who did not return in large numbers after the war of 1939–45— and the diplomats were joined by businessmen with either relatively small staffs or small headquarters staffs, all of whom required a prestigious address and often a sumptuous 'Board Room' office suite in an adapted Georgian or Victorian town house. Advertising and public relations firms (of which there were some thirty in 1965) found a natural milieu here; expensive restaurants did well, and many of the shops dealt in the fields of fashion or luxury. Despite this new emphasis on business and commerce the estate has thus maintained its traditional prestige; but in 1970 the Post Office Directory listed only one solitary duke as still resident there; and even the Duke of Westminster himself now lived in Belgravia.


  • 1. The figure for 1931 is obtained by counting the number of resident voters contained in the electoral register and multiplying this figure by the factor of 1.505, provided by the Population Studies Section of the Greater London Council's Policy Studies and Intelligence Branch. The electoral registers cannot be satisfactorily used for this purpose prior to 1928, when women under thirty years of age were given the vote.
  • 2. The Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam, vol. II, 1779, Explanation of Plate .
  • 3. Sir John Soane's Museum, Soane Lectures, vol. X, no. 21.
  • 4. Sheffield Central Library, Wentworth Woodhouse Muniments, R 185/3.
  • 5. Cecil Aspinall-Oglander, Admiral's Wife …, 1940, pp. 68, 72.
  • 6. G.L.R.O.(L), B/TRL/9, pp. 28, 31, 93, 206, 273, 307, 313, 381, 383.
  • 7. Patricia Anne Kirkham, 'The Careers of William and John Linnell', in Furniture History, vol. 3, 1967, pp. 29–44: C. Proudfoot and D. Watkin, 'A Pioneer of English Neo-Classicism— C. H. Tatham', and 'The Furniture of C. H. Tatham', in Country Life, 13/20 April 1972, pp. 918–21, and 8 June 1972, pp. 1481 6: R.B.
  • 8. W.C.L., C775, pp. 20–1.
  • 9. GBM 8/2.
  • 10. Ibid., 8/75, 135, 254; 9/125.
  • 11. University of Nottingham, Newcastle MSS., Ne e 7009a.
  • 12. GBM 2/279, 309; 3/20, 131, 234; 5/78.
  • 13. Ann Saunders, Regent's Park, 1969, pp. 95 101, 178.
  • 14. The Works of David Ricardo, ed. P. Sraffa, vol. 6, 1962, p. 52; vol. 7, 1962, pp. 16–17.
  • 15. E.H.P., box 42/6, Porden to Lord Grosvenor, 9 Dec. 1807.
  • 16. The Times, 2 June 1808, p. 3.
  • 17. E.g. GBM 7/185, 205, 207, 208, 209.
  • 18. R. B.: Survey of London, vol. XXXI, 1963, p. 279.
  • 19. GBM 5/180 et seq.: Hermione Hobhouse, Thomas Cubitt, Master Builder, 1971, pp. 88–9.
  • 20. Hobhouse, op. cit., chapters V-VII: GBM 9/90; 10/1.
  • 21. GBM 10/1.
  • 22. G.O., Moor Park box, bills.
  • 23. Survey of London, vol. XXVI, 1956, p. 12.
  • 24. P.P.R., will of John Elger, 1888: M.L.R. 1826/1/571; 1844/8/969: R.B.: P.O.D.
  • 25. The Times, 11 April 1832, p. 3: Autobiography of James Gallier, Architect, 1864: William R. Cullison and Roulhac Toledano, 'Our Architectural Heritage from the Brothers Gallier', in New Orleans, July 1970, pp. 30–5.