Duke Street Area: Redevelopment by Seth Smith in the 1820's

Pages 92-93

Survey of London: Volume 40, the Grosvenor Estate in Mayfair, Part 2 (The Buildings). Originally published by London County Council, London, 1980.

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Redevelopment by Seth Smith in the 1820's

Between 1822 and 1833 the central area of the block bounded by Davies Street, Brook Street, Duke Street, and Oxford Street was the scene of the most considerable single redevelopment on the Mayfair estate before the 1870's. The extent of this rebuilding is not now apparent, for of the sixty-three new houses, as well as stables and coach-houses and a dissenting chapel, the sole survivor is No. 27 Gilbert Street. The developer was Seth Smith, a London-born builder whose operations on the Grosvenor estate spanned more than thirty years, mostly in Belgravia, where he and Thomas Cubitt were the main contractors. In 1851 he was employing 170 men, (fn. 1) and at the time of his death in 1860 he was worth nearly half a million pounds. (fn. 2)

Smith's first venture on the Grosvenor estates was in Davies Street in 1818–20, and is described on page 69. From there he turned to the area between the backs of the houses on the north side of Brook Street and those on the south side of Oxford Street. This had originally been developed in the 1720's under two leases expiring in 1822–3, the houses being comparatively small and almost exclusively occupied by tradesmen. Despite its somewhat run-down character the Grosvenor Board does not seem to have envisaged wholesale redevelopment here, and it was only after several applications from Smith for the piecemeal rebuilding of a number of small sites that in April 1822 Earl Grosvenor signed an agreement with him for the redevelopment of a large area. (fn. 3) In modern terms this included most of Weighhouse Street from Davies Street nearly to Duke Street, most of Gilbert Street, and much of the east side of Binney Street. Smith undertook to demolish all the existing buildings and to build as many substantial brick houses of four square storeys 'as will completely occupy and fill up' the street frontages. The completion dates required varied from one block to another, the earliest being in 1825 and the last in 1829; and Lord Grosvenor agreed to grant sixty-three-year leases to Smith or his nominees within three months of the houses being built. The total ground rent reserved amounted to the very large sum of £2,361. (fn. 4)

An elevation for the houses had been settled between Smith and the estate surveyor, Thomas Cundy I, before the signing of the agreement. This is probably the elevation, for houses with ground-floor shops, which was inspected by Earl Grosvenor in December 1821, and which is signed 'Smith and Maberley, 11 Davies Street' (Plate 23a in vol. XXXIX). In the early 1820's William Maberley was for a short while Smith's partner, and he may be the William Maberley who was admitted to the Royal Academy Schools as an architectural student in 1817. (fn. 5)

Most of the building was finished within the stipulated times, the bulk of the leases being granted in 1823–5 and 1828–9. Smith took most of the leases himself, but a few were granted at his nomination to local tradesmen (butcher, baker, staymaker, etc.), and three of the last (in 1830 and 1833) were to James Gerry, a carpenter in Gilbert Street, or his nominees. (fn. 6) The completed development consisted of sixty-three new houses, many containing shops (Plate 22b), plus stables and coach-houses, a warehouse and a chapel (see below). A proposed Diorama 'for exhibiting Views' came to nothing. (fn. 7) The new stables were in Cock Yard (now St. Anselm's Place), on the east side of Thomas (now Binney) Street south of Robert (now Weighhouse) Street, and in a new mews called Chapel Mews, opening off the north side of Robert Street.

Like other builders Smith was willing to dispose of his houses on long- and short-term leases. Nos. 23, 25 and 31 Gilbert Street, for instance, were all leased by him to their first occupants on twenty-one-year terms (at rents of £100, £105 and £80 respectively, Smith's own ground rents to Lord Grosvenor for these houses being under £20 each), but at No. 24 the first occupants bought an assignment of Smith's own lease. (fn. 8) In spite of the evident demand for the houses Smith found himself unable to meet his commitments to Lord Grosvenor; when all the leases had been granted there was still over £1,000 of ground rent unsecured. In 1829 he had applied for some reduction in the ground rent, and Lord Grosvenor had allowed him to transfer the greater part of the outstanding rent to his speculation in Belgravia. (fn. 9) Ten years later he again applied for an abatement of the Mayfair rents, and was supported by the estate surveyor, Thomas Cundy II, who thought he had originally been overcharged by some £673 per annum. Soon afterwards a new agreement reduced Smith's rent by this amount, leaving only £157 unsecured. (fn. 10)

Most of the new houses were occupied by tradesmen, and by 1841 nearly all of them were inhabited by more than one family, twenty or more persons per house being not uncommon, while in some cases there were over thirty. (fn. 11) The first residents of the houses on the west side of Gilbert Street near to Brook Street, however, included two 'Honourables', but by 1849 even Gilbert Street had acquired such notoriety 'from the many disreputable houses' in it that some of the inhabitants tried to have the name changed to Brook Street North; and in 1867 a brothel there was suppressed by the Grosvenor Board. (fn. 12)

Few of Seth Smith's houses survived for long after the expiry of the leases in 1885–6, the majority succumbing to the redevelopment of the area for flats and industrial dwellings in the 1880's and '90's. Only Nos. 23–27 Gilbert Street escaped demolition at this time, but their survival was short lived and except for No. 27 they were completely rebuilt in 1910–12.

No. 27 Gilbert Street and No. 11 Binney Street.

The former was originally the northernmost of a row of five houses leased to Seth Smith in 1829. (fn. 13) It has a plain brick front with a stuccoed ground storey and an iron balcony at first-floor level, but was originally only two bays wide, an extra bay having been added on the north side in 1900–1 (fig. 12a in vol. XXXIX).

In 1890 Smith's houses to the north of No. 27 were demolished for industrial dwellings (Hanover Flats), and in 1892 the Duke decided that No. 27 should also come down to provide a site for the Hanover (later St. Anselm's) Mission. Eustace Balfour, the estate surveyor, was appointed architect for the new building, but the scheme foundered for lack of funds and was eventually abandoned in 1900. (fn. 14) With No. 27 then in a 'neglected state' the Grosvenor Board invited the builder John Garlick to tender for a lease of both the house and some adjoining land at the back and on the north side next to Hanover Flats. After Garlick's bid had been accepted he repaired No. 27 in 1900–1 and added a new bay in matching style on the vacant strip next to the flats, the join being still clearly visible. (fn. 15)

At the same time Garlick also built a new stable and coach-house on the land at the back, and this survives, much altered, as No. 11 Binney Street. (fn. 15) In 1919 plans by Wimperis and Simpson for the conversion of the building into a house were approved by the Grosvenor Board, and in 1923 John Garlick was making alterations to the elevation. (fn. 16) In its general form—particularly the slated gambrel roof and flanking 'Dutch' gables—the house evidently dates from 1900–1, but the whole of the ground floor and the slightly bowed and small-paned first-floor windows are of more recent origin. In 1957 the interior was again remodelled in a simple neo-Georgian style by Claud Phillimore and Aubrey Jenkins for Viscount Ridley. (fn. 17)

Robert Street Congregational Chapel (demolished).

Built by Seth Smith in 1823–4 this chapel stood on the north side of Robert (now Weighhouse) Street, approximately halfway between Davies and Gilbert Street (Plate 22a). There had been a chapel on the same site, perhaps continuously, since at least the early 1750's, and an intention in the early 1730's to call the street Chapel Street suggests that a chapel already existed or was intended hereabouts at that date. (fn. 18) In 1801 the Methodists took the building over and may have rebuilt it. They left in 1812, but in 1813 the chapel was re-opened by the newly formed 'London Association for extending the Gospel in the Metropolis and its Environs'. (fn. 19)

The plans and elevations of Seth Smith's new chapel were submitted for the approval of the Grosvenor Board in April 1823 and the building was opened for worship on 15 September 1824. (fn. 20) It had a modest two-storey front towards Robert Street, the lower half stuccoed with a Doric order of columns and pilasters supporting a plain entablature, the upper half in stock bricks with three large round-headed windows. Inside, there was seating for a congregation of up to four hundred. (fn. 21) The building costs were said to have exceeded £2,000. (fn. 22) At this stage in his career Smith probably could not afford to pay for the chapel out of his own pocket, which, as a Congregationalist himself, he would, no doubt, have wished to do and later did in Belgravia: but as the sole lessee he assumed responsibility for both the ground rent (£30) and the parochial rates. (fn. 23)

When Smith's lease expired in 1886 the congregation was planning to rebuild the chapel on a larger site at the north corner with Duke Street, but this was abandoned in 1887 after the death of their principal supporter, Samuel Morley, M.P., had put an end to any hope of raising the necessary finance (see page 87). The London Congregational Union then stepped in to secure the Duke Street site for the new Weigh House Church, and when that building was completed the two congregations were merged. The old chapel in Robert Street was given up in August 1890 and demolished shortly afterwards. (fn. 24)


  • 1. P.R.O., HO 107/1477, f. 478.
  • 2. R.B.: P.P.R., index to wills, 1860, sub Seth Smith.
  • 3. GBM 8/478.
  • 4. G.O., building agreements, bundle 6, 15 April 1822.
  • 5. Pigot's New Commercial Directory, 1822–3: Colvin.
  • 6. GLB XXIX-XXXI/786–842.
  • 7. GBM 9/369.
  • 8. Derbyshire R.O., D518 M/T 152–69 passim: M.D.R. 1829/8/244; 1831/6/136: GLB XXX/824; XXXI/834, 836: R.B.
  • 9. GBM 10/328–9.
  • 10. Ibid., 11/151.
  • 11. P.R.O., HO 107/733, bk. 8, ff. 34–46; bk. 9, ff. 4–15.
  • 12. GBM 12/426; 15/402.
  • 13. GLB XXX/834–8.
  • 14. GBM 24/145, 174, 303, 328; 25/193, 480; 27/125; 28/371.
  • 15. Ibid., 28/371, 512: D.S.R. 1900/159.
  • 16. GBM 45/48, 51: D.S.R. 1923/187.
  • 17. Country Life, 22 May 1958, pp. 1140–2.
  • 18. M.D.R. 1735/2/254, 383; 1754/3/16, 212.
  • 19. William Myles, A Chronological History of the People called Methodists, 1813 ed., p. 434: Rev. John Telford, Two West End Chapels, 1886, pp. 92, 102: The Evangelical Magazine, vol. XXI, 1813, p. 395.
  • 20. GBM 9/369: The Evangelical Magazine, new ser., vol. II, 1824, p. 493.
  • 21. Ordnance Survey map, 1872.
  • 22. The Evangelical Magazine, new ser., vol. III, 1825, p. 468.
  • 23. GLB XXIX/809: R.B.: Congregational Year Book, 1848, p. 268.
  • 24. GBM 20/316, 390; 21/53–4; 22/385–6, 426; 23/354; 24/161–2.