The Portland Estate in Soho Fields

Survey of London: Volumes 33 and 34, St Anne Soho. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1966.

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'The Portland Estate in Soho Fields', in Survey of London: Volumes 33 and 34, St Anne Soho, (London, 1966) pp. 37-41. British History Online [accessed 11 April 2024]

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The Portland Estate in Soho Fields

In 1698 the first Earl of Portland was granted by the King the freehold of most of Soho Fields and of a smaller piece of ground in St. James's parish, in reversion from 1734. The Portland family owned the estate until a period of sales commencing in the 1790's. Under Portland ownership most of the area was rebuilt, particularly during the 1720's and 1730's. The original layout was not altered, and the rebuilding, although extensive, did not amount to a comprehensive, controlled redevelopment of the estate.

The grant of the reversionary freehold to William III's favourite, William Bentinck, first Earl of Portland, was in preparation in December 1697, shortly before the Earl's departure for France as ambassador extraordinary to Louis XIV. In the previous year Portland had bought for £24,511 a large number of fee farm rents belonging to the Crown. (fn. 8) This purchase proved to be invalid, and in December 1697 it was decided to grant him in recompense the reversionary freehold of most of Soho Fields and of a detached piece of ground, Brown's or Doghouse Close, on the west side of Wardour Street in the parish of St. James, Westminster. (fn. 1) Five pieces of ground in Soho Fields were excepted out of the grant (see figs. 1 and 2 on pages 21 and 28). These were the site of St. Anne's Church, churchyard and glebe (which had been made over in perpetuity to the parish of St. Martin in the Fields and the rector of St. Anne's by an Act of Parliament of 1678), the site of the Greek Church and St. Martin's almshouses (granted as freehold by the Crown in 1684 to a trustee for the parish of St. Martin), the site of Monmouth House (leased by the Crown in 1688 to the Duchess of Monmouth from 1734 to 1786), and the two pieces of ground in Dean Street which had recently, in 1697, been leased by the Crown to Thomas Pitt from 1734 to 1833. The reversion of the Portland estate was to become effectual at Michaelmas 1734, when the Earl of St. Albans's leasehold interest in Soho Fields expired. A rent charge of £3 6s. 8d. per annum was reserved. This reversionary freehold was valued at £25,068 10s. (fn. 9) The grant was attacked in the House of Commons, (fn. 10) but was effected by letters patent dated 13 May 1698. (fn. 11)

The greater part of the estate, lying in the parish of St. Anne, then consisted of a more or less complete development of mostly residential streets, containing perhaps some five hundred houses built within the previous twenty years or so.

In 1704 a settlement made on the marriage of the Earl's son, Henry, Lord Woodstock, gave the Earl power to grant reversionary leases for twenty-one years, and gave the Earl and Lord Woodstock jointly, and the latter alone after the Earl's death, power to grant leases for sixty-one years. (fn. 12) In 1709 the first Earl died and was succeeded by his son Henry, then aged about twenty-seven, who in 1716 was created Duke of Portland. He was, of course, not yet in actual possession of the estate, but (unlike the family's policy in Doghouse Close, St. James's), the granting of reversionary leases of plots in Soho Fields began long before the realization of the freehold in 1734. The first lease was granted in 1712, and by the time of the Duke's death in 1726 about 170 leases had been granted. All were for thirty-five years from 1734. (fn. 13)

In 1722 the Duke had granted his younger son, Lord George Bentinck, a five hundred-year term in the estate from the date of his own death, to raise by mortgages or the sale of leases a sum of £30,000 payable when Lord George became twenty-one in 1736. The estate was to revert to the Duke's heir when the £30,000 was paid to Lord George. In 1728 the Duke's widow, Elizabeth, Duchess of Portland, obtained a private Act of Parliament allowing her and others as guardians of Lord George to grant reversionary leases for a maximum term of seventy years. (fn. 14) From 1728, when the granting of leases recommenced, they were, therefore, granted not by the second Duke but by his mother, the Duchess, as guardian of her younger son. In 1734 the freehold possession of the estate became an actuality, in 1736 Lord George attained his majority, and in January 1736/7 William, the second Duke, paid his younger brother £30,000 and resumed possession of the property. (fn. 12) From 1728 to 1736 a further 166 leases running from Michaelmas 1734 had been granted, the great majority for sixty-five years. (In addition, the granting of reversionary leases from the expiry in 1769 of the first Duke's thirty-five-year leases, for further terms of thirty years, had begun, and 23 such leases had been granted between 1728 and 1736.) In the next four years, to 1741, the second Duke granted another 43 leases running from 1734 or the years immediately following (and four from 1769).

The Portlands' disposal of the individual plots on their estate in Soho Fields from the realization of the freehold in 1734 was thus spread over a period of thirty years. The single years in which the largest numbers of leases from 1734 were granted were 1729 (40), 1734 (33), 1733 (31), 1717 (29) and 1715 (21).

This gradual utilization of the potentialities of the estate seems to show no clear policy of overall redevelopment. The earlier, comparatively short leases were first granted mostly in Soho Square, and plots in Greek Street also figure especially in the early leases, before 1728. These leases do not exhibit the characteristics of leases intended to secure the rebuilding of the premises. The longer leases granted after 1728 include many intended to secure rebuilding, and these were especially frequent in the less imposing streets and courts on the periphery of Soho Fields: in the north-west corner one new, short street was made, named Titchfield (now Fareham) Street. In the three main north-to-south streets, leases for rebuilding were most frequent in Dean Street, perhaps under the influence of the general rebuilding carried out about 1734 on the Pitt estate. On the whole, leases for rebuilding seem, not surprisingly, to have been least frequent where the original building was presumably most substantial, in the main residential areas.

The leases running from 1734 or the years immediately following numbered some 372. Of these, 108 were made to building tradesmen and also exhibited the characteristics of building leases; that is, the first year was granted at a peppercorn rent and no fine or only a very small one was exacted for the grant of the lease. Another eight had the characteristics of building leases but were not granted to building tradesmen, and 41 were granted to building tradesmen but did not have the characteristics of building leases. Altogether these leases totalled 157, while 215 had no known features suggestive of the rebuilding of the premises.

The proportion of leases granted to 'sitting tenants' (that is, to lessees who were already ratepayers for the premises) is known only for the principal streets and Soho Square. In the principal streets (Dean, Frith, Greek, Old Compton and Romilly Streets) these constituted about a fifth of the whole and in Soho Square a third. The lesser streets and courts where relatively more leases were granted to building tradesmen would reduce these proportions for the area as a whole.

The total number of individual lessees was some 207. Of these about a quarter were building tradesmen, numbering 54, of whom 25 were carpenters, 13 bricklayers, 5 glaziers, 4 joiners, 3 painters, 2 plasterers, one a paviour and one a timber merchant: none was a mason. About half were of St. Anne's parish. (fn. 2) Few of the builders who were lessees here also figure as lessees on the Portland estate in St. James's.

Of the other lessees, 59 were tradesmen, 46 'gentlemen' or 'esquires', 11 bore titles, 3 were spinsters, 29 were widows, and 5 were undesignated.

Thus well under half the leases from 1734 (perhaps less than a third) seem to have been intended to secure a rebuilding of the premises. On some parts of the estate building leases of a number of sites were granted at one time to a building tradesman or small group of tradesmen and the rebuilding that followed represented a deliberate reconstruction of an entire street or range of buildings. Such was the case, for example, in St. Anne's Court, Diadem Court, Fareham Street (newly built), much of Great Chapel Street, Moor Street and Soho Street, and part of Old Compton Street. In the main residential streets, however, the building leases to building tradesmen were more scattered and less comprehensive. It seems certain that no one building tradesman was associated with the Portlands as general contractor. The glazier, William Bignell, occurs frequently as lessee, in various streets, and the carpenter, Thomas Richmond, also took leases in various parts of the estate. But both seem to have been acting on their own account, and both took some of their sites on ordinary leases and redeveloped them in apparent independence of any requirement of the ground landlords.

The total amount of rebuilding around the period 1734 was, in fact, considerably greater than the character of the leases granted by the Portlands would suggest, and was spread over a longer period than if it had been directly activated by the realization of the Portland freehold in that year. At a number of sites the Portlands' lessees seem themselves to have undertaken rebuilding that was not required by the lease: Sir Thomas Crosse, a brewer of Westminster, and Edmund Strudwick of St. Giles in the Fields, esquire, were two such lessees. In these cases the lessee may be supposed to have had an existing lien prior to the Portland lease from 1734, and some rebuilding was being taken in hand in the 1720's at sites where the extension of the lessees' tenure beyond 1734 had been secured from the Portlands. (fn. 3)

Compared with the smaller Portland estate in St. James's, the rebuilding of the Soho estate was thus less comprehensive, less concentrated in its time span, and less directly the expression of the ground landlords' building policy.

The capital value of the Soho Fields estate to the Portlands in 1734 cannot be estimated with any certainty. Since all of it was granted away in leases, the Portlands' revenue from the estate was limited to the annual ground rents, and the fines or premiums charged for the leases. These were often remitted wholly or partially in consideration of the building or rebuilding of the premises. The power of the representatives of the Portland family in possession of the estate to profit at the expense of their successors by exacting very large fines for leases granted at very low ground rents was limited by the private Act of 1728. This required the ground rent to be at least a fifth of the full 'improved' rent, that is, the rent for which the site and buildings on it could be leased to an occupant. (fn. 14) The ground rents which the Portlands received from the leases commencing in 1734 amounted to some £3,000 per annum (of which about £634 was for sites in Soho Square). (fn. 4) For these leases they received in fines or premiums, over the period of some thirty years during which they were granting them, lump sums amounting to about £24,600 (of which about £5,840 was for the leases of sites in Soho Square). (fn. 5)

The granting of reversionary leases from 1769, when the first Duke's thirty-five-year leases expired, had begun by 1728, and the receipt of fines for these overlapped that of the fines for the leases from 1734. In 1739 the second Duke obtained another private Act of Parliament to authorize him to grant leases for ninety-nine years. This was said to be necessary in order to give lessees an inducement to rebuild dilapidated houses. (fn. 15) In Soho Fields, however, almost all the estate was, of course, already out on lease until 1769 or 1799, and the further granting of leases for additional terms proceeded only gradually. The first lease for more than sixty-six years in Soho Fields was not granted until 1751. Altogether, between 1728 and 1768 some 195 leases were granted for terms commencing in 1769. The total amount received in fines over this period was some £22,000. The total of ground rents is uncertain. The Act repeated the earlier requirement that they should be not less than a fifth of the improved rents.

Despite the Act of 1739, more than a third of the leases from 1769 were for less than sixty-six years, and comparatively few seem to have required early rebuilding of the premises. In only eight or nine was it required immediately and in perhaps another ten or a dozen by or before 1800. Thirty-six leases (almost all for terms upward of eighty-two years) required rebuilding merely before the expiry of the term, and 140 contained no features characteristic of a building or rebuilding lease. Nearly a third of this last category, however, was made to building tradesmen, and rebuilding sometimes took place even when not required by the Portland lease. Altogether, eighteen building tradesmen took leases from 1769, of whom two (William Bignell and Henry Crosse) also held leases from 1734. The other sixteen (who mostly obtained their leases in the 1760's) included six carpenters, three bricklayers, two 'builders', two masons, a glazier, a painter and a timber merchant. (fn. 6)

The second Duke died in 1762 and the later history of the estate in Soho Fields was determined largely by the financial difficulties in which his successor, the eminent statesman, became involved. In 1777 the estate was mortgaged to raise £80,000, (fn. 12) and by 1790 it was decided to have it valued with a view to its sale. In 1792 the Portlands' agent, John Heaton, wrote to the architect, John Carr of York, that the sale of the estate in Soho and St. James's would enable the Duke to build additional rooms at Welbeck for which Carr had provided designs. In 1792–3 a series of extremely detailed plans of the houses on the estate was made, principally by S. P. Cockerell in association with Carr, and perhaps on the basis of a survey begun by the Portlands' surveyor, John White, in 1790. (fn. 16) (fn. 7) In 1795 the Duke and his son, the Marquis of Titchfield, were debating whether to sell the 'Soho' estate or Bulstrode. The Marquis urged the sale of the latter as it would yield a larger immediate sum than an estate of houses which would have to be sold piecemeal. Bulstrode was in fact sold in 1810, (fn. 17) but the disposal of the 'Soho' estate had then already begun, and by 1798 about a third of the estate in Soho Fields had been sold. At that date the total value of the estate in St. James's and St. Anne's, including both the parts already sold (presumably valued at the amount actually received) and those still in hand (presumably valued at their estimated yield) was £259,656. Of this about £192,000 was the value of the Soho Fields part, where the unsold property was valued at about £124,500. (fn. 18) By the 1820's probably little of the estate remained in possession. Except for the centre of Soho Square, all had certainly been sold by the 1880's. (fn. 19) In the 1890's the former Portland estate was in many separate ownerships.

From what has been said above it will be seen that the estate in Soho Fields as it is portrayed in the surviving sheets of the 1792–3 survey was the outcome of no single building period. Chiefly it represented a rebuilding, by various hands and with varying completeness, carried out in the 1720's and 1730's on an original fabric which itself represented some twenty years of building in the last quarter of the seventeenth century. Some later eighteenth-century rebuilding is also delineated, and the pleasing variety of protruding shop fronts which appears in the more southerly and busier parts of the estate is probably of that later period.

The survey gives a remarkably detailed and fully dimensioned plan of the houses with their back premises, falling short in one respect only by not showing the front and back basement areas. The majority of the house-plots were about eighteen to twenty feet in front and seventy to eighty feet deep, the two-rooms-deep buildings being about thirty to thirty-five feet in depth, exclusive of the closet wings. Many of the houses were regularly planned in mirrored pairs, but irregularities show in the party walls, sometimes set out of square with the frontages and running parallel with the cross streets, for example in Frith and Greek Streets north of Old Compton Street. A few houses near Soho Square and in Greek Street were larger than average, and in Milk Alley (Bourchier Street) there were some minute houses having a front room only nine feet square, a back room even smaller, a newel stair, and a narrow back yard with a privy. Other small houses at the south end of Greek Street had very irregular sites and windowless back rooms. Almost every house had a privy in its back yard, but only a few appear with wash-houses equipped with coppers. Many of the back yards contained small cottages or workshops, often of more than one storey, generally let on a separate tenancy.

Most of the shops were still located in and around Old Compton Street, but single shops had already appeared in the originally residential streets, where many houses were being used partly for professional and trading purposes, or for small manufactories. The plans show how the shop fronts generally projected from the original building lines, in a variety of forms such as the wide segmental bow embracing the central doorway, smaller semi-circular bows flanking the doorway, and straight or splay-sided bays.

One sheet of the plans, showing the block of houses bounded by (Old) Compton Street on the north, Church (now Romilly) Street on the south, Frith Street on the west and Greek Street on the east, is reproduced on Plate 9 (and see fig. 50 on page 197). Here the houses were probably rebuildings, of varying degrees of completeness, dating from the 1730's: Nos. 13–21 (odd) Old Compton Street had, however, been rebuilt again, partly or wholly, in 1786. The intricate adjustment of the rearward site-boundaries is noticeable.


  • 1. The history of the part of the Portland estate which lay in St. James's is described in Survey of London, vol. XXXI, 1963, Chapter XV.
  • 2. Bricklayers: John Blakesley ; Philip Chandler of St. George's, Hanover Square; Martin Heatley of St. Anne's; William Lloyd of St. Anne's ; Thomas Lucas of St. George's, Hanover Square; Peter Odell of St. Marylebone; John Price of St. Anne's; Samuel Reynolds of St. James's; William Robins of St. Anne's; Thomas Rumball of St. Anne's; Thomas Smith of St. Anne's; John Smither of St. James's; John Whetton of St. Anne's. Carpenters: William Deane of St. Anne's; William Dunn of St. James's; William Forrest of St. Anne's; William Franklin of St. Andrew's, Holborn; John Gardner of St. James's or St. John's, Westminster; Thomas Gingell of St. George's, Hanover Square; John Hoare of St. Andrew's, Holborn; John Hoff of St. Anne's; Morris Hoff of St. Anne's; Josiah Hutchinson of St. Anne's; John Jackson of St. Anne's; William Laurence of St. Anne's; Robert Lowder of St. Marylebone; John Meard of St. Anne's (designated 'esquire'); John Nolloth of St. James's; Robert Packer of St. Giles in the Fields; Henry Peat of St. George's, Hanover Square; John Petty of St. Pancras; Thomas Richmond of St. Anne's (sometimes designated wax chandler); Owen Sainsbury of St. Marylebone; John Sanger of St. James's; Edmund Stovell of St. Marylebone; Francis Tredgold of St. Marylebone; Joseph Wayte of St. Anne's or St. Paul's, Covent Garden; John Winter of St. Andrew's, Holborn. Glaziers: William Bignell of St. Anne's; John Burnell of St. Martin in the Fields; Thomas Clack of St. Anne's; James Toogood of St. Anne's; William Winchester of St. Anne's. Joiners: Henry Crosse of St. Anne's; William Hewett of St. Anne's; Nathaniel Marsh of St. Anne's; John Weekes of St. Anne's. Painters: Samuel Aubery of St. Anne's; Jonathan Greaves of St. James's; Israel Russell of St. George's, Hanover Square. Paviour: John Wilkins of St. George's, Hanover Square. Plasterers: Thomas Chapman of St. Anne's; William Singleton of St. George's, Hanover Square. Timber merchant: John Cator of St. Saviour's.
  • 3. Some of the Portlands' lessees of individual sites were representatives of the families which originally had interests in the whole of Soho Fields or some large part of it. Sir Thomas Crosse was one such (see page 31n.). Others were Jane and Elizabeth Allam and Katherine Whitcombe, descendants of Joseph Girle, who each took leases of one or more sites, while the Mary Harman who took three leases was probably the widow of Philip Harman (see pages 31–2).
  • 4. The annual sum received in ground rents from house-sites which in 1734 numbered perhaps some 590 may be compared with the £1,800 per annum which Lord Burlington received at about the same period from approximately 145 sites on his estate in St. James's.
  • 5. As is indicated in the volume of the Survey of London describing the Portland estate in St. James's, and elsewhere, the Portland estate in St. Anne's and St. James's was valued on the first Earl's death in 1709 at a very high figure, £376,027 10s. That total was based on an annual yield of £25,068 10s. at fifteen years' purchase. It should be observed, therefore, that this was a book valuation rather than a considered estimate of what the estate would fetch if sold. The estimated annual yield must, further, be that of ground rents and house rents together, and therefore gives a misleading impression of the yield of the estate to the Portlands all the while it was disposed in leases. Whether it was a soundly based estimate even of the total yield is uncertain. It is approximately six times the total ground rents of the Portland estate in the two parishes (which amounted to about £4,045) and would thus be consistent with the hypothesis that the ground rents represented a fifth (but not more than a fifth) of the house rents, as required by the 1728 Act. This does, however, imply a higher average house rent than the fifty or so which are known in St. Anne's would suggest. It is also considerably more than the £12,400 at which the Surveyor General of Crown Lands had in 1694 calculated the annual yield of the slightly larger area of the estate before the excision of the Pitt estate. Perhaps significantly, the annual yield of the estate postulated in 1709 is identical with the capital sum at which the reversionary freehold was valued in 1694, and it is conceivable that it represents merely a misapprehension of what that valuation signified. When the Portland estate was beginning to be sold off in the 1790's it was valued at an appreciably lower figure than the 1709 estimate.
  • 6. Bricklayers: Edward Bowman of St. James's; George Long of St. Anne's; Thomas Price of St. Anne's. Builders: Thomas Grantham of St. Anne's; John Miller of Piccadilly. Carpenters: John Blagrave of St. George's, Hanover Square; John Carr of St. James's; John Fellows of St. Anne's; John Malin of St. Anne's; Thomas Wade of St. Marylebone; Benjamin Wood of St. Anne's. Glazier: Mary Nott of St. James's. Masons: James Paxon or Paxton of St. James's (or bricklayer?); George James Soward of St. Anne's. Painter: John Parker of St. Anne's. Timber merchant: John Machin of St. Anne's.
  • 7. The bill submitted by Carr in 1798 amounted to £150. Cockerell at least seems to have had difficulty in getting his money from the Duke.
  • 8. P.R.O., C54/4808, no. 10.
  • 9. Ibid., T29/10, p. 72; CREST 6/20, pp. 142–50.
  • 10. Cal. S. P. Dom. 1698, pp. 96–7.
  • 11. P.R.O., C66/3403, no. 1.
  • 12. Ibid., C104/157, abstract of title.
  • 13. Nottingham University, Portland MSS., Soho lease book.
  • 14. 1 Geo. II, c. 5, private.
  • 15. 12 Geo. II, c. 18, private.
  • 16. Nottingham University, Portland MSS., Pl. Ea. 9.
  • 17. Turberville, op. cit., vol. II, 1939, pp. 317–19, 346n.
  • 18. Nottingham University, Portland MSS., rental and valuation, 1798–9.
  • 19. Report from Select Committee on Town Holdings, 1887, pp. 446–7.
  • 20. Survey of London, vol. XXXII, 1963, p. 453.
  • 21. Ibid., p. 231.
  • 22. Marion E. Grew, William Bentinck and William III, 1924, p. 416; A. S. Turberville, A History of Welbeck Abbey and its Owners, vol. II, 1939, p. 15.
  • 23. B.M., Egerton MS. 1708, f. 276.
  • 24. Nottingham University, Portland MSS., William Blake's account, 1759.
  • 25. P.R.O., T48/45.
  • 26. R.I.B.A., letter, S. P. Cockerell, 1796, in 'Society of Architects' MSS. (Information kindly supplied by Miss P. Metcalf).