Belgravia 2 BW

The Myth that made Millions

The Story of Belgravia

Belgravia was indeed a Myth that made Millions. It was a fabricated name to which various attributes of grandeur were given, through sales-speak and word of mouth among new and prospective residents, and through the ambience created by its architecture. Belgravia is  situated between Sloane Street and the Kings Road to the west, Hyde Park to the north and Victoria station/ Buckingham Palace Road to the south. When developed, crucial to its instant success was its close proximity to Buckingham Palace – and few people haven’t heard of that!  

The name, declared historian Hermione Hobhouse, was one of the few ingenious and pretentious names dreamt up by Regency developers which has survived. The name derives from a village in Cheshire called Belgrave, part of the Eaton Hall estate, owned by the Dukes of Westminster who also owned the land in west London on which Belgravia was built.

Development started in the 1820s and by 1851 the area was clearly a success, as a Mrs Gascoigne, resident of Lowdness Terrace Belgravia declared in her 80-page poem about the place, in which she described every aspect of the neighbourhood, exclaiming:

Such was Belgravia once – a waste unknown!

Behold that desert now – a gorgeous town!

On every side, before admiring eyes,

New squares appear- fresh palaces arise! 

The myth has carried on to the present day. In 2016 the author Julian Fellowes published a novel called ‘Belgravia’ loosely based on the types of people who came to live there, all about class, intrigue, servants, romance and social climbing. It was then made into the TV series in the style of the Downton Abbey series. 

As Mrs Gascoigne’s poem suggested, the area had indeed been a desert. Much of it had been low-lying and covered with lagoon-like swampy marshland, with a series of fields used for grazing and osier beds (for making baskets)and intersected by footpaths;  parts were called the Neathouses, and were used as market gardens.  But all that was to change when a certain Mary Davies, scrivener’s daughter aged 12 married Sir Thomas Grosvenor and brought with her all this land, a huge acreage, covering what is today Pimlico, Belgravia (both comprising Five Fields), and parts of Mayfair. 

The stage was now set for what we see today in this part of west London but the inheritance was saddled with many lease issues which made it difficult to develop the land; this took over a century to resolve. However, by the early 1800’s, after the end of the Napoleonic wars, when many aristocrats were keen to move westwards from central London to pastures new and healthier, the Grosvenor family knew that time was ripe for development and so they sprang  into action.

At this time, Sir Thomas Grosvenor and Mary Davies’ descendent, Sir Robert Grosvenor, decided to restore both the family home in Cheshire, Eaton Hall and developed Mayfair, Belgravia and Pimlico with  help of various architects and developers but particularly with the help of a certain Thomas Cubitt, master builder, in respect of these London developments.

Talking of whom, back in the television series Belgravia, lead character James Trenchard says to Thomas’s brother, William, at the exclusive Athenaeum club off the Mall,   ‘you are great public figures’ referring to William and his brother Thomas.This was indeed the case, particularly with Thomas. 

Born into a poor family near Norwich in 1788, William, Thomas and Lewis’s father was a carpenter who had moved the family to London in search of work. Thomas also became a carpenter and he had to go to sea to help save the family from destitution. On his return from India, he set up business near Gray’s Inn Road in Holborn in 1809, and went into partnership with his two brothers William and Lewis.

Eventually, Thomas decided to go it alone as a spec builder, whereby he took considerable risk fronting up new developments. He started small in Highbury, Newington Green and Barnsbury but his first really big project was for the Duke of Bedford and Lord Southampton in 1824 developing Bloomsbury at Tavistock Square and Woburn Place. According to the History or Russell Square 

“With his own permanent paid craftsmen and workshops his houses represented a level of style and quality unprecedented among other speculative builders).

History of Russell Square

This was unusual. Mass building for the upper classes, and of quality, was not something people were used to. Till then, style, design and comfort, and reliability of the building trades, was largely the prerogative of the aristocracy. And Cubitt’s building methods, appointing tradesmen onto his payroll, was, for the times, a completely novel idea in the British building industry.

In 1825 Thomas Cubitt started negotiations with the Grosvenors to develop Mayfair and Five fields (Belgravia and Pimlico), with Belgravia starting first.

The original plan for development started with the Grosvenor estate office who leased the land originally to three separate builders: Thomas Cubitt, who took 19 acres, and Seth Smith and Joseph Cundy. Cubitt was continuously at work in the area from 1825 to his death in 1855 

Partnership working ensued. Cubitt applied to Parliament to carry out the paving lighting and many other amenities. The Grosvenor estate were included as an interested party on this application. A committee was set up with appointed trustees to ensure that the infrastructure was in place for the area.

Belgrave Square was at the centre of the new suburb and was laid out in 1826 spanning 10 acres.In August 1825 it was agreed that the Haldimand syndicate (William Haldimand was a banker who had become a director of the Bank of England at age 25), would take Cubitt’s 3 terraces at Belgrave Square and develop them in more detail – the architect here was George Basevi Junior, probably the famous architect, John Soane’s, most brilliant pupil. The syndicate also took most of Seth Smith’s part of Belgrave Square. This key agreement was complemented by an approach, again offsetting risk, whereby three out of the four corners had plots leased to important individual to build their own villas.

By his agreement with Haldimand, Cubitt ensured that he cleverly offset his risk in the Belgravia development but protected for himself an income stream. The crucial thing here was that Cubitt was still to receive ground rent from Haldimand, and his risk was significantly reduced at a time in the late 1820s and early 30’s when there was a depression.

Belgrave Square attracted the most attention as it was expensive and the most fashionable part of the area. The streets and squares around were also an attractive choice to people of different income levels but all seeking the same thing: social recognition and proximity to Buckingham Palace. Indeed, Queen Victoria’s mother moved into number 36 Belgrave Square in 1840. 

Basevi’s design principle was to make the four terraces seem to be in unity, although slightly different; completely stuccoed, with projecting central blocks and Corinthian pillars with elaborate stucco decoration such as Grecian urns above the attic storey. Basevi kept strict control over the several builders who came to work in the Square, enhancing the design continuity. 

Following on from the centre piece Belgrave Square, the development took place of Wilton Square and Grosvenor Square to the north, Lowdness Square Gardens and Cadogan Place to the west, and then Eaton Square and Chester Square to the south, completing the overall set piece. 

Eaton Square was designed with a garden in front of each of three terraces all developed by Cubitt, with runs of terraced housing at either end. The third terrace breaks away from the Greek to copy the Italianate style one finds for example at the Reform Club on Pall Mall designed by Charles Barry. Seth Smith and Joseph Smith – with another builder – built Chester Square as ‘second division’ housing. In those days, developers were quite happy to be up front about the different classes they were targeting!

Through traffic was banned by barriers and top hatted heavies. Public houses and shops were side-lined to places like Charles, Pont Street and Elizabeth Street. Seth Smith built a huge furniture warehouse for the wealthy at the Pantechnicon in Motcomb Street, no doubt with an eye to the new residents.

Joseph Cundy’s brother Thomas developed several churches in the area, as the church was the only public building there was an obligation to provide in Georgian development – often  by donating the land or paying for building works.  

 Over the years, inevitably, the area has changed, though the overall structure and appearance has not. There are still men in top hats hanging around, but the area is not closed to traffic; in fact the route around Belgrave Square is used as a through route north. The area has become less residential and there are many embassies, especially around Belgrave Square. The ambience has changed and, except perhaps around Elizabeth Street, the atmosphere is somewhat restrained.

Famous people lived in these terraces, from writers such as Ian Fleming of James Bond fame, to celebrities/ politicians such as Lord Boothby, who mixed with the gangster Kray twins, to the Beatles’ Manager Brian Epstein, and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. There are many tales for a tour guide to tell about Belgravia!  

 Ex-Prime Minister’s wife, Samantha Cameron, based her first shop for her fashion label Cefinn in the Elizabeth Street shopping area in Belgravia, selling to affluent customers – a sign that Belgravia has retained its allure despite the fact that the Grosvenor estate feels the need to have a regeneration focus on the area. A recent Guardian article on the subject states that the average shopping basket checks out at £360.Cameron is at pains to downplay how posh it is, but who could deny such a thing when we are in Belgravia, the Myth that made Millions.


Post: Barbara Wright

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