Grosvenor Street: Life in Austen’s Mayfair
By Ali Scott, author of A Wound Deeper Than Pride
One of the most exciting challenges when writing historical fiction is imagining life in a different era. In A Wound Deeper Than Pride, the story takes place at Darcy’s house which, for the purpose of this novella, is in Grosvenor Street. This street is not fictitious; it is a real location used by Austen in Pride and Prejudice, and would surely have connotated wealth and status to her readers. The real Grosvenor Street is situated in Mayfair, an area of London that was favoured by the upper echelons of Georgian society. Today, properties on Upper Grosvenor Street have an average value of £3.1 million, and Mayfair remains one of London’s most exclusive and affluent areas.
Mayfair and the Grosvenor Estate
Despite its wealthy inhabitants, Mayfair’s origins are surprisingly humble. The area takes its name from the notorious May Fair held annually in the empty fields around Piccadilly until it was eventually banned for causing a public nuisance. During the Georgian period, this area of London saw successive bursts of building work, and it rapidly became synonymous with impressive townhouses and private squares. Seven estates made up the Mayfair area. Millfield, Burlington, Conduit Mead, Albemarle, Curzon, Berkeley, and Grosvenor - their names a reference to the owners who developed them.
Grosvenor Street, the scene of a terrible accident in A Wound Deeper Than Pride, is named after the Grosvenor family, who acquired the land through the marriage of twenty-one-year-old Cheshire baronet Sir Thomas Grosvenor to twelve-year-old heiress Mary Davies in 1677. Their son, Sir Robert Grosvenor, was the driving force behind the estate’s construction. In 1711, he obtained an Act of Parliament, which permitted him to build streets and grant leases for housing. It was a further ten years before construction commenced, with Grosvenor Street being one of the first streets to be laid down.
At the heart of Sir Robert’s plans was Grosvenor Square. The largest of all the Mayfair squares, its oval garden was a new design. It was in these fashionable corners of London that a new aristocracy emerged. Followers of fashion, lovers of art, obsessed with their reputation, they flocked to Mayfair, eager to be part of London’s bustling cultural scene.
‘A wretched attempt at something extraordinary’
Houses in Mayfair were built to impress, and the Grosvenor estate was no exception. The builder, John Simmons, took the plots around the square and attempted to create London’s first palace front, a long terrace of houses designed to appear as one continuous building with a large house in the middle. Despite Georgian architecture critic James Ralph’s scathing review, this ‘wretched attempt’ proved to be popular. The central house, Number 19, was soon inhabited by the 7th Earl of Thanet, who paid £7,500 (the equivalent of about £11 million today) for the property. A nine-year-old Mozart would even perform there in 1764.
Interestingly, for all their grandeur, these houses were built at speed, and would often require renovation or repair. There was a considerable variation in size amongst the initial wave of houses built on the estate. On Grosvenor Street, the frontages ranged from seventeen to fifty-five feet. Most of the houses had three storeys and garrets with façades of two-tone brickwork in shades of red and brown. Over time, houses would be demolished, or the frontages modified to suit the taste of the occupier. Accounts of these refurbishments give us an insight into life in a Mayfair household. In 1820, the upholsterer David Taylor of Wardour Street received £1163 for his work at Number 20 Grosvenor Square:
‘...Curtains and chairs in the first-floor double drawing-room were yellow, of silk or satin: elsewhere, there were green silk curtains in the library, green wallpaper in an upper front room… and green-painted walls in the hall and staircase compartment. Furniture in mahogany, ormolu, buhl, ebony, marble, brass and satinwood are mentioned in the great drawing-room, and 'Grecian lamps' on the ground floor.’
In A Wound Deeper Than Pride, Darcy surprises Georgiana by redecorating her room. It is a task that he feels ill-equipped for, but fortunately the unflappable Mrs Annesley is on hand to oversee such matters!
‘A spacious, well-built Street, inhabited chiefly by People of Distinction'
It is impossible to talk of the Grosvenor estate without taking a closer look at some of its inhabitants. The London Season, which mirrored the Parliamentary sessions, ran from November until the summer recess, brought an influx of rich, well-connected families flooding London. Mayfair, with its proximity to the West End and Parliament was just the place for those who wished to enjoy a varied social calendar.
Out of the initial householders on the estate, 117 of the 277 houses belonged to the titled classes. These were especially concentrated in Grosvenor Square. By 1790, out of its forty-seven householders, thirty-one were titled, and these included three dukes, six earls and a viscount. An increasing number of members of both Houses of Parliament had their town addresses on the square. Leases ranged from a part of a season to several decades, and the concentration of so many distinguished residents was something of a selling point. After spending a day touring London in 1814, the twenty-eight year old Elizabeth Chivers writes in her diary that ‘such a succession of noble squares quite astonished us.’ She notes that ‘in Grosvenor Square, Lord Fitzwilliam has a noble mansion and there are several other noblemen’s houses...’ In A Wound Deeper Than Pride, Mrs Gardiner is persuaded to allow Elizabeth and Maria Lucas the opportunity to visit Mayfair, with dramatic consequences for both young women. After tasting a life beyond the confines of Meryton, how is Elizabeth ever to return to her ‘normal’ existence?
Aside from its leaseholders, famous personages were also known to frequent Grosvenor Square. An interesting anecdote pertains to Lord Nelson, who, when dining with Mr Beckford at his residence in Grosvenor Square, called for bread. Wheat was scarce, and etiquette demanded that everyone should go without. After being respectfully informed of this by one of Mr Beckford’s servants, Nelson grew angry and called for his own attendant. Drawing forth a shilling from his pocket, he ordered for a loaf to be purchased, noting that, ‘after having fought for his bread, he thought it hard that his countrymen should deny it to him'. A date is not given for this story, but perhaps it is not necessary. Lady Emma Hamilton, Nelson’s mistress, stayed with Mr Beckford after fleeing Naples with Nelson (and her husband!) in 1800, with Nelson and his wife living in nearby Dover Street. By January 1801, Nelson’s illegitimate daughter Horatia had been born and Nelson had started proceedings to officially leave his wife. Evidently Nelson had his own reasons for visiting Mr Beckford. Nelson and Lady Hamilton’s love affair was the object of huge public interest. Yet theirs was not the only impropriety to send shockwaves through London. Mayfair, with its prominent, aristocratic inhabitants, was the focal point for many of the adultery (known as criminal conversation) cases brought to court.
In the summer of 1770 a tall man, his face pockmarked, approached a young prostitute, Elizabeth Robert in a dark London alleyway, asking her: “How do you do, my little wicked? Will you go and drink a glass of wine with me?” This man was no stranger to these dingy back streets. A frequenter of brothels, he was often found stalking the streets looking for girls, often blonde, their vermin-infested clothes ragged and dirty. Yet this was no ordinary punter looking for a cheap thrill. It was Rt Hon Richard, Lord Grosvenor, who--enormous gambling debts notwithstanding--was one of the wealthiest men in London. This encounter came to light when Grosvenor sued King George III’s brother, Henry, HRH the Duke of Cumberland, for adultery. The Duke was caught in flagrante delicto with Henrietta, Grosvenor’s wife. After being accused of adultery by a man known as ‘one of the most profligate men of his age, in what relates to women,' Henrietta sought out her husband’s prostitutes and persuaded them to testify. Sordid details of Lord Grosvenor’s sexual tastes were shared during court, scandalising the nation and whetting the public’s appetite for titillating gossip. In ‘A Wound Deeper Than Pride’, there is no hint of a scandal. Chivalrous as ever, Darcy’s only objective is to make amends to his dearest, loveliest Elizabeth--although his quest to seek out her wayward sister might cause him to walk down some unsavoury alleyways in much less esteemed parts of London!
Inglis, Lucy. Georgian London: Into the Streets.
Edward Walford, 'Grosvenor Square and its neighbourhood', in Old and New London: Volume 4 (London, 1878)
Survey of London: Volume 39, the Grosvenor Estate in Mayfair, Part 1, ed. F H W Sheppard (London, 1977),
'Grosvenor Street: Introduction', in Survey of London: Volume 40, the Grosvenor Estate in Mayfair, Part 2 , ed. F H W Sheppard 1980
A View of Grosvenor Square, London by Thomas Bowles. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
North Side of Grosvenor Square, 1800 by English School