Gilded Drainpipes

E.S. Turner

  • The London Rich: The Creation of a Great City from 1666 to the Present by Peter Thorold
    Viking, 374 pp, £25.00, June 1999, ISBN 0 670 87480 9
  • The Rise of the Nouveaux Riches: Style and Status in Victorian and Edwardian Architecture by Mordaunt Crook
    Murray, 354 pp, £25.00, May 1999, ISBN 0 7195 6040 3

My worthiest ancestor, who in 1780 saved London from desolation – as I like to think – by ordering his redcoat militia to fire on the mob in the Gordon Riots, had another claim to notice. As a sheriff of London, Sir Barnard Turner was instrumental in abolishing Tyburn as a place of execution. In so doing he ended the tumultuous turnout of ruffians, whores and honest citizens who cheered, or execrated, the deathcart on its way from Newgate along Tyburn Road, now Oxford Street, to the gallows ground now known as Marble Arch. His action sprang from a moral impulse and not, I am convinced, from any desire to raise property values in the area known as Tyburnia. However, I gather from The London Rich that the ending of this long-standing nuisance was much valued by the hard-pressed aristocracy who, fleeing inner-city squalor, were seeking to build a new residential area north of Oxford Street. Only a generation later Macaulay, speaking on the Reform Bill, enthused over ‘that immense city which lies to the north of Great Russell Street and Oxford Street, a city superior in size and in population to the capitals of many mighty kingdoms; and probably superior in opulence, intelligence and general respectability to any city in the world’. This was pitching it a bit strong, though not for Macaulay.

There was no point in being filthily rich unless one could put a distance between oneself and the poor. Even inferior tradesmen had to be kept at bay. The Great Fire of London – the point at which Peter Thorold’s book begins – led to an outflow of the dingier homeless from the City westward. Some were absorbed in rookeries and Alsatias, packed with thieves and noseless beggars, or in the sizable slum which adjoined Whitehall. There was no welcome for them in the West End (founder: Henry Jermyn, Earl of St Albans). In any event, by this time the heart of London, that ‘flower of cities all’, had become a poisonous place for the rich, as the dwellers in those great riverfront palaces, York House, Northumberland House, Exeter House and others, had discovered. The Thames was a grand latrine and at times a vile smog rendered preachers invisible in their pulpits. New living room was imperative. Any expansion had to be to the north and west; the capital city was shamefully deficient in bridges to the south and the watermen were keen to keep it so. Thorold’s book charts in meticulous detail how the rich and their contractors set about engulfing pastures, market gardens, swamps, hunting country and hill villages, leaving their old palaces and mansions to be turned into tenements, schools or lunatic asylums, or to be pulled down for spoil.

The Duke of Chandos was the wonder of this expanding age, a blue-blooded businessman whose wealth had come mainly from pillaging the office of Paymaster to the Army and investment in the South Sea Company. At Edgware, well clear of the stench of London, he built himself the Brobdingnagian palace of Canons, employing ninety-odd staff, a guard of Chelsea Pensioners and Handel as director of music. Pope mocked Canons in ‘Timon’s Villa’: ‘Is this a dinner? This a genial room?/No, ’tis a temple, and a hecatomb.’ Chandos lost close on a hundred million pounds in today’s money in the South Sea crash, which by no means cleaned him out. Canons, however, was demolished after 25 years, having lasted 5 years longer than the palace of 101 hearths – ‘the most magnificent house in England’, according to Evelyn – with which the Earl of Clarendon had sought to dignify Piccadilly. Chandos had to abandon two half-built houses dominating Cavendish Square, north of Oxford Street, but still retained a mansion of 50 rooms in St James’s Square, along with other properties. As a man of commerce he invested in everything from coal to oysters, from soap to slaving, none of which commended him to Old Money. The dukes of Richmond, descended from a royal mistress, notoriously reaped a shilling on every chaldron of coals shipped from Newcastle, but that did not count as trade. Nor was it trade when a duke exacted royalties from every ton of the black stuff on which he sat.

The South Sea Bubble was a severe setback for the area that was to become Macaulay’s new town. Thanks to cycles of boom and bust, bankruptcies and disastrous fires, it was fifty years before Cavendish Square could fill up with peers, bishops, generals and prime ministers. Nearby was Portman Square, another highly-sought rectangle, the contractor for which was John Elwes, scion of a family of congenital and pathological misers, himself one of the London rich. For a long period these proud squares stood incongruously on the edge of open country, highwayman-haunted. There was much to be said for a mansion in Grosvenor Square, in the relative safety of Mayfair, where in 1781 Henry Thrale, the brewer, was the only resident businessman. Brewing had always enjoyed a certain respectability.

The South Sea Company might have collapsed, but the Turkey Company, the East India Company and the Royal Africa Company were going strong. Nabobs from India and plantation-owners from the West Indies, along with admirals loaded down with prize money, poured their wealth into London, to the mounting dismay of an aristocracy whose wealth was earned by bedding heiresses. No slavemaster had a higher scorn for aristocrats than the promiscuous Sir William Beckford, the exceedingly rich Lord Mayor of London who complained to Horace Walpole that the air of Richmond was so bad that 12 of his natural children had died there; to which one can only add that they would have died faster in the West Indies.

East of Macaulay’s new town the ducal Bedfords were building up Bloomsbury, the pride of which was Bedford Square. It used to be said that the Bedfords – who did fine work draining the Fens – could afford to throw £200,000 annually into the Thames without any ill effect on their fortunes. Bloomsbury was as keen as the grander areas to exclude the vulgar, which it did with barriers manned by surly beadles. Well into the 19th century, many abodes of the rich, notably Devonshire House in Piccadilly, had walls so high that strangers could have mistaken them for barracks. One observer thought the fortifications of the West End rich were so high and mighty ‘as to engender the belief that the thieves of England go about their business of housebreaking with scaling ladders, pickaxes, guns and other formidable implements of destruction’. It was not till 1890 that the Bloomsbury beadles were sent packing, much cursed by office workers rushing for their trains.

The badlands along the Thames between Whitehall and Millbank resisted development for many generations. They were part of the Grosvenor (later Westminster) estate left by the young heiress Mary Davies in the 17th century, together with the Mayfair lands which were the first to be exploited. The story of poor addled Mary as the wellhead of wealth scarcely to be imagined is part of legend. To the admirable Thomas Cubitt goes the major credit for replacing Mary’s Thameside swamps with the patrician squares and terraces of Belgravia. Meanwhile John Nash, no foe to the rich, was erecting the haughty villas of Regent’s Park and designing a far finer Regent Street than the one we know.

Long after the nabobs and planters came the ‘Randlords’, the ‘discoverers of nuggets’, as Disraeli called them. They arrived just as the great landowners were suffering mightily in the agricultural depression, many of them now forced to give up living in London, or driven to marrying American heiresses. Some had picked up useful sums by obstructing the railways and the Duke of Northumberland pocketed £500,000 (or £29 million) by allowing a road to run through the site of Northumberland House, near Charing Cross (the sum that was awarded earlier to the dukes of Richmond for giving up their levy on coals). By now the London rich tended to live in a less spacious fashion, packing high luxury into a smaller compass. The richest man of his day, Lord Ellerman, the shipping magnate, contented himself with what his son-in-law called ‘a stuffy old museum’ in South Audley Street, Mayfair. But the vast Stafford House built for the Duke of Sutherland who did so much to cleanse the Highlands of its aboriginal inhabitants still flourished, a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace. It was this establishment, now Lancaster House, which so impressed Queen Victoria that she said to the second duchess: ‘I come from my house to your palace.’

The London Rich has much useful information on the nature of leases, the complications of which often throttled the aspirations of the most powerful and headstrong. Urban demographers can trace in its pages the movements, migrations and preferred areas of newcomers. Planters and nabobs, we learn, tended to find houses in Soho Square or to colonise Marylebone. Denmark Hill became ‘Little Germany’. Jews sought out the once Arcadian village heights of Islington, Hampstead and Highgate. To Park Lane went the Randlords and flamboyants like the ill-fated Barney Barnato, giving that thoroughfare (formerly Tyburn Lane) an indelibly bad image in literature. There the plutocrats rubbed shoulders with the Napoleon of Finance, Sir Edward Cassel, Edward VII’s crony and investment tipster; the man who, when asked by a lady what he thought of her lapis lazuli necklace, reputedly said: ‘Very pretty stuff. I’ve got a room made of it.’ Thorold is never too occupied with population shifts and infillings to overlook the foibles of the times. He reminds us of the etiquette of Pepys’s day which required gentlemen to lift their hats whenever a nobleman’s name was mentioned, or when he sneezed, and of the little-known door-knocking code in Regency times: three raps for a gentleman, six for a knight, long and hard knocking for a nobleman. Or was the American visitor who reported this rule having his leg pulled?

Those rich thrusters of the Grande Epoque, the self-made men destined to become the new ruling class, come in for expert dissection in The Rise of the Nouveaux Riches by Mordaunt Crook, who is primarily concerned with their architectural tastes. Here we meet not only the men whose millions came from steel, railways and beer, but those who rose on pills, cannon balls, guano, mustard, malted milk, chocolate, feathers, buttons, carpets, alpaca and funeral crêpe. Alan Bennett has told of a scholarly-looking gentleman who, after a visitor’s tour of Buscot Park, asked the lady on duty ‘Could you tell me, please, how the first Lord Faringdon made his money?’ only to receive a vinegary ‘I’ve no idea.’ The helpful answer, available here, would have been that Faringdon, son of a printer’s reader, was a financier specialising in South American railways and one of the ‘Fathers’ of the Stock Exchange.

‘This is not just a book about the rich; it is a book about the very rich,’ the author warns. That is to say, it is not about upstarts with white balls on their gateposts and the rudiments of a porte-cochère, but about men with mile-long drives, imperial staircases, built-in winter gardens and dining halls where ortolans met their hecatomb in the shimmer of onyx and ormolu. It is about men who bought mountains and islands in Scotland, complete with their populations; men who (like Sir Thomas Lipton) put their yachts at the king’s disposal, spawning jokes like the Kaiser’s ‘My uncle has gone boating with his grocer’; men who, whether Christians or not, virtuous or otherwise, found livings for innumerable grateful parsons; men who could afford to gild their drainpipes and paint their aeroplanes in Eton colours; men whose deaths were followed by the sacking of up to a hundred gardeners; men who were models for Augustus Melmotte, Trollope’s over-mighty rascal, and who gave the lie to Vespasian’s ‘Money does not stink’; but also men who, let us not forget, often atoned for their wealth, and the ruthlessness expended in winning it, by heroic feats of philanthropy.

‘Nowadays’ the Countess of Cardigan said in 1911, ‘money shouts and birth and breeding whisper.’ The arrivistes were freely signing up noblemen as directors of their companies (‘guinea pigs’). They nourished strong territorial aspirations: ‘out of more than two hundred men who died worth a million pounds or more between 1809 and 1914, fewer than two dozen denied their families the luxury of a country house and estate.’ They had long been queuing up for titles. Between 1886 and 1914 about two hundred non-landed peers were created; and in 1905 the Tories nominated eight millionaires for baronetcies. The plutocrats had turned Parliament into the richest senate in the world: ‘of the two hundred or so full-blown millionaires alive in Britain at the turn of the century, nearly one-third – that is, sixty or so – were sitting together in the House of Commons.’ In 1911 when Asquith in his clash with the Lords threatened to create 245 new Liberal peers, the proposed list consisted very largely of nouveaux riches; among them were two tea tycoons, a chemicals heir who was Asquith’s brother-in-law, the proprietors of the News of the World and Tit-Bits, and Sir Edgar Speyer, the pro-German banker who was hounded from public life during the Kaiser’s war.

As an architectural specialist, Mordaunt Crook is at his happiest describing the often preposterous palaces the arrivistes erected, or restyled. In 1832 a handful of dukes – Rutland, Argyll and Buckingham among them – had proposed to fire their private cannon at Reform mobs, if the need arose. That danger had subsided, but not the taste for dwelling behind turrets and battlements. For most, however, the preference was some form of Classicism, which was seen as the mark of a gentleman. French Classicism, in variable forms, was the choice of the super-rich, such as the Rothschilds at Waddesdon, Mentmore and Tring; but Château Impney in Worcestershire showed what a relatively humble salt manufacturer could do when bitten by the Gallic bug. Other styles ranged from Wrenaissance to High Victorian Rogue, classifications with an Osbert Lancaster touch to them. One famously over-wrought venture was Overstone Park, built in ‘a mongrel François Premier mode’ for a banker, or rather for his wife, who had an ‘extraordinary enthusiasm’ for building. ‘I am utterly ashamed of it,’ Lord Overstone said. ‘I grieve to think I shall hand such an abortion to my successors. We might as well have undertaken to whitewash a blackamoor.’ In the same over-the-top class was Halton House, an intimidating example of le goût Rothschild, described by Lady Frances Balfour as a combination of a French château and a gambling house – ‘Eye hath not seen nor pen can write the ghastly coarseness of the sight.’ Its proprietor, Baron Alfred de Rothschild, liked to admire it from a dogcart drawn by two zebras. His other fancy was to conduct a Hungarian band in the winter garden.

If Classicism was the vernacular in England, Scots Baronial was the required whimsy north of the Border, though not for Andrew Carnegie, whose massy Skibo Castle was ‘aesthetically parasitic’. At Stornoway the opium trader Sir James Matheson erected a battlemented fortalice, Lews Castle, above the harbour. ‘Thanks to the fondness of the Chinese for narcotics,’ we are told, ‘the crofters of Lewis were fed during years of famine.’ Little admired by crofters was the mock-Tudor Kinloch Castle built for the engineer Sir George Bullough on the isle of Rum (one of the ‘Cocktail group’ of Rum, Eigg and Muck), where ‘on festive occasions the tranquil air of the island was riven by the sound of an electric organ.’ Lord Leverhulme, another mighty edifier, and owner of three Scots islands, built himself a town on Harris called Leverborough, a byword for hubris and ingratitude.

As guests of the Haute Juiverie, Sidney and Beatrice Webb suffered agonies of conscience. They dined at Sir Julius Wernher’s Luton Hoo, which they denounced as ‘a machine for the futile expenditure of wealth’, and were equally appalled at the same magnate’s Bath House in Piccadilly, where ‘there might as well have been a Goddess of Gold erected for overt worship.’ The Webbs’ conscience was, of course, equally tortured when they dined with old nobility at Alnwick Castle, seat of the Northumberlands. Among the snipings at Jewish ostentation in the Vale of Aylesbury comes this very civil tribute from the editor of the Fortnightly Review, T.H.S. Escott: ‘The Israelitish annexation of Buckinghamshire and its modish hospitalities have given the toiling masses of the country no reason to regret the replacement of old landlords by new.’

Why was it, the author wonders, that the very rich tended to employ second-rank architects? Was it because first-rank men were less biddable? Or were they all too busy designing churches? The fun started when amateur architects, in the form of over-enthusiastic wives, chose to compete. As Crook doubtless knows, earlier in the 19th century the talented Duchess of Rutland, once her Duke and James Wyatt had died, rebuilt Belvoir Castle after a great fire with the aid of her equally talented chaplain, in a romantic Camelot style very popular with film producers. Many a parvenu must have wished for a wife like that, or indeed a chaplain.

The Rise of the Nouveaux Riches is an enlightening and very thorough work which gives much shameful pleasure. It touches on many of the areas featured in The London Rich. Commenting on Samuel Courtauld’s occupation of an Adam-designed mansion in Portman Square, the author improves on an old jingle: ‘When Adam built and Courtauld span, who was then the gentleman?’ His eager industry sometimes leads to a congestion of names, earnings, occupations and acquisitions, but this is more than offset by entertaining forays into clubland and the Royal Yacht Squadron. Of especial interest is the account of how the magnates of the industrial north, keen to escape the stench of their chemicals and the pyramids of their waste, took to building villas and even founding fiefdoms in the Lake District.

The last of 108 often boggling photographs shows the orgulous blue-and-silver ‘Amalienberg’ dining-room designed by Stéphane Boudin of Paris for Sir Henry Channon’s house in Belgrave Square. ‘Frankly, it is a stage set,’ we read, ‘a fabrication of crystal and mirrored glass – “baroque and rococo and what-ho and oh-no-no”.’ ‘Chips’ Channon, married to a Guinness heiress, regarded this as ‘London’s loveliest room’ and it was there that he entertained his monarch, if Edward VIII can really be called one, with Wallis Simpson. It might be unfair to suggest that the quality of the room outclassed that of the company. As somebody sang in Iolanthe,

Hearts just as pure and fair
May beat in Belgrave Square
As in the lowly air
Of Seven Dials.