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.

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