A Keen Demand for Camberwells

Rosemary Hill

  • Marketable Values: Inventing the Property Market in Modern Britain by Desmond Fitz-Gibbon
    Chicago, 240 pp, £79.00, January, ISBN 978 0 226 58416 4

In the early 1970s, an archive came to light containing what seemed to be the work of a forgotten Victorian photographer called Francis Hetling. His photographs, somewhat in the style of Lewis Carroll, gave a feeling of everyday life in the 19th century. It was decided to rescue him from obscurity with an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in 1974. All was going well until a visitor to the show noticed that the child in one of the photographs was her own daughter. The picture had been taken recently in the West Country. There was embarrassment at the NPG, but ‘Hetling’ wasn’t pursued at the time. Indeed he might not have been pursued at all if the Metropolitan Police’s Art and Antiques Squad had not, a few years later, been smarting from their failure to get a conviction for the forger Tom Keating, even though Keating, at his trial in 1977, had admitted to faking 13 ‘Samuel Palmers’. As an officer said in the course of handcuffing the ‘Hetling’ artist, the police having finally tracked him down at his home in Cornwall: ‘We didn’t get Keating. We’re going to fucking get you.’

While investigating the case in London, the Cornish police visited galleries, dealers and ‘known associates’ of the suspects, including an antique-dealer friend of mine. He answered their questions as fully as he thought prudent. Then, as the police were leaving, one of them turned in the doorway, just as they do in television crime dramas where the killer question is saved until the witness has begun to relax: ‘One more thing, sir. We keep being told about the London Art Market, but we can’t find it. Could you tell us where it is?’ My friend swallowed hard. It became an anecdote. But the policeman’s question, if naive, wasn’t stupid. What, after all, is a market? This is the question at the heart of Desmond Fitz-Gibbon’s detailed and thoughtful analysis of a bewilderingly elastic concept that may refer to anything from a medieval town square to a set of algorithms, and deal in goods as tangible as carrots or as abstract as derivatives. What exactly is being exchanged, and how, may be difficult to determine.

The Hetling trial made great play with this ambiguity. John Mortimer, for the defence, asked a collector who appeared as a prosecution witness, having bought several ‘Hetlings’, why he had bought them. Was it for investment and financial gain or simply because he thought they were beautiful? The collector replied with some indignation that he had bought them for their beauty. ‘And are they any less beautiful now?’ The jury, who had followed these exchanges with close attention, frequently in fits of laughter, found themselves unable to reach a verdict and so, as the Art and Antiques Squad ground their teeth, another trial collapsed.

It might be thought that a market in ‘real estate’, defined by the OED as ‘the possession or ownership of immovable property’, would be less vulnerable to confusion or manipulation, yet, as the title of Fitz-Gibbon’s introduction, ‘Locating the Property Market’, makes clear, this is not the case. Already in the dictionary’s yoking together of ‘possession’ and ‘ownership’, which may be very different things, there is scope for doubt and dispute. Fitz-Gibbon traces the fitful emergence of the market from the late 18th century to the eve of the First World War, treating it not as an episode in economic history, but describing the historical and cultural context which can alone explain the tortuous process by which the very idea of a market in property was first established and then developed until it came to occupy its current position as a shibboleth in the British, or more particularly the English, psyche. In the background, sometimes rather too far in the background, of his account, is the 19th-century battle between trade and land, town and country, bourgeoisie and aristocracy, which from the 1820s focused on the rights of landowners, not only over their land but to the position within the ruling class their land ownership entailed. In the foreground, making up the most interesting and original part of the book, are the often neglected professionals, the auctioneers, surveyors, solicitors and estate agents whose emerging roles helped define the idea and then the mutable reality of the property market.

Fitz-Gibbon’s account begins with the rise of the auction sale as a way of exchanging goods in ‘an explicitly public forum’. If the dealings of the saleroom were not always so transparent as they might seem to the casual observer, they were much more so than the private treaty sales and ‘networks of correspondence’ through which land usually changed hands. Sale by competitive bidding was not new, and sales ‘by candle’ in the coffee houses of the late 17th and 18th centuries saw property of many sorts, books and pictures as well as land, change hands. As late as 1788 most sales took place in this way, with Garraway’s Coffee House in Exchange Alley the prime venue. There were growing numbers of complaints, however, from the auctioneers about lack of space, limited scope for advertising and a clientele that often left something to be desired, and so, gradually, dedicated auction houses began to appear. James Christie opened a saleroom in Pall Mall in 1766, and a nearby bookseller called Samuel Baker founded what became Sotheby’s, but the boom came with the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Bonham’s was founded in 1793, Phillips’s in 1796, and by 1802 the number of auctioneers in the Post Office Annual Directory had ‘nearly tripled’. Auctions became not only an acceptable means of selling almost anything, they became a spectacle.

As the largest, richest and most stable city in Europe, London was a magnet for paintings, jewellery, furniture and antiquities sold off by refugees, looted by armies or ‘salvaged’ by dealers. In such a steeply rising market the concept of ‘immovable’ property was stretched to the limit, as shiploads of stained glass, medieval tracery and woodcarvings that had once comprised entire church interiors arrived. The star collection was that of the former Duc d’Orléans, Philippe Egalité, who attempted to sell his paintings in 1792 to pay off his debts and finance his political career, which ended in 1793 at the guillotine. His collection included works by Poussin and Claude, as well as Titian’s Diana and Callisto and Venus Rising from the Sea (now in the National Gallery of Scotland), and caused a sensation. There was still no public gallery in Britain and a certain level of initiative and status was needed to penetrate the private collections on display in country houses, so sale viewings, which were almost always free, with free catalogues, were a welcome novelty. Newspapers began to talk of ‘Orleans mania’. By 1810 an auction sale was part of London life. Rudolph Ackermann’s graphic survey, The Microcosm of London, includes a scene at Christie’s, illustrated by A.C. Pugin and Thomas Rowlandson, which shows the saleroom thronged with people of all sorts and classes, most of them taking no part in the sale, having come principally to see, be seen, or get out of the cold.

Private auction houses were now responsible for more than 90 per cent of all real-estate sales. If property were to be established as a commodity, however, it had to be removed from the world of sightseeing and bric-à-brac, and so a new institution, dedicated to property sales, was brought into being. The Auction Mart in Bartholomew Lane, also drawn by Pugin and Rowlandson, is inhabited only by men, all of whom are scrutinising bills of sale and maps, glancing up at the central clock or talking in urgent knots of two or three. This was a place for serious business and it was the site of one of the earliest of several doomed attempts to establish a property market on the same basis as the stock exchange: a centralised, organised system of trading in which real estate could change hands with the same speed and simplicity as shares. The Auction Mart had some success. It took real estate out of the world of the coffee house and concentrated the market, for a while at least, in the capital. By the time Victoria became queen, London was the ‘pre-eminent destination’ for real-estate sales. Yet the troublesome questions, about exactly what was for sale and who could or should own it, persisted. The mart’s apotheosis came in September 1847 with the sale of ‘William Shakespeare’s home’ in Stratford-on-Avon. This was, on the one hand, ‘a freehold plot with a cottage and attached public house’ and, on the other, as the Athenaeum put it, ‘a dwelling which has been glorified’ by Shakespeare’s ‘familiar presence’. For such a building to have ‘found its way to the Auction Mart’, where its significance and ‘haunting memories’ were to be subjected to ‘the cant of the auctioneer’, was, the magazine considered, intolerable.

In fact, to call the house in Henley Street, with its very tenuous associations, ‘William Shakespeare’s Home’ was already to indulge in a fair amount of ‘cant’, but it had enough credibility for a hastily convened committee of enthusiasts to secure the property. It was renamed, on even slimmer evidence, ‘Shakespeare’s Birthplace’. Significantly, despite the widespread indignation reflected in the Athenaeum article, there was no attempt to buy it for the nation. The sale highlighted yet another persistent obstacle to attempts to establish a regulated market for land: the British attitude to the rights of private property. Radical suggestions for the nationalisation of all land never stood a chance, but much more modest proposals for state ownership or control over historic monuments met with an almost equal degree of resistance. The French had established the Comité des Travaux Historiques as early as 1830 – which, if anything, made British landowners even more wary of state intervention. Despite the best efforts of Ruskin, Dickens and many others, Parliament refused seven times to pass a National Monuments Preservation Bill. It was unacceptable because, as Sir John Holker, the attorney general, put it, it would be the thin end of a wedge which might extend beyond ‘druidic’ sites such as Stonehenge, always the test case, to ‘old abbeys and castles’, with private houses, and even their contents, being subject to legal constraints. Eventually this did happen, but the wedge was still very thin. The Ancient Monuments Protection Act of 1882 was too feeble to prevent the sale of Stonehenge at a public auction in Salisbury in 1915, where it was bought by Mr Cecil Chubb for £6600.

Momentum slowly built, however, and by the end of Fitz-Gibbon’s account the National Trust, established in 1895, appears as the most notable of a number of effective land preservation bodies, with William Morris’s Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings its equivalent for architecture. The concept of ‘heritage’ had been established. The idea had first been developed by Ruskin, who argued that historic sites should be preserved because they belonged ‘partly to those who built them, and partly to all the generations of mankind who are to follow’. ‘We have no right whatever to touch them,’ he went on, ‘they are not ours.’ This assertion of metaphysical rights over real estate presented a nightmare vision to anyone attempting to establish a regulated market and secure titles to land. Whether it was property of the most monumentally tangible sort, such as Stonehenge, which Mr Chubb was persuaded to donate to the nation at the end of the First World War in exchange for a knighthood, or the theologically abstract, such as the property transferred through the right of advowson, property carried with it associations, moral rights and political implications. An advowson bestows the right to appoint the vicar or rector of a parish and was often, and sometimes still is, attached to ownership of a particular property, usually the ‘big house’ on the nearest landed estate. In the summer of 1882 the Curates’ Alliance, a surprisingly dynamic body, began to organise protests against this ‘traffic in souls’. They deployed disruptive tactics such as demanding sale particulars, cross-questioning sellers and putting in spoiler bids. Mr Cheffins was the unfortunate auctioneer on the Auction Mart rostrum on 8 July when the Reverend E.G. O’Donoughue and the Reverend G. Hennessey challenged the sale of an Essex estate. The tortuous exchanges that followed in the increasingly restive saleroom were reported in detail in the press.

The Auction Mart battled on in its determination to concentrate the market and to establish it, in the form of its own imposing premises, as ‘a visible, calculable space’. Yet, as Fitz-Gibbon points out, the mart was itself an artefact, as abstract in its way as Ruskin’s conception of heritage. No piece of real estate was free of ‘family ties, neighbours, history, landscape, memory’. Even at the simplest level the analogy with stocks and shares was flawed. One share in a railway company was identical to another and the value of both would rise and fall in unison. The value of land, which might be good for farming, ripe for building, or neither, varied wildly and when it came to urban and suburban real estate in the expanding Victorian cities, the comparison became ludicrous. In 1898 ‘Expertus’, a columnist on the Property Market Review, satirised attempts to describe a stock market in property: ‘Why not carry this line of reporting a little further? Why not go just a little more into detail and tell us that there has been a keen demand for Camberwells, that the long-continued activity in Peckhams shows some signs of sagging.’

Even more fundamental were the complexities of British property law, which meant that for most of Fitz-Gibbon’s period it was all but impossible to establish ownership. Centuries of transferred rights and derivative interests, and the absence of a reliable system of mapping, had resulted in a legal ‘bricolage’. As Fitz-Gibbon writes, land ownership was a matter of legal interpretation and, as a select committee of the House of Lords was informed, most titles were so insecure as to be strictly speaking ‘unmarketable’. The situation was made more fraught by the fact that while possession of property could be easily proved on the ground, ownership could not.

The obvious answer was a centralised land register where deeds could be held and ‘retrospective title investigation’ undertaken. The other necessity was accurate mapping. England lagged behind France, Prussia and indeed Scotland on this score. Once again, however, apparently sensible recommendations, first made by a commission in 1830, met with entrenched resistance. The first register was drawn up in 1862, but registration was not compulsory and few landowners provided information. It was another expression of the English attitude to land that while compulsory purchase orders were enabling canals, roads and especially railways to plough through private property, not entirely unopposed but with a degree of general acceptance, a proposal to deposit estate deeds in a central registry was anathema. The railway companies usually paid well, but it wasn’t just a question of money. It was in principle more acceptable to sell land than to cede any rights over it to the state. There was a reluctance, reasonable enough, given the tenuous nature of titles, to trust the status of the new register, but less rational motives were equally important. The lord chancellor, Lord Cairns, explained to yet another select committee:

In the English mind … there is at bottom a most profound respect for title deeds, and … when the supreme moment comes at which a man is told that he must part with all his title deeds, and leave them in a registry office, and accept in lieu a little piece of paper … the sacrifice is too great for human nature to make.

In an imaginative attempt to calm nerves the registrar, Charles Fortescue-Brickdale, got his sister Eleanor to design a tasteful Land Certificate. It was in the Arts and Crafts style with a scrollwork border inset with the coats of arms of six lord chancellors. It made no difference. Registration was not made fully compulsory in all English counties until 1991.

Proposals for a ‘general public map’ were also unpopular. It would, its advocates promised soothingly, be nothing more than ‘a government picture of the country’ from which it would be apparent that ‘a certain field’ had its boundaries in a certain place. But since the smooth running of daily life in the country often depended on an established vagueness about exact boundaries and an acceptance of ‘local knowledge and practice’ in sales by private contract, the prospect of hard and fast lines on a map was unappealing. The system proposed by the 1862 Land Registry Act required notice of sale to be given to all adjacent properties, giving rise to a potential mare’s nest of disputes, litigation and delay. In 1870 another commission more realistically recommended that boundaries be left undefined and possession over a length of time be accepted, not as nine-tenths of the law, but as all ten.

Nowhere was the bricolage of property law, tradition, usage and convention shakier than in the determination of common land and its associated rights. Towards the end of Fitz-Gibbon’s period, as the suburbs expanded, spilling into what had once been distinct villages, the campaign to preserve commoners’ rights gave rise to a late battle in the centuries-long enclosure wars. In Clapham and Tooting, Wimbledon and Wandsworth the Commons Preservation Society defended the elusive rights of commoners. Rights over the soil usually resided with the lord of the manor, but commoners generally had rights for grazing or fuel gathering which were held by freehold, or copyhold. As the temptation to sell for development grew, so did the urgency of challenging the lord of the manor’s right to do so. The case of William James Thompson was emblematic. Thompson bought the rights for the manor of Tooting Graveney at auction for £3650 in 1861. It was cheap because as common land it had no development potential. Thompson investigated the situation to his own satisfaction and found that nearly all the supposed claims to commoners’ rights were ‘imaginary’ and that the land, now more valuable by a factor of ten, was his freehold property to dispose of as he liked. Unfortunately for him a protest meeting in Tooting to investigate his claims was attended by a large body of ‘non-fictional’ local people whose strenuous objections saved the common.

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Imaginary people, metaphysical rights, shifting boundaries: as the 19th century went on the emerging property market continued to be haunted by the intangible, although the law was at least simplified to reduce the number of titles to two, leasehold and freehold. Gradually the nature of the property on the market changed. At the beginning of the century there wasn’t much business in individual home ownership, which was still relatively uncommon. In all classes, including the aristocracy, if you wanted a town house, it was more usual to rent than to buy. As cities expanded and urban populations grew, house-hunting became an established and often dreaded ritual. The auctioneers, spotting an opportunity, began to set up sidelines in ‘estate agency’. From the beginning estate agents were mistrusted, disliked and often satirised. As the Estates Gazette reported in wounded tones in 1903, ‘the profession generally is largely discredited among the general public.’ Liked or not, however, it became a fixture as the proportion of buyers to tenants shifted. Speculative builders began offering freeholds on new developments while at the same time rent control discouraged landlords. The word ‘estates’ increasingly meant housing estates rather than country houses and land. Home ownership became the ideal, appealing to the English love of private property, a fixation not shared for the most part in France or Germany, where renting continued and continues to be common.

The Edwardian years saw a major crash in property prices. The sometimes dramatic fluctuations in value finally put paid to the Auction Mart’s ideal of a single London-based trading centre. Real estate was increasingly sold locally, where its relative value was easier to establish. Meanwhile, as home ownership became the desideratum of all but the poorest classes, ever more economic and social value was brought to bear on ever smaller pieces of property. The number of landed estates changing hands was nothing to the bulk of transactions at the Pooter end of the market. This had implications for property professionals. Surveyors and solicitors, whose role was crucial in the sale of land, were not so necessary for the conveyance of The Laurels, Holloway, ‘a nice six-roomed residence not counting basement’. Solicitors fought, successfully, to maintain their monopoly over conveyancing, thereby establishing what Avner Offer has called ‘a permanent rent-charge on the value of land and buildings’. But in the balance between physical property and its intangible associations, the ‘two narratives’ Fitz-Gibbon refers to, it was the estate agents who were indispensable to the ‘conceptual’ side of the equation, which required every property to be turned into somebody’s castle. By 1870, in ways it could not have predicted, some of the ambitions of the Auction Mart were realised. The ‘middle-class conception’ of property as ‘merely a form of wealth’ had become established.

This realisation of the market as ‘a thing’, albeit a much more amorphous and subjective thing than the stock exchange, was much accelerated by the growth of a specialist press. From the 1880s onwards the venerable Estates Gazette was joined by the Estates Journal, the Estates Chronicle, Land and the Property Market Review. The Gazette began publishing weekly reports of sales and then regular market reviews, until it achieved the ‘conceptualisation of property value as scalable to regional or even national levels’. The mainstream press followed suit. At one end of the market, Country Life, founded in 1897, was then, as now, heavily dependent on advertisements for property, while, at the other, local papers reported on the state of the market. In 1892 the Manchester Weekly Times informed readers that ‘in most parts of the country there seems to be a general belief that the market is looking up.’ By 1919 the Times was congratulating itself on being the first paper to run a ‘regular daily feature’ on the property market. As a result, it was pleased to report, ‘the public has learned to look critically at the operation [of the market and] this awakening of general interest in the property market has a definite value, for it has concentrated attention upon the investment possibilities of what had been too long regarded as concerning only a limited class.’

Thus the campaigns of the 1830s to pit trade against land, the middle classes against the aristocracy, had won a victory of a sort. In the 18th century the ownership of land conferred status, social and political power, family security and rights of inheritance, a compound of real and potential value that had now been greatly extended. The property market as Fitz-Gibbon leaves it soon after 1918 was well on the way to its present condition. The Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition was first held in 1908. The 1920s and 1930s brought the suburban dream of Metroland, and so on down to the present, when supplements in papers and magazines conjure up the property mirage with glimpses of the celebrity lifestyle, expressed in en suites and soft furnishings. On Location, Location, Location home-hunters talk earnestly about the ‘property ladder’ and the ‘wow factor’ in the way my parents talked about the damp-proof course. The home they hunt must give them everything the 18th-century landowner enjoyed: investment, security, status, a pension and something to pass on to their children – the only way the millennial generation will ever get into the property market.