Town Houses Part 3

Town Houses Part 3

In Part 2 last month, we had a look at several town houses in Brighton and Edinburgh, but for this month’s post it’s time to bring it back to London. And while in Part 1 I wrote about the three types of town houses in Georgian London, today I want to zoom out a bit and consider the three types of Georgian or pre-Georgian houses you find in modern London. For the greater London area no longer contains just Georgian town houses — it’s also expanded to include actual country houses, as well as villas. More on the difference between those in a bit.

To understand how this happens, we need to look at how London developed first. What most of us consider London (meaning greater London, the square mile plus Westminster and other surrounding areas) began the Georgian era as an extremely small portion of today’s greater London. Places like Kensington and Hampstead were rural villages.

1677 map of London

Outside the developed area, as was the case everywhere in England, there were villages and country estates. In the Georgian era in particular, though, it came to be every popular to come to town for the “Season,” which was generally when Parliament was in session. Some people came for the politics, but a huge social scene also established itself in the wake of the politics, formed of coffee houses, theatres, clubs like White’s and Boodle’s, pleasure gardens like Vauxhall and Ranelagh, and other places of public entertainment like Almack’s and the Pantheon.

There was greater demand for housing up and down the social scale, and so owners of estates near the city began to sell their land for development. London did not by any means spread evenly — it went estate by estate. One thing I hadn’t realized about these developments until I began reading Jerry White’s excellent London in the 18th Century is that these estates were built as villages in themselves, with churches, markets, inns, taverns, coffee houses, mews and stabling, and housing not just for aristocrats and gentry, but for the tradespeople who supported them. In Mayfair, you can still see a former officer’s mess from the troops that were quartered there, while in the Shepherd Market area there you get a sense of where the necessary butchers, grocers, bakers, and other tradespeople plied their trade, supporting the neighbourhood. It’s full of narrow alleys and little shops, very different from the grand terraces I think of when I think of Mayfair.

The Grenadier, once officers’ quarters, now a pub tucked away in a Mayfair mews
Inside the Grenadier pub
Shepherd Market, Mayfair
Shepherd Market, Mayfair
“Mayfair’s Oldest Wine Lodge.” Some day I’m going to eat here out of equal parts curiosity about Mexican-Polish fusion food and wanting to see what the interior looks like.
Elsewhere in Mayfair, here’s a pretty typical mews. In the Georgian era these houses would have held horses, carriages, grooms, and coachmen.
While this looks much like the other mews…
…the name Red Lion Yard hints that a coaching inn was located here…
…while elsewhere is an extant coaching inn building, now the Coach and Horses pub.
Inside the Coach and Horses.

And so, estate by estate, London grew. White quotes the Richard Steele play The Lying Lover, where a young man just down from university is asked if the town is not “mightily increas’d” since he was last there, and responds, “Ay, indeed, I need not have been so impatient to have left Oxford; had I staid a Year longer, they had builded to me.” You can get a sense of this in Rocque’s map from the middle of the 18th century:

London 1741-45

In time, of course, would come the railway, which prompted development even further out, for now workers could commute to the city by train but live in towns with a bit more green space. Even the Georgians, though, were doing some flavor of this. At a certain distance from the city, you can find houses that were built or remodeled specifically to give their owners a sort of country escape from the town. Some of these could be as large and as grand as what we would consider a country house to be, and they served a similar purpose in hosting house parties. The difference was, these houses were purpose built (or acquired and converted) to entertain for short durations — one might go out for a few days, or even just overnight for a ball. Another key difference is that they did not have supporting land, merely enough grounds for the owner’s pleasure.These were generally houses built by those with income from other sources, who wanted a large house for entertaining and wanted to escape the London fug, but chose to locate conveniently close to town — many of them in the Richmond and Twickenham area, where the Thames gave them an easy route to their houses. I’ve loosely dubbed them villas, as many were built during a time when the Italian villa was a big influence on English architecture (tempered by the English climate, of course).

Here are some examples:

Marble Hill House, in the English Palladian villa style. It was built by Henrietta Howard, King George II’s mistress.
The beautifully situated Queen’s House in Greenwich is probably the most famous of the English villas.
It was built for Queen Anne of Denmark, consort of James I, and was a groundbreaking piece of architecture by Inigo Jones, setting the trend for the English villa.
It’s as beautiful inside as it is outside.
This staircase is still breathtaking even in our modern world…I have to imagine it completely blew people’s minds, back then.
I showed the library at Kenwood in my Part 2 post, where I described it as a country house that’s been swallowed by London, but in truth its use was again more as a villa, a place to escape from the London air and entertain.
The Earl of Mansfield, who purchased the house and hired Robert Adam to remodel it, was the fourth son of a Scottish viscount, and a barrister, judge, and eventually Lord Chief Justice, as well as a member of Parliament. The “bones” of the house are thought to date to 1616, when it was built by the King’s Printer.
Osterley Park is another house with older bones that it appears. It began life as an Elizabethan estate manor house, but when it came into the hands of Sir Francis Child, of Child’s Bank, it moved more into villa territory. It was also remodeled by Robert Adam.
Courtyard at Osterley Park.
Entrance hall at Osterley Park
This long gallery is a clue that Osterley Park was an Elizabethan house given a new facade and updated interiors.
Robert Adam’s famous Etruscan dressing room at Osterley Park.

I got a sense of what Osterley Park must have looked like pre-makeover when I visited Eastbury Manor last year. On the other side of London, far from the fashionable getaway houses of the rich, the house was already in a state of dilapidation by the 18th century, and was ultimately saved by the National Trust. It is, then, one of those places modern London has entirely absorbed, which makes for a very strange approach to the house, through a very run-of-the-mill neighbourhood:

The very strange approach to Eastbury Manor, in Barking.
As you get closer you see this very Elizabethan manor house has been lurking at the end of the drive.
From the back, you can see the courtyard.
And inside some incredible period features like this fireplace.
And this incredible timber frame ceiling.

Meanwhile, this 360 of the courtyard shows that its bones and even its layout aren’t actually that different from Osterley Park:

I have to admit, when I started on the topic of town houses, I didn’t think I would have this many posts, but I keep thinking about things I want to write about! I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at the development of London, and the three types of historic houses in modern London: the true town house, the villa, and the overrun estate manor.

Next time I’ll be back with more about what these houses are used for today.

14 Responses to Town Houses Part 3

  1. Wow! So many fantastic pictures and interesting information. I felt like I was right there looking at your post. Thanks so much!

  2. I love this post of pictures of places the upper class people of the time would live in and have parties. This helps me to visualize places when I read the Austen inspired novels Thank you!

  3. I would love to travel with you one day! What great pictures and the details…just love them. That staircase and balustrade is exquisite. But what I would really like to do is have a pint in the Grenadier Pub!

  4. What beautiful pics! I love the pic of the Etruscan room the couple’s in the pics on the wall are neat!

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