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.
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.
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:
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:
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:
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.