A short history of Belgravia
Belgravia is an area in the south west of London known for its concentration of large mansions, wealthy residents and foreign embassies. However, less than 200 years ago the area was a marshy wasteland frequented by vagrants and criminals. How did it make this transformation?
In 1677, the 200 acre plot was acquired by Sir Thomas Grosvenor upon his marriage to Mary Davies (the niece of Hugh Audley; who had purchased the land from the monarchy in the early 1600’s). This added to his already impressive 100 acre plot in Mayfair. And today, the Grosvenor family still own these 300 acres of prime London real estate, valued at around £10 billion.
A catalyst for the transformation was the conversion of nearby Buckingham House (or Queens House) to Buckingham Palace by King George IV – starting in 1820. This gave a lift to the area and an associated opportunity for property development. This was seized upon by Sir Robert Grosvenor, the 1st Marquess of Westminster.
A strategic plan was drawn up to convert the marshy (clay rich) land into a vast high-end residential estate. The work started in 1820 and continued for nearly forty years. Ingeniously, the underlying clay was used to make bricks on site and the fill-in was spoil from the excavation of St Katherine’s Dock in the City happening over the same period. Nearly all of the buildings are covered in ‘stucco’; which is the name given to fine plaster painted white.
Sir Robert Grosvenor hired Thomas Cundy as the chief designer and Thomas Cubbitt as the chief builder. Cubitt became enormously successful by adopting the concept and role of the ‘prime contractor’. Many of the streets in Belgravia are named after the towns and villages of Grosvenor’s Cheshire Estate; Belgrave, Eccleston, Chester and the family seat of Eaton Hall.
Today, Belgravia is tightly managed, you won’t find many shops, no buses pass through and the pubs are hidden in the former mews of the grand homes. Speaking of which, getting thirsty?
The Plumbers Arms
This inconspicuous 1850’s pub is where a blood spattered Lady Veronica Lucan fell into during a November evening in 1974. She had just witnessed the murder of her children’s nanny by her husband; Lord Lucan (‘Lucky Lucan’ as his army friends called him due to his success at the poker table!). The intended target was his wife – seemingly the final act of a bitter divorce case.
Lucan escaped, but has never been found and was only declared dead in 2016! He may have jumped off a ferry on the way to France, shortly after the murder, or was finished off by his mates who originally harboured his escape – before matters became too hot.
Veronica committed suicide in 2017, wrote the kids out of the will and left the state to Shelter – the silver lining I guess!
We walk up Lower Belgrave Street and into Eaton Square. Eaton Square (and Chester Square just south of it) are two of the most desirable residences in London. The squares are ‘littered’ with blue plaques calling out former residents such as Neville Chamberlin, Vivien Leigh, Mary Shelley, Matthew Arnold, Lord Kelvin, Stanley Baldwin and Hugh Grosvenor, the current 7th Duke of Westminster (100 Eaton Square) – along-with the ‘Bonds’; Connery, Moore and even Ian Fleming!
Before the square was built the intersecting road was the private Kings Road (created by King Charles II) that ran from Whitehall Palace to Kew Palace – and still existing today to the west of the square down through Chelsea. During the Second World War Eaton Square was turned over to food crop production as it spear headed the government’s programme of ‘Dig for Victory’.
Into Upper Belgrave Street, past number 9 the home of Lord Alfred Tennyson and through Eaton Square. Passing St Peter’s Eaton Square; one of the last neo-classical designed churches in London, before that style was eclipsed by Gothic Revival in 1840. St Peters was funded by the Church Building Commission in the 1830’s, a project to increase the number of churches in London, and to provide work at a time of high unemployment.
Horse and Groom
Further along is Groom Place. This is a mews for the homes on Chester Street and Chapel Street. Men and women would have toiled here; working 12 hours/day with 1 day off per month and 1 week off per month. For men the route was a few years as a Stable-hand, then an apprentice as a Groom and progression to Head Coachman if fortunate. The choice was hard work here, the work-house or the streets.
The next article will explore ‘Belgravia village’ and four additional pubs along the way – including one of London’s finest; The Grenadier!