Thursday 18 November 2010

The Sad Decline of Kensington and Belgravia

The grand Victorian houses of the West End of London faced a threat in 1919. Taxation and overheads were rising; 'homes fit for heroes' were being built for the poor; and the working-classes were simply loathe to 'skivvy' in Kensington, Belgravia or Bayswater, as new work opportunities opened up in modern manufacturing and service industries. This article from the Saturday Review of Politics in 1919, mischievously entitled 'Housing the Poor', bemoans the lot of the upper-middle-class, forced to abandon their decaying mansions. The writer cannot envisage the possibility of splitting such places into flats ("... they might be occupied by two or three tenants, each on a floor, if they could agree to use a common kitchen and to use a common staff of servants. And why should they not do so? Because Britons are shy and quarrelsome animals ..."), yet many of them would become precisely that - via Rachman's slum rents some thirty years later (Rachman was born in 1919, as it happens) followed by either demolition or gentrification in the 1970s/80s.

[click here for some great images of derelict West London]

LET no one imagine that we purpose writing about the provision of £l,000 houses to be let at £10 a year to the overpaid, underworked, overfed classes, once known as the labouring or deserving poor, now sponging by virtue of an exploded title on the crushed and terrified victims of their blackmail. Nothing of the sort is in our mind : the proletariat have champions and flatterers to spare. It is about the housing of the upper and upper middle classes that we are concerned. Where and how are they to live? The other day we wandered round Bayswater, South Kensington and Belgravia. We passed through streets and squares of gracious, Spacious houses, two-thirds of them apparently shut up, at least the blinds were down, though, of course, the family, like the De Courcys in Tollope's novel, may have been living in the little back room, politely called by advertisers "the study." Take Lancaster Gate, for example, and Queen's Gate, and Eaton Square. How are people to go on living in these houses without servants, and with rates perpetually rising? Last year the County and Borough Councils suddenly raised the rate by 14 per cent., so that he who formerly paid £87 a year now pays £100. With large housing and educational schemes in sight, these rates will have to he raised again, probably by 50 per cent., until the rates will equal half the rack-rent. This is bad : but it is not so bad as the impossibility of getting servants, even at double the pre-war wage. These Bayswater and South Kensington and Belgravian houses require a staff of servants running from four to ten in number, four being the irreducible minimum. Eaton Square is a good old country gentleman's square; Queen's Gate and Lancaster Gate, and their vicinage, have been the homes of the prosperous professional and City classes. With incomes halved by taxation, and the remaining moiety halved by the present prices, how are these people to meet the demand for double wages advanced by demoralised servant girls? The thing is not to be clone. The question presses, what is to be done with these large houses, built nearly a century ago? It is a question which touches nearly the great ground landlords of London, whose leases will be falling in during the next twenty years, some of them at an earlier date. Marylebone, which is divided between Lord Portman and Lord Howard de Walden (the successor to the late Duke of Portland), was built before what used to be called Tyburnia, and is now called Paddington or Bayswater. On the Portman and Howard de Walden estates the leases have in many cases not more than five or six years to run. On the Paddington estate, which is divided between the trustees of the Bishop of London and the Thistlethwaites, the leases have about sixteen years to run. On the South Kensington estate, partly owned by Lord Iveagh, who bought from Lord Kensington, and Smith's trustees, the leases are running to about forty years. On the Duke of Westminster's estate the run of the leases is about twenty years, though many new leases have been granted. The last developed of the London estates is the Pont Street, Cadogan Square and Sloane Street portion of Lord Cadogan's property, and there the leases are quite long, running to seventy or eighty years. Of course the jewel of the Westminster property is Mayfair, and there a great deal of rebuilding has been done in the last forty years, and new long leases have been granted. We can remember when Mount Street consisted of two rows of what we should now call hovels.
     There can be no doubt that there will always he enough rich people to occupy a few favoured spots, Carlton House Terrace, Berkeley Square, Grosvenor Square, and Belgrave Square, though Grosvenor Place is in some peril. The millionaire will always be with us, no matter what taxation may be imposed, and the tribe will be large enough to fill the houses on the Olympian heights described above. But of the other houses that we have indicated, in the "gardens," "gates" and "squares," we know not where the occupiers will be found. The usual answer is that they will be turned into flats. But it is easier said than done. Take an average house of  £300 a year, with rates of another £100 a year. Such a house has three or four sitting rooms (the fourth a cupboard, in effect, or closet), eight or ten bedrooms, and the basement occupied by kitchen, servants' hall, butler's room, etc. How is such a house to be converted into flats? The ground floor consists of an entrance strip, or corridor, a dining-room of good size, a small back-room, called a library or study, and sometimes a smaller third room, which ought to be a lavatory. The first floor is entirely occupied by what is called a double-drawing-room, that is a large room shaped like the letter L, which would make two good separate rooms; nothing else at all on that floor. How can you make flats out of such houses? Where are the kitchens, pantries, lavatories, to be found, as they ought to be, on each floor? Where are the separate entrances, which are necessary to secure the comparative privacy of a flat? Where are the lifts to be put? Apart from the expense, there is no room for a lift in the average Bayswater or South Kensington House. These houses cannot be converted into flats, as that term is ordinarily understood. But they might be occupied by two or three tenants, each on a floor, if they could agree to use a common kitchen and to use a common staff of servants. And why should they not do so? Because Britons are shy and quarrelsome animals, not in the least gregarious, like the Americans, or the French. The instinct of self-preservation is, however, stronger than the longest habit; and we think that hard necessity may force some families to give up hating their component members, and others to abandon their exclusiveness. The difficulty, of course, is with the women. There ought to be no difficulty in bachelors of the class we are thinking of combining to run joint establishments of quite a luxurious character. Another result of this housing problem may be that the pleasant suburbs, so vulgarly derided by Gilbert and Oscar Wilde, may once more creep into favour. Lord Chesterfield maintained a summer house at Blackheath, and Horace Walpole lived at Twickenham, while the great Bacon died at Hampstead. The great difficulty which the upper and upper middle classes have at present is to get out of their town houses. We suggest that they might offer them to the County Council as new homes for the idle rich under their protection. The paying-guest system will doubtless be adopted, in secret, by many aristocrats. The contributory arrangement was the usual thing among relatives, and even friends, in the Elizabethan and early Stuart days. The first P.G. was undoubtedly King Lear ; but he, if we remember right, did not find it a workable plan ; and amongst "the splendid women" of war-times we fear there will be found not a few Regans and Gonerils.

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