Mona Gainer-Salim
starring top-hatted Victorian financiers, officious reverends and anxious aristocrats, with assorted cameos by hungry soldiers, labour organizers, scriveners, Adam Smith and Karl Marx, Margaret Thatcher and Le Corbusier.​​​​​​
This research piece is a companion to Loren Kaye’s photographic project Mayfair Exposed. Learning from Loren about Mayfair’s almost completely hidden social diversity, I fell headlong into an investigation of a question that seemed exceptionally important: what has been, and what ought to be, done about the fundamental human need for shelter in a volatile, unequal world? I wanted to follow the thread of this question as it pertained to Mayfair, starting with, as it turned out, its emerging formulation in the 19th century, its evolution in the 20th and its troubled, still very much provisional status in the early 21st.
I was surprised as anyone to learn that Mayfair had any social housing at all. Both Mayfair and social housing were to some extent caricatured in my mind: for Mayfair, I pictured luxury shops guarded by intimidating suited-and-sunglassed security guards, while the utilitarian, labyrinthine brick council estate pioneered in the ’50s and ’60s was my mental shorthand for UK social housing. Yet Mayfair offers a surprisingly fertile terrain for exploring this topic. As a City of Westminster planning document from 2014 points out, Westminster council (which includes Mayfair) tends to produce housing at opposite ends of the spectrum: so-called ‘affordable’ housing (defined as at least 20% below market rate) and housing that costs in excess of £1 million. As such, it is home to people with extraordinarily different housing situations and possibilities, from homeless people and rough sleepers to the owners of some of the most valuable properties in the world, as well as just about everyone in between: renters of social, ‘affordable’ and private flats, and both resident and absentee owners. As Loren’s photographs so eloquently present the overlooked faces of Mayfair, so this piece attempts to shed light on the underdocumented side of Mayfair’s housing story, bypassing all the glitzy real estate. As far as I’m aware, social housing in Mayfair is also a topic that hasn’t been treated independently elsewhere.
‘As far as I’m aware’: an important caveat that should be kept in mind. What follows is by no means an exhaustive account, and though I have made every attempt to draw judiciously on the work of historians and sociologists, blind spots undoubtedly remain. So, despite the gaps, I hope that this piece can be a valuable starting point for those interested in the unlikely intersection of Mayfair and Britain’s social housing history. I would be happy to hear from anyone who can help to further fill in the picture.
The lay of the land
Mayfair’s identity as a fashionable, affluent area dates back to its very beginnings. The area’s development began in earnest in the 17th century, when mansions and grand homes were erected on the north side of Piccadilly, opposite the newly-built and wealthy neighbourhood of St James’s. The area of St James’s itself had been recently adopted by the aristocracy after the twin disasters of the Plague and the Great Fire of London in the mid-1660s caused them to leave the City of London further east. From there, development in Mayfair spread roughly north-westwards. The north-west corner of Mayfair was the last to be built on, not long after the middle of the 1700s.      
Unlike many London neighbourhoods, the area of Mayfair is clearly defined on all four sides, forming a roughly rhomboid shape. This is owed to the fact that it lies between two former thoroughfares out of London, shown as ‘The Road to Exeter &c.’ (now Piccadilly) and ‘The Road to Oxford, Worcester &c.’ (now Oxford Street) on Morden and Lea’s c. 1700 map of London. To the west, Mayfair is bordered by Hyde Park, which was acquired by Henry VIII in 1536 as a private hunting ground and subsequently opened to the public by Charles I in 1637. The east side was the last to be enclosed, when architect John Nash’s Regent Street was completed in 1820. This separated the fashionable area of Mayfair from the slums of Soho, reinforcing the social disparity between the two neighbourhoods through a physical boundary.   
From the start, the development of Mayfair was led by the aristocracy, in the form of large hereditary estates which in at least one case retain ownership of large swaths of the area to this day. Some of Mayfair’s earliest mansions, along Piccadilly, were built for Lords Burlington, Clarendon and Berkeley; today Burlington House is renowned as the home of the Royal Academy of Arts. The Grosvenor Estate, which would play an important role in the development of early social housing in the area, occupies the north-west corner of Mayfair with Grosvenor Square at its centre. This area, called the Hundred Acres in some early deeds, forms part of some 500 acres of property that passed to the Grosvenor family when Sir Thomas Grosvenor married Mary Davies, the daughter of a City scrivener (notary), in 1677. The Grosvenors, an ancient land-owning family from Cheshire, thus became the richest urban landlords in the country. This privileged position translated gradually to political power, through advancements in the peerage that culminated in the dukedom of Westminster in 1874. Today, the title of Duke of Westminster is retained by Hugh Grosvenor, and the estate’s holdings are estimated to be worth $11.5 billion.

The advent of social housing
Besides Mayfair’s upper-crust inhabitants, the area had a sizeable working-class population of shopkeepers, artisans and staff serving the grand houses of the aristocracy. The earliest instance I have been able to find of housing designed specifically for working-class people is a series of houses built in the 1850s at the initiative of the local parish. They accommodated some 67 families and were built on Grosvenor property in north-west Mayfair, specifically in Grosvenor Mews, Bourdon Street and Grosvenor Market (this last one may not have been initiated by the parish). The Survey of London’s highly informative 1980 publication on the history of the Grosvenor Estate suggests that it was the presence of this pioneering project that prompted the Grosvenors to embark on their own ‘improved working-class dwellings’ initiative.   
The 19th century was a time of growing national concern about the plight of Britain’s poor, including housing conditions. Before the industrial revolution, when the pace of technological and societal change was slow and most of the population rural, the ruling class had little incentive to question the prevailing laissez-faire approach to economic and social problems, as described by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations (1776). Matters would sort themselves out, the thinking went, and government interference was considered both undesirable and unnecessary. This complacency, however, became unsustainable faced with the dizzying growth of the industrial town, where thousands were coralled together in dangerously overcrowded, unsafe and polluted accommodation with paltry legal protections and no national social infrastructure whatsoever. Those who became unemployed or ill, grew old, were orphaned, or in the case of women were widowed, divorced or became pregnant outside of marriage, often had no other option but to enter the workhouse, a spectacularly cruel institution that separated families, forced inmates to labour for their keep and deliberately created terrible living conditions in order to ‘encourage’ inmates to seek employment. As John Nelson Tarn observes in Five Per Cent Philanthropy (1973), his fascinating study of urban housing in Britain between 1840 and 1914, by the mid-19th century all the former prestige of cities as elegant gathering places had given way to a mixture of fear and guilt:
The industrial town now fast assumed a predatory quality; people were afraid of the physical problems it engendered, afraid too of the uncontrollable mob, learning to speak with a unified voice through their first attempts at combination. In addition, there was from time to time a growing feeling of guilt which was a new reaction to such a situation. Had it been right for so long to treat the working classes, men, women and children, as sub-human fodder for the great machine, a class of person without feeling or any right to basic human dignity? Many began to feel uneasy about the way in which they had achieved their wealth and it was not only the fear of revolution, politically, but the rise of a queasy Christian conscience which caused some of them to feel a moral obligation to interest themselves in welfare work of various kinds.
A parallel development was underway in the literary and academic spheres. Dickens, the literary superstar of the age, himself experienced the misery of Victorian poverty as a child when his father was sent to debtors’ prison and he had to support his family by working in a boot-blacking factory. Later, he made working-class and poor people the protagonists of his work and became a powerful voice for children’s rights. From 1886 to 1903, Charles Booth undertook his seminal study of poverty in London, resulting in the publication of his colour-coded poverty maps in 17 volumes – the first time poverty was taken as an object of systematic investigation. Studying Booth’s map of Mayfair, one can see that among the yellow (‘Upper-middle and upper classses. Wealthy.’) and red (‘Middle class. Well-to-do.’) are numerous sections of light red (‘Fairly comfortable. Good ordinary earnings.’), though the blue to black colour range denoting poverty is absent. Though Booth still tended to frame poverty in moral terms – qualifying the ‘Lowest class’ as ‘Vicious, semi-criminal’ – his work helped shift the conception of poverty away from one of individual moral deficiency (to be assuaged through ‘self-help’ or charity) towards that of a structural problem that could be tackled through social policy. Another influential study was undertaken in York by Seebohm Rowntree.
Britain’s elites may have conducted studies and nursed guilty consciences, but they also felt pressure from the country’s early labour movements, though not directly where housing was concerned. The 19th century was the first time the urban workforce, the descendants of those who had first moved to the cities to work in the new factories, began to see themselves as a class with particular concerns and interests and, only too plainly, a glaring lack of political power. Karl Marx famously described this class’s relationship to the means of production in Capital, published in three volumes between 1867 and 1894. The nascent labour movements recognized that housing was a symptom of the way in which power was concentrated, guarded and perpetuated, and it was at this highly unequal distribution of power that they squarely aimed their campaigns. The Chartist movement, often considered the first mass labour movement in history, presented its People’s Charter to parliament in 1838, outlining six demands: suffrage for all men aged 21 and over (not women, obviously), voting by secret ballot, equal-sized constituencies, pay for MPs, an end to the need for a property qualification for Parliament, and annual parliamentary elections. All but the final demand were eventually acceeded to, though only in increments up to 1918. Simply put, 19th-century labour had bigger fish to fry than housing.
What aristocratic soul-searching, sociological research and labour organizing could not accomplish on their own was hastened by current events. War played a crucial role in expanding rights for poor and working people. From 1899 to 1902, the British Empire fought the Second Boer War in South Africa, a conflict notorious today for the war crimes committed by British troops, including the incarceration of Boers in concentration camps. While recruiting soldiers in Britain, it was discovered that a third of volunteers for the army were medically unfit to serve. Concern about Britain’s military preparedness, especially in the face of a rising Germany, prompted a slate of social reforms aimed towards improving the health (and military calibre) of the population: the introduction of free school meals in 1906, old age pensions in 1908, National Health Insurance and Unemployment Insurance in 1911. It took a further war for these momentous reforms to be extended to housing. The Housing and Town Planning Act of 1919 marked a turning point in the history of housing in Britain and was a direct consequence of World War I, when a scarcity of materials and labour made building new housing unprofitable for private developers. There was also a new consensus that government ought to provide homes for those who had fought the war on its behalf. Thus, for the first time, local councils were placed at the helm of an ambitious national house-building programme.
Before 1919, some local councils – including Westminster, which encompasses Mayfair – undertook the odd social housing project, mostly to rehouse people displaced by public works projects. These, however, were few and far between, and the provision of housing for working-class or poor people was firmly in the hands of private enterprise. This took the form of charitable trusts or ‘model dwellings companies’. These organizations operated on a model that came to be known as ‘five-percent philanthropy’, based on an understanding that five percent was an acceptable return on investment for shareholders. John Nelson Tarn described the charitable impulse behind five percent philanthropy strikingly as ‘a peculiar Victorian habit, a penance for more fulsome success elsewhere’.
The largest such company was founded by the American-born banker George Peabody, who came from a poor family himself and whose name is still borne by the large Peabody housing association today. Almost as important, and especially in the context of Mayfair, was the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company (I.I.D.C.) founded by Sydney Waterlow in 1863. Waterlow was the son of a London stationer who together with his three brothers expanded the family business into a successful printing company. He entered politics as a city councillor in 1857 and six years later built a small block of flats in Finsbury intended for working-class occupants. On the strength of this well-received project, the I.I.D.C. was inaugurated. Its approach was simply expressed by Waterlow as follows:
All I have endeavoured to show is that capital, expended in the erection of light, cheerful, healthy habitations for the industrial classes in crowded cities, may be made to yield a fair interest on its investment, if care is taken to avoid extravagance in external architectural decoration or loss by large management expenses.
Lord Ebury, a senior member of the Grosvenor family, presided over the opening of Waterlow’s Finsbury flats in 1863, and a few years later the family approached the I.I.D.C. to build the first of its Mayfair blocks. This was Clarendon Buildings on Balderton (then George) Street, built in 1871–72. A local reverend was charged with reviewing applications for the 38 new flats, which were intended for ‘mechanics and others’ earning within a certain wage range. Rents were set relatively high, but there were still almost five times as many applicants as there were places.
The Estate and the I.I.D.C. were both eager to build more blocks, but finding suitable sites proved difficult. In 1886 a large group of leases finally expired in a compact grid of streets just south of Oxford Street, bordered to the west by Balderton Street and to the east by Davies Street. When these sites became available, the Estate and Company were ready with a comprehensive rebuilding plan that would result in nine new buildings offering space for some 332 families. The project promptly broke ground in 1886 and proceeded roughly from west to east, concluding in 1892 with the Moore Buildings named after the Company’s secretary James Moore, who largely directed the undertaking.
As before, the local reverend was consulted on the question of who should occupy the new ‘model dwellings’. In 1888 James Moore – with more than a hint of Victorian paternalism – proposed that the tenants of Clarendon Buildings, completed some 15 years prior, were good candidates for the new flats; Clarendon Buildings could then be used for new tenants ‘who had not been used to a model lodging house [and] would be gradually improved before moving into new buildings’. In any event, it transpired that the most sensible solution was simply to offer the new flats to the tenants of the old buildings that had been taken down to make way for the new blocks. The tenants moved in gradually as building proceeded and in fact benefitted from a reduction in rent.
The nine handsome blocks built between 1886 and 1892 illustrate at least one typical feature of late 19th-century housing philanthropy. Both the I.I.D.C and George Peabody’s Trust were criticized for building not for the poorest in society, but for a more comfortable class often referred to at the time as ‘artisans’, ‘industrial classes’ or ‘labouring classes’ – people who were ‘thrifty – as opposed to thriftless’, as James Nelson Tarn pithily put it. The reason for this lay in a mixture of economic constraint and the moral ideas that held sway at the time. Lodgings constructed for the poor, which would have had to be offered at lower rents, would have struggled to reach the five percent rate of return expected by shareholders. To reduce costs, corners would have had to be cut in construction, resulting in buildings whose quality the philanthropists were loath to endorse. There was also a notion that good-quality housing would in some sense be wasted on the very poor. As James Moore’s quote above testifies, it was believed that ‘artisans’ were capable of being morally ‘improved’ by better lodgings; the very poor, however, were seen as being too mired in social problems for this to do much good. A powerful streak of paternalism ran through Victorian urban philanthropy. The rich, it was presumed, could spruce up the moral character of the poor by providing housing, building churches and public wash houses. These freighted facilities were handed down from on high; the idea that communities might be involved in the design process, for instance, would have seemed absurd. Any modern account of the work of these Victorian philanthropists must contend with this troubling attitude and the assumptions behind it (without making the mistake of thinking that this attitude is exclusively a thing of the past). At the same time, it must acknowledge that between them these wealthy men housed tens of thousands of people and thereby genuinely improved lives – even as those in the most urgent need were left empty-handed.
The north-west Mayfair blocks are typical of the I.I.D.C’s buildings in other regards. The I.I.D.C. espoused self-contained flats with integrated lavatories and sculleries, unlike the Peabody Trust, which located these facilities in communal areas. It seemed to be generally agreed that the I.I.D.C.’s buildings, on the whole, were more agreeable to live in and look at. The I.I.D.C.’s flats were finished with plaster, had fireplaces and good ventilation. Because the I.I.D.C. had fewer resources than the Trust, its buildings tended to line the side of a street, often replacing a dilapidated terraced row, while the Trust could afford to build whole complexes centred around large courtyards. The sheer bulk of the Trust’s buildings, in combination with limited decoration on the façades, could lend them an austere aspect. The I.I.D.C.’s buildings varied considerably (and in fact it did not employ an architect), but bay windows and open galleries facing the street, often rather graceful, were recurring features. Clarendon Buildings in north Mayfair has such galleries. The nine blocks built later had a more imposing, minimal Gothic style with bay windows. Hugh Grosvenor, the newly created 1st Duke of Westminster, contributed considerably to their aesthetic quality – he was to be their neighbour, after all. At his request, whimsical gable features were set into the mansard roofs and the buildings were finished with red brick even though this was more expensive than the plainer brick originally proposed. All in all, these were good flats built to last.
Quiet in Mayfair, big projects elsewhere
By the turn of the century, the heyday of Victorian housing philanthropy was over, and in 1919, as a result of the landmark housing act, the government took over house building for the masses in a big way. State-sponsored social housing would become a vital sector of the UK’s housing landscape until, at its high point in 1979, 31% of people in England were renting from social providers, including councils and housing associations (which will be discussed further down). For Mayfair, on the other hand, the new national house-building programme ushered in a long period of relative dormancy where social housing was concerned. In the inter-war years, urban council projects focused to a great extent on what was then known as ‘slum clearance’ and today might be termed ‘urban regeneration’. Mayfair, as an affluent area lacking anything remotely resembling slum housing, was evidently exempt from such schemes.
The transition to ‘affordable housing’
Some of the themes of 19th-century housing philanthropy persisted in Britain’s earliest state-sponsored social housing developments, built as a result of the landmark 1919 housing act. Many of the first projects to break ground were ‘garden estates’ located on the outskirts of cities. These were usually made up of three-bedroom houses, each with its own ‘generous size garden to encourage the tenants to grow their own vegetables, a privet hedge at the front and an apple tree at the back’. Infrastructure in the form of shops and schools was provided – but not pubs, at least initially. For most renters, coming from overcrowded slum housing, these idyllic houses were a huge step up. Funding came from a combination of rents, local taxes and the Treasury. Though on the surface these garden cities didn’t resemble Victorian tenements, both shared a commitment to durable, quality housing, while also being intended for a working class clientele who could afford to pay the relatively high rents. The poor, again, were not beneficiaries of this approach.
Over the course of the 1920s, the idealism of the garden estates gave way to a more pragmatic approach which happily allowed for some long overdue relief for poorer citizens. During this period, houses generally grew smaller, with some compromises on quality, though in general the standard remained high. The inter-war years also saw a strong emphasis on slum clearance, with many councils opting to build low-rise blocks of flats to replace derelict slum buildings. Owing to limited space and cost considerations, estates continued to be built in suburban areas. This meant that, while many poorer people previously excluded from decent housing were now able to afford it, they sometimes had to leave long-established communities to do so.
World War II effectively put a stop to house building as the country’s resources were directed to the war effort. After the war, the new Labour government made the large-scale provision of housing a central plank in its platform. An expectant public, combined with widespread bomb damage, created enormous pressure to build, and built fast. To meet the demand, councils embraced new building techniques focused on speed and volume, such as factory-built, site-assembled ‘prefab’ homes and ‘PRC’ (pre-cast reinforced concrete) builds. ‘Prefabs’ were intended as temporary accommodation, intended to last only ten years, but proved so popular with some residents that an estimated 8,000 are still standing as of 2022, many of them lived in and some even listed. There is even a Prefab Museum run by and for enthusiasts of ‘post-war prefabs and prefab life’. Still, both prefabs and PRCs were stop-gap measures. PRCs in particular would cause problems later on, when their structural elements began to corrode while they were still being relied upon by residents and councils. For the time being, though, the dire housing need that followed the war was alleviated.
In the post-war decades, housing demand continued to grow in tandem with the baby boom and the ongoing urbanization of Britain. The Conservative governments of this period on the one hand placed a greater share of house building back into the hands of the private sector, and on the other embraced a state housing policy that encouraged the building of high-rises. In the architectural community, utopian modernist ideas such as ‘streets in the sky’, inspired above all by Le Corbusier, resulted in the development of a style of estate that mixed low- and high-rise buildings, with integrated public areas and plans – sometimes unrealized – for shops and amenities. Between the 1950s and 1970s, estates continued to be built in city centres, but an increasing number were built in peripheral areas where infrastructure was poor and slow to develop. All this amounted to a somewhat chequered legacy for the social housing of this period. Too many estates were poorly built, or built according to grand ideals instead of the real needs of people. On the other hand, the innovatory spirit of architects at the time resulted in some intelligently conceived, iconic estates which are still popular with residents to this day, like the Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate in Kilburn, North West London.
The Housing Act of 1980, passed by Margaret Thatcher’s government, changed everything. While councils had previously been allowed to sell off houses, they were now required to offer them to tenants at a discount under the ‘Right to Buy’ scheme. At the same time, investment in new council housing was curtailed, making it impossible to replenish council-owned housing stock. Some people benefitted enormously from Right to Buy, buying houses at up to 60% off market rate, some of which have increased tenfold or more in value over the last three or four decades. However, the policy of selling off council housing without replacing it also had severe negative repercussions. As many of the best houses were bought by tenants, councils were left with the least desirable, ageing housing stock which required expensive upkeep for which scant funds were available. Even as low- and moderately priced state-sponsored housing became scarce, the need for it did not – on the contrary. Most renters had no choice but to tough it out on an open market which offered them few protections, even as property values and rents skyrocketed. The policy succeeded in making council housing largely into a ‘residual’ service for the poorest in society, rather than an integral, robust part of the nation’s vision for housing. It is not surprising, then, that a stigma developed around social housing which is still alive and well in the 2020s.
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