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1660s to 1720s – FROM MUD TO MANSIONS

Mayfair was originally unwanted, nameless, muddy fields – the River Tyburn swamps – situated to the West of what was then central London (Whitehall, Soho, Covent Garden and the City). Mayfair got its name in 1686 when King James II granted Royal permission for a fair to be held on the site of what is now Shepherds Market in the first two weeks of May. At this time Soho, Whitehall and the City were the addresses of choice for the wealthy aristocracy.
It was not until 1710 and 1719, that Sir Richard Grosvenor and the Earl of Scarborough (Mayfair’s two original landowning and developer families) built Grosvenor Square and Hanover Square respectively, and started Mayfair’s building process than continues until the present day, so that by 1720, the former fields were transformed into a vast building site.


The aristocracy departed their former cramped and outdated houses in Soho, Whitehall, Holborn and the City and relocated Westwards to the new mansions, townhouses and green squares of Mayfair. Of the initial 227 houses built, 117 had titled owners. Dukes, Duchesses, Marquesses and Earls rivaled each other to secure the best houses and dress them in lavish style. By 1850, the heart of the social scene was Buckingham Palace, with the most sought after mansions being in Mayfair, now firmly London’s top address; with Belgravia being the next address of choice, and Pimlico being the least sought after part of the Grosvenor family’s estate – an almost “middle class” place for second sons, widowed Aunts and less wealthy relations.


As the Victorian era progressed the aristocrats and foreign European Royals who had until now ruled Mayfair, were to gain new neighbours who generated their money not from land or statehood, but from business. Whilst the ancient gentry had been happy to live in relatively plain understated Georgian properties, the Empire’s business kings were not.
It's probably safe to say that well over £2 billion (in modern currency) of “new money” wealth poured into Mayfair. Old houses were pulled down to be replaced by lavish mansions and townhouses not grand enough were combined with neighbours. Interiors were lavish, gold leaf, silver décor and super-flash gilt furniture became all the rage.
The aristocrats were initially horrified by their new neighbours, who were flashy multiple property owners with large yachts, motorcars and private railroad carriages. They became even more jealous when they realised that their sheep farming and forestry could simply not generate the vast amounts of cash that banking, mining and railroads were generating for the newcomers, enabling the “social climbers” to outspend them at every level regarding housing, lavish lifestyles, number of servants, gambling, social events and the races.
By the Edwardian era, the housing surveys showed that there were more plutocrats and newly titled living in Mayfair and Belgravia than the old landed gentry and aristocracy. Mayfair had firmly become a “new money” address. Despite this, the super-rich newcomers craved social acceptance from the Royals and the old guard, so arose the age and fashion of vast social and cultural philanthropy which continues to this day amongst the super-rich, with the new money investing in the Prince Consort’s ambitious artistic, cultural and social projects in order to gain social acceptance and nobility-titles.


The horrors of WWI and the Great Depression, gave huge blows to both the aristocracy and the plutocrats who found that they could no longer afford to run their vast luxurious homes. As a result, during the 1920s and 1930s some 25 vast mansions and palaces in Mayfair, and additional smaller townhouses, in all over £2 billion worth of property at current values, were ruthlessly torn down and replaced by hotels, offices and modern apartment buildings. The aristocracy and even the plutocrats were forced to dramatically “downsize”, moving into flats or smaller houses, and selling off their artwork and cutting down on their staff, hangers-on and rich-man’s toys.


Just as WWI and the Depression decimated the wealth of both the new and old money of Mayfair, WWII helped to end its role as a leading residential address. After 1945, with the offices of the City of London largely destroyed by bombing, some 1.2 million sq ft of Mayfair residential property was converted to residential use. In addition, punishing levels of post-war taxation, meant that many families were forced to relocate to Belgravia, Chelsea and even Pimlico. All the inward investment, wealth and advances in Mayfair since 1851 seemed to have been totally wiped out by 1945 with the riches of Empire drained away fighting two world wars.
By 1960 a third of Mayfair’s total floorspace was being used for business and by 1970 just a third of Mayfair’s property stock was residential. By the late 1980s the decline in the residential population of Mayfair since 1945 was estimated to be as high as 90 per cent.
During the oil boom of the 1970s, whilst newly wealthy Gulf Arabs and Asian Royals did buy some property in Mayfair, many acquired properties in more residential dominated locations including Knightsbridge, Belgravia, Holland Park and Regent’s Park. Mayfair was clearly no longer London’s top residential address.


By 1990 the last of the temporary office permissions expired and slowly the properties in Mayfair began to be returned to residential use as corporations sought newly built office premises in West London, the City and Canary Wharf.
By 2004 Wetherell had calculated that residential property in Mayfair was more valuable than office space for the first time in many years.

2008 TO 2014 – FROM BUST TO BOOM

As London began to lift out from the 2007 global recession office property values sank to half those of residential so that by 2014 Wetherell were able to record that since 1990 the firm had sold over 100 buildings in Mayfair which were for conversion back into residential use.

2014 TO 2030 – THE FUTURE

There is now a huge residential development pipeline of over 400 new homes, worth over £840 million, which will be built in Mayfair over the next 5 – 15 years. Already values have exceeded £5,000 per sqft and within the next 5 – 10 years Wetherell calculates that residential property values will reach £10,000 per sqft. Already the entry level price for the smallest Mayfair home is now £1 million.
Crossrail, the relocation of Embassies and government buildings to Nine Elms, freeing up space for more homes, and the ongoing conversion of offices to residential are all helping towards Mayfair reclaiming its crown – lost since 1945 – as London’s most expensive and top address.
The district’s ancient landowners have been joined by a new generation of landowners and developers and together they are transforming Mayfair with new luxury retail outlets, hotels, leisure facilities and homes. This is the future of Mayfair and it is extremely exciting.

The Story of Mayfair

Please click here to download a PDF version Peter Wetherell's book: The Story of Mayfair from 1664 Onwards.