Magazine article The Spectator

Inheriting the Land

Magazine article The Spectator

Inheriting the Land

Article excerpt

Who owns London?

LONDON differs significantly from other cities in its pattern of land ownership, being divided not into remote and individual freeholds but into substantial landed estates. After the Norman Conquest, much of the land now occupied by London's West End was granted to the followers of William the Conqueror, who in turn bestowed it upon various religious institutions. With the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s, vast holdings were confiscated by Henry VIII, who then sold, leased or gave away plots to his loyal courtiers. By the beginning of the 19th century, most of central London was owned, through business acumen or prudent marriages, by private families whose titles and country seats are apparent in the names of the streets, squares and mews.

The first of the estates to be developed belonged to the Russell family. Henry VIII had granted John, the first Earl of Bedford, the Covent Garden area. In 1631, Charles I gave permission to the fourth Earl of Bedford to demolish the existing buildings on the site and Inigo Jones was engaged to realise the housing project - according to Sir John Summerson `the first great contribution to English Urbanism'.

The Portman Estate can trace its origins back as far as the 13th century. Originally covering an area of 270 acres stretching from Oxford Street to Regent's Canal, the land was acquired by Sir William Portman, Lord Chief Justice, from Henry VIII in 1533. The land remained relatively undeveloped until 1820, when the original building development was largely completed. The driving force behind the estate's rapid expansion was Edward Berkeley Portman - `his knowledge of engineering and his irrepressibility changed the landscape of Georgian London'.

Recorded in the Domesday Book in 1086, the Manor of Tyburn had a value of 52 shillings and a population of no more than 150. Leased to a succession of tenants until 1538, the northern part of the manor was then turned into a royal hunting park by Henry VIII. In 1611, James I sold the rest of the manor for 829 3s 4d. Almost a century later, John Holler, Duke of Newcastle, paid 17,500. By the early 18th century, the village of Marylebone consisted of a few houses near the line of the present High Street, and took its name from the parish church of St Mary and the nearby Tyburn stream.

Over 100 years later, the estate passed into the hands of the Duke of Portland, who held it for five generations during which today's tall and dignified houses began to emerge in Harley Street, Portland Place and Wimpole Street.

Based in its new headquarters in Grosvenor Street, the Grosvenor Estate continues to administer the family trust's 321.5 billion property interests of Mayfair and Belgravia - 300 acres of some of the world's most expensive real-estate. The Grosvenor Estate can trace its origins back three centuries, to when Sir Thomas Grosvenor married the 12-year-old Mary Davies in 1677, heiress to the Manor of Ebury. Her inheritance comprised `The Hundred Acres', north of Piccadilly, which included most of Mayfair, and `The Five Fields', now Belgravia and Pimlico. In Eaton Square, named after the family seat in Cheshire, Ayrton Wylie (020 7730 4628) are agents for a `superb ground-floor apartment with its own private street entrance' at an asking price of L1,250,000.

The `new boy on the block' is the Wellcome Trust which purchased the residue of the Smith's Charity South Kensington Estate for L280 million in 1995. …

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