Unless you like living in a swamp infested with thieves!
Despite the use of Belgrave Square, Eaton Square, or other locales within Belgravia as the address for one or more characters in recent Regency novels I have read, Belgravia did not exist in the Regency. Wishing, or in this case, writing, cannot make it so. The area which encompasses Belgravia was known as Five Fields during the decade of the Regency, and for centuries before that. It was a marshy, muddy lowland and a known haunt of footpads and highwaymen. It was by no stretch of the imagination a posh address during the Regency. In fact, there were only a few ramshackle sheds in the fields, some used for bull-baiting or cock-fighting. Large sections of the fields were unhealthy as they were heavily saturated with brackish water.
When and how did this marshy wasteland become the address in London?
The area southwest of the complex now known as Buckingham Palace and south of Hyde Park was christened Five Fields during the Middle Ages due to the intersecting footpaths running across it which cut the approximately nineteen-acre tract into five sections. Several small creeks which drained into the Thames also ran across this open area, where sheep and donkeys grazed and vegetables were grown in market gardens. Well into the eighteenth century, these fields were rife with footpads and highwaymen. Scores of robberies took place here, some of them quite brutal, though these usually occurred at night. In the daytime, it was a popular locale for bull-baiting and cock-fighting, and in season, some came here to shoot duck. Until the end of the eighteenth century, this area was rural and remote from London, making it a favorite place for duels. In the mid-1780s it was the site for some of the first hot-air balloon ascensions in England.
In 1761, George III purchased Buckingham House, which was situated on the site of what is now Buckingham Palace, as a private residence for his growing family. This royal residence was also known as "The Queen’s House" through the eighteenth century and into the years of the Regency. When the Royal Family moved into The Queen’s House in 1762, the property values in the area increased and there was some development in the area, including a number of houses along Grosvenor Place. The entire tract of the Five Fields, behind Grosvenor Place, was owned by the First Earl Grosvenor. In 1795, his architect and estate surveyor, William Porden, developed a plan to build a residential square in the Five Fields area, which he exhibited at the Royal Academy that year. Lord Grosvenor believed the area had development possibilities, but the clay soil and the heavy volume of water in the acreage made development technically impracticable.
Another plan for the development of the Five Fields tract was put forward in 1811, but again, the technical and financial obstacles could not be overcome. By 1813, another plan had been drawn up, probably by James Wyatt, to construct residences in the area. But Wyatt died in that same year and the plan languished. To see for yourself, take a look at Section 17 and Section 18 of Darton’s 1814 Map of London and Westminster at MAPCO. These two map sections show the Five Fields tract in 1814, just as rural as they had been throughout the eighteenth century. At the very northern tip of the area, in 1766, Richard Tattersall had founded his horse auction house near Hyde Park Corner and it continued as a London landmark during the Regency. There were a few scattered shacks which housed cock-fighting and bull-baiting, but there were no homes on the Five Fields tract throughout the decade of the Regency. Thomas Cubitt, the great builder, also had his own plan for the development of the area during this time, but he was stymied by the disinterest of the concerned parties.
All that began to change in 1821, when Thomas Cundy I succeeded William Porden as the architect and estate surveyor for the Grosvenor estates under the Second Earl Grosvenor, who had succeed the first earl in 1802. Another very important event took place in 1821. The Prince Regent had succeeded his father, becoming King George IV in 1820. The following year, George IV had his spectacular coronation in July and also decided that he would make the erstwhile Queen’s House his new London residence. The presence of the monarch next door gave great impetus to the plans to develop the Five Fields tract into an aristocratic neighborhood. Finally the time was right. Lord Grosvenor saw the advantages, Thomas Cundy was an experienced and determined architect/surveyor and Thomas Cubitt was the most inventive and ingenious builder London had ever seen.
Yet, with all of that, it took several more years for the project to get off the ground. Even though Lord Grosvenor owned the land, he needed an Act of Parliament to approve building on that scale. That Act was finally passed in 1826. Financing was initially provided by Thomas Cubitt, but the full development was beyond his resources. Ultimately three bankers of Swiss extraction, George and William Haldimand and Alexander Provost backed the project. But the composition of the soil of Five Fields was still mostly clay and the area was low, wet and marshy. However, Thomas Cubitt had begun the redevelopment of St. Katherine Docks in 1825. A huge volume of soil had to be excavated in the course of the dock project. Yet again, Thomas Cubitt demonstrated why he was the greatest builder in London. He excavated the clay from the Five Fields area and used it to make bricks which would be used in the construction of the buildings of the new development. Once the clay was removed, he brought in all the soil from the St. Katherine Docks work to raise and level the Five Fields acreage enough to keep it dry and stable enough for building.
As you might imagine, all of this excavation and landfill work took some time, but it seems to have been in progress while Lord Grosvenor was applying himself to the passage of the Act of Parliament which gave him permission to build on the acreage. Thus, by the time the Act of Parliament was granted, the Five Fields tract was ready for construction. The property was developed from northwest to southeast. Wilton Crescent was begun first, then Belgrave Square was next, to the designs of the talented architect, George Basevi, a cousin of Benjamin Disraeli. The housing blocks on the east, south and west sides of the square were completed in 1827. The north block, and the east half of Wilton Crescent, were not completed until 1828. To see the progress of the development for yourself, take a look at Section 19 of Crutchley’s New Plan of London from 1827. You can see that the north block of Belgrave Square is still just an outline, as is the eastern half of Wilton Crescent. Then look at Section 18 of Smith’s New Map of London, of 1828. You will see that all four housing blocks of Belgrave Square have been completed, as has Wilton Crescent, just to the north. London Gardens Trust has an illustration of Belgrave Square shortly after its completion in 1828.
Belgrave Square took its name from one of Lord Grosvenor’s lesser titles, Viscount Belgrave. The viscountcy took its name from another Grosvenor family property which included Old Belgrave Village, on the outskirts of Leicester. The high quality town houses built in the square were immediately popular with the wealthy upper echelons of society. But the ultimate cachet came when Queen Victoria rented Number 36 for her mother, the Duchess of Kent, for the year of 1840, while Kensington Palace was undergoing renovations.
But as you saw on Darton’s map of 1814, the area which became Belgravia was still open fields which were marshy and undeveloped. The Regency was long over and George IV was more than halfway through his reign before construction began in the area then known as Five Fields. And so, dear romance authors, if you really want your characters to live in Belgravia, please set your novels in the years after the Regency, when construction in Belgravia actually had been completed.
If you would like to read more about the development of Five Fields into the ultra-posh Belgravia, this bibliography will get you started:
Pevsner, Nikolaus, London: Volume 1 – The Cities of London and Westminster. Harmanonsworth: Penguin Books, Ltd., 1981.
Summerson, John, Georgian London. New Haven: Yale University Press for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2003.
Weinreb, Ben and Hibbert, Christopher, eds., The London Encyclopedia. Bethesda, Maryland: Adler & Adler, Publishers, Inc., 1986.