St. John’s Wood has been the setting for countless scenes in countless Regency novels. But what many people do not know is that the development of St. John’s Wood into a popular, if somewhat notorious and scandalous, area of London actually began only a few years before the Prince of Wales became Regent. But it was a development very unlike any other development ever before seen in London, though it would set the standard for many more developments to come, all across England and, eventually, the world.
The origins of St. John’s Wood …
For centuries, north of London stood the Great Forest of Middlesex, an ancient and dense forest, teeming with wildlife. It was a popular hunting ground with the Romans, as well as with the many medieval English kings who followed them. By the twelfth century, the large western tract of the Great Forest had become the property of the Knights of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, more often known as the Knights Hospitallers. That vast tract of the forest was soon called "Great St. John’s Wood," in order to distinguish it from Little St. John’s Wood, also owned by the Hospitallers, which was located near Highbury. In 1539, Great St. John’s Wood was confiscated by Henry VIII when he dissolved the Hospitallers, along with all of the other Catholic orders in his kingdom. It would appear that at least one of Henry’s courtiers took advantage of the Crown ownership of the great forest, as some historians speculate that the Great St. John’s Wood was the source of much of the timber which was used in the construction of Hampton Court, which Henry later appropriated from Cardinal Woolsey. Under Queen Mary I, King Henry’s Catholic, first-born daughter, ownership of the Great St. John’s Wood was restored to the Knights Hospitallers.
However, the Hospitallers did not retain their namesake great wood for long, since Mary’s sister, Queen Elizabeth I, took it back for the Crown when she came to the throne. Queen Elizabeth, always fond of hunting, had a large portion of the forest enclosed by a sturdy fence of wooden palings in order to prevent the prime game from escaping. The palings were made of timber cut in the wood, which had the added advantage of further thinning the forest, thereby making it easier to hunt there. The Great St. John Wood remained the property of the Crown until 1649. In that year, after the execution of King Charles I, Oliver Cromwell sold off many royal properties. The Great St. John’s Wood tract was sold to William Clarke, a lawyer of the Inner Temple. Clarke paid over £3,600 for the property, only to have it confiscated by the Crown once Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660.
King Charles’ years in exile had resulted in a number of debts to faithful courtiers who had supported him during that time. Many of them had gone into debt themselves in support of their king, and some petitioned for repayment of those debts when Charles II regained the English Crown. One of those petitioners was Charles Henry Kirkhoven, Baron Wotton. In 1675, Charles II granted Lord Wotton St. John’s Wood in payment of a debt of about £1,300. When Lord Wotton died in 1683, with no surviving children, he left his entire estate, including his St. John’s Wood holdings, to his nephew, the Honorable Charles Stanhope, the youngest son of the second Earl of Chesterfield, Lord Wotton’s half-brother. The Great St. John’s Wood then remained in the possession of the Stanhope family for more than half a century.
In 1732, Philip Dormer Stanhope, the fourth Earl of Chesterfield, was in the middle of building a magnificent mansion for himself in the newly fashionable area of Mayfair, in London. But construction costs were rapidly rising for this grand city residence. Lord Chesterfield was a man of strictly urban tastes and had no use for what he called "the rustic, illiberal sports of guns, dogs and horses," of the country gentleman. He decided to sell his St. John’s Wood holdings to finance his London mansion and the property thereby passed out of royal and aristocratic control forever. The buyer was Henry Samuel Eyre, a very wealthy London wine-merchant, who purchased just under five hundred acres of land which was, by then, less forest than farmland, as it had been long since logged over for timber to meet the needs of the building boom in London. St. John’s Wood in the early eighteenth century was a collection of lightly wooded meadows which served as pasture for sheep and cattle that were being fattened for sale at the nearby Smithfield markets, and acres of fields which produced much of the vast quantities of hay needed to feed the hundreds of thousands of horses which traveled the roadways of nearby London.
Though Henry Eyre had purchased St. John’s Wood as a status symbol, he allowed continued use of the acreage for agricultural purposes. But he was so wealthy that he was rather lax in collecting the rents due him. Records show his income from the property was only about £890 per year, a very modest return on such extensive acreage. Having no children of his own, Henry Samuel Eyre left his entire estate, including St. John’s Wood, to his second nephew, Walpole Eyre, a godson of Sir Robert Walpole. Nephew Walpole had an elder brother, Henry Samuel Eyre (there was a Henry Samuel in each generation of the Eyre family for several generations). Though named for his uncle, Henry Eyre II had made the mistake of marrying without his family’s permission and approval. For that reason, his uncle left the Eyre estate to his younger brother, Walpole, though the elder Henry did leave the younger Henry the sum of £2,000, so that "he would not be destitute of any support."
In 1773, Mr. Walpole Eyre died at the age of thirty-eight, reportedly as a result of "pauper contamination" after attending a dinner for the Commissioners of the Colnbrooke Turnpike, of which he was a member. Those attending the dinner that evening, at the Castle Inn at Salthill, with the exception of one man who was walking in the garden, examined several paupers before their meal, one of whom was reported to have been a "remarkably miserable object." The next day, all of the gentlemen who had interacted with the paupers took ill, and within a few days, five of them were dead, including Walpole Eyre. The only member of the Commission to escape illness or death was the man who had been walking the in the garden of the inn.
Walpole Eyre was survived by two young sons, a daughter and a pregnant wife. His young daughter died only a few weeks after he did, and his youngest son was born a few months later. Upon Walpole’s death, his eldest son, Henry Samuel Eyre, inherited his estate, including St. John’s Wood. But Henry II was only three years old when his father died, so the estate was managed by his mother, Sarah, who, by the terms of her husband’s will, retained a financial interest in the property for her lifetime. Young Henry was keen to be a soldier, and in 1788, at the age of eighteen, he purchased a commission in the 11th Foot. Henry’s military career was very successful and he eventually retired in 1813, from the 7th Regiment of the Guards, with the rank of lieutenant colonel. Henry’s youngest brother, Walpole Jr. (born after the death of Walpole Sr.), read the law and became a solicitor.
The family of Walpole Eyre, Sr., was in control of St. John’s Wood during the last quarter of the eighteenth century and right through the Regency. In fact, descendants of the family still own much of St. John’s Wood, even today. A survey was made of the estate in 1794, at which time the Eyres were planning a very ambitious development of the property. It was their intention to construct what amounted to a small-scale version of Bath, including a residential crescent, a public square, a marketplace and a church. But the plan which was drawn up for this new development was unlike any other development envisioned for any other city in England, or on the Continent. Throughout Europe at this time, city dwellings had always been constructed as a series of terrace houses, that is, town houses built side by side, sharing common walls, with little or no garden area available at the back of each attached house. But the 1794 plan for the proposed development of St. John’s Wood consisted of a series of detached and semi-detached houses, each surrounded by a significant garden area. Had it been built, it would have been the first garden suburb in the world.
Because of the escalating war with France, it became difficult to raise the necessary funding to proceed with this innovative new development. Potential construction workers were joining the army and it was not long before Colonel Eyre himself was recalled to his regiment. However, by the turn of the nineteenth century, the demand for housing in the London metropolitan area was steadily rising. In 1802, after the signing of the Treaty of Amiens brought hostilities to an end, property and other taxes dropped, briefly, and there was a small army of discharged soldiers looking for work. By this time, Walpole Eyre II was managing the estate for his older brother and the Eyres then revived their ambitious plans for the St. John’s Wood area.
Between 1803 and 1804, the architect John Shaw, a member of the Royal Academy, exhibited there a set of plans for "An elevated view of the British Circus, proposed to be built by subscription between Paddington-road and Hampstead on the freehold estate of H. S. Eyre, Esq." This plan depicted an inner and an outer circle of dwellings of at least one mile in circumference, with thirty-six residences in the inner circle and sixty-six residences along the outer circle. These residences were all of the same innovative detached or semi-detached type as had been those on the 1794 plan. The forty-two acre area inside this double circle was to become a "pleasure ground" for the residents of the two circles of dwellings. Unfortunately, hostilities resumed with France the following year, forcing this grand enterprise to be put on hold once again.
By 1809, though the war still raged on the Continent, the demand for housing in London was more intense than ever. And there were many who hated the noise and smog of the city, who longed for the peace and fresh air of the country. But the majority of these people could not afford a grand country estate, and even if they could, they very often needed to be in reasonable proximity to the metropolis. St. John’s Wood, to the northwest of London, was an ideal location for a new residential development. The Eyre’s plan was to provide affordable housing in an idyllic country setting that was within easy reach of London. Colonel Henry Eyre was still fighting with his regiment on the Peninsula when work on the construction of dwellings in St. John’s Wood began in 1809. This work went forward under the direction of Walpole Eyre II, who had left a law partnership in April of 1805, in order to set up on his own law office. A large portion of Walpole’s new legal work was the management and development of the St. John’s Wood property for his elder brother, Henry. Walpole, a very practical man, had abandoned the idea of a grand development. He allowed many of the tenant farmers to continue on the property while he began leasing out plots of land at one tip of the estate to builders who would construct detached or semi-detached "villas," or "cottages." Each residence would be set at some distance from any other, within a rather substantial garden by London standards, often as large as a full acre.
The first of these new-style residences were called the "Alpha Cottages." These two cottages were the very first buildings in what would become the first garden suburb anywhere in the world, nearly a century before the Garden City Movement was even conceived. It was not long before Walpole Eyre had a road built to serve these new cottages, which was called Alpha Road. Walpole quickly came to realize that by building basic infrastructure into the area of the property on which he hoped to attract builders, he could charge more for each lease since the builders were well aware that they could get more in rents from the cottages and villas they constructed. Therefore, Walpole not only laid out and built a network of roads, he also included a reliable supply of clean water, as well as drains and sewers. Many speculative builders responded quickly and enthusiastically, vying for leases on that area of St. John’s Wood which was served by this infrastructure of modern conveniences, something almost unique for the city of London. In the metropolis, it was usually the wealthy who laid on piped water as well as constructing their own drains and sewer systems. Such utilities were not yet considered the responsibility of municipal authorities and were not universally available.
Though the costs of the leases was higher on the St. John’s Wood plots, the builders knew they could easily recover those expenses by charging higher rents on the cottages and villas they built there. At this time there was just emerging a new affluent middle-class of successful nabobs, ship captains, professional men, industrialists and merchants who could afford a comfortable private home. Not having been bred to the more rigid traditions of the gentry and aristocracy, they saw no reason not to enjoy all the modern conveniences of a modest home in a bucolic country setting that was within easy distance of London. These cottages and villas in St. John’s Wood, with their modern conveniences, required fewer servants to run, which made them more economical, even though their rents were somewhat higher, than the cost of operating a London townhouse staffed with an army of servants.
Walpole Eyre was a prudent administrator and he was careful to keep the pace of development on the St. John’s Wood property moderate. This had the effect of conferring a certain exclusivity on this new residential development while also maintaining the rural, almost pastoral, character of the area. Throughout the decade of the Regency, especially after the war ended and labor was available, more and more cottages and villas were built in St. John’s Wood. Each was nestled in its own expansive garden, which had the effect of shielding it from even its closest neighbors and thereby providing a sense of privacy and seclusion. Something which was not to be had by those who lived in London terrace houses, since even those with gardens were overlooked by their neighbors’ windows. Was it any wonder that a villa in St. John’s Wood soon became the choice for anyone seeking an isolated retreat in which to conduct their daily lives or any business they preferred to keep out of the public eye?
Next week, the origins of the notoriety which came to be associated with St. John’s Wood, due to the salacious and naughty activities which were supposed to have taken place there.