Last week, the development of the area of London known as St. John’s Wood was outlined, from medieval forest to Regency garden suburb. The grand plan for this property, drawn up in 1794, included detached and semi-detached houses, something never before seen in an urban area in England, or anywhere in Europe, for that matter. Though this grand plan was never executed, when the St. John’s Wood area began to be developed in the early nineteenth century, all the residences built there were detached or semi-detached villas and cottages, nestled in a surrounding garden area which shielded them from the sight of their neighbors and any passers-by. With such privacy available, both indoors and out, conveniently located within easy reach of the metropolis, is it any wonder that naughtiness in so many varieties ensued in St. John’s Wood during the Regency and for at least a century thereafter?
St. John’s Wood, secluded, louche and rather naughty …
St. John’s Wood has often been the location of a gentleman’s love nest or the home he has provided for his long-term mistress in countless Regency novels. But in actual fact, there had been kept women in parts of St. John’s Wood as far back as the Restoration. Charles II is believed to have had a cottage built there for one of his mistresses. Amy Walter, the mistress of Lord Fitzhardinge, was living in a cottage in the Wood in 1665, when she received news that Fitzhardinge had been killed during a fierce sea-battle against the Dutch. Another remarkable, if quite outré woman, the German-born Mary Moders Steadman, aka Carleton, declared from the scaffold at Tyburn in 1678, where she was about to be hanged for theft, that she had lived in St. John’s Wood as the mistress of a married clergyman. Following that, she had claimed to be a German princess, and in that guise had committed bigamy, though she had been able to get herself acquitted of that charge. She then went on to play this version of herself on the stage in a play called The German Princess, which had a short run at the Duke’s Playhouse. Samuel Pepys saw the play and recorded his decided aversion to it in his diary.
After a round of Restoration courtesans, kept women were not often kept in St. John’s Wood for over a century. It settled back into being a large rural and agricultural tract northwest of London, populated with more sheep and cattle than people. When development began in St. John’s Wood in 1809, with the construction of the first detached cottages along Alpha Road, one of the first residents can be credited with initiating the disreputable reputation which would cling to St. John’s Wood for decades. Though Alpha Road was within only a few miles of London, it was perceived to be the back of beyond in 1809. The perfect place for a man seeking anonymity, in this case, the Earl of Kingston. An aristocrat, Kingston could have conferred a certain cachet on the new development. Instead, the Earl was a homosexual and a chronic alcoholic seeking a refuge out of the public eye as he steadily drank himself into a state of insanity. Kingston may have been the first, but he was not the last, social outcast with money to seek a place of retreat in St. John’s Wood. The architectural historian, Sir John Summerson, wrote, " … almost from the first St. John’s Wood attracted the odd man out who had sufficient means to be odd without discomfort."
It must be made clear that the bulk of the St. John’s Wood tract remained the property of Colonel Henry Samuel Eyre until his death in 1851. Though he was always consulted on major decisions, he left the daily management of the estate to his younger brother, Walpole. After his retirement from the army in 1813, Colonel Eyre lived the life of a landed gentleman while he enjoyed a large share of the profits from the steady development of St. John’s Wood. Colonel Henry Eyre never married and he bequeathed his entire estate to his youngest brother, Walpole Eyre. By then, Walpole was in his late seventies and the St. John’s Wood property was managed by his two eldest sons. At his own death in 1856, Walpole left the estate to the two sons who had been managing the property. They in turn, handed it down to the next generation of Eyres. In fact, much of the area is still in the hands of the Eyre family even now.
From the time of the initial development along Alpha Road, in 1809, Walpole Eyre, who managed the estate for his elder brother, leased large plots of land to speculative builders for long terms, often as long as ninety-nine years. These builders, or their potential tenants, would have to submit plans for their proposed houses to Walpole for his approval. Once they had approved plans, they built houses to those plans on the plots they had leased from the Eyres. When the houses were completed, the builders then typically sold on the lease and the house to the tenant of the house. The property owner then became the tenant’s "ground" landlord, in the case of St. John’s Wood, the ground landlord was Walpole Eyre. This practice enabled the speculative builders to reap a fairly fast profit with the least effort, freeing them to move on to yet other tracts of undeveloped land. The advantage for the ground landlord was that they got their property developed and let at relatively low cost, and when the lease expired, they then owned both the land and any buildings upon it. However, some builders saw the advantage of renting or leasing the houses themselves, by which they could earn a higher profit, but over a longer period of time. The tenants of these houses actually had to deal with two levels of landlord in certain cases, if there was a disagreement between the tenant and the builder or should there be serious complaints from neighbors. Walpole Eyre had the final say in any kind of dispute or disagreement, even to the point of demanding a tenant vacate the house they were renting. However, he very seldom went to such lengths. By all reports, Walpole Eyre was a kind, good-natured man, as well as being an able administrator of the estate. In most cases, he actually mediated disputes and disagreements between anyone who had lodged a complaint, the tenant of the house and/or the builder from whom they were renting their home. Most cases seem to have come to an amicable conclusion.
The Earl of Kingston is a case in point. Apparently, the builder/landlord had learned of Kingston’s sexual preferences and wanted to evict him. Since the Earl lived fairly quietly and did not flaunt either his sexuality or his excessive drinking, Walpole Eyre refused to allow him to be evicted from his home. However, there were other instances in houses along Alpha Road in which Walpole became involved when neighbors complained. One house was being used as a lunatic asylum, a common practice at this time. Anyone could set themselves up as a keeper of lunatics, taking a house in a rural or secluded area where their charges could be hidden away. Families would then employ them to keep odd or peculiar relations out of sight. Some of the neighbors of this house were concerned for their safety, but upon investigation, Walpole Eyre determined that none of the lunatics was dangerous. He allowed the asylum to remain in place, though he did request that the inmates not be allowed in that part of the garden which abutted that of the complaining neighbors. In another house along Alpha Road, several "laundresses" had taken up residence. But these "laundresses" spent much less time washing sheets than they did soiling them, for payment. Curiously, it seems the actual practice of prostitution was not at issue, merely the fact that it was visible. Walpole Eyre negotiated an agreement with the "laundresses" that they would confine their more
risqué activities within doors and that they would be more circumspect in their dress and behavior when outside their house. However, it should be noted that in later decades, both lunatic asylums and laundries, of all kinds, were prohibited from St. John’s Wood.
That early "laundry" in the Alpha Road cottage seems to have been one of the rare instances of a house of prostitution operating in St. John’s Wood, at least during the Regency. Probably because it was too far away from central London to attract enough customers to make it profitable. However, a villa in St. John’s Wood soon became the residence of choice for retired madams, as well as those high-priced and successful Cyprians who were under the protection of a wealthy man. As Dan Cruickshank makes clear in his book, London’s Sinful Secret: The Bawdy History and Very Public Passions of London’s Georgian Age, prostitution, and the Georgian sex industry in general, was one of the most powerful, and constant, financial engines driving new construction across London from the eighteenth century right into the nineteenth. There were vast amounts of money to be made in the sex trade, and those in the top tiers, particularly successful madams, could afford to retire in style. But many of these women, though they might crave a quiet life in the county, often could not bring themselves to remove completely from the metropolis. A villa in St. John’s Wood offered them the perfect retirement residence. It was out of the city, in a rural setting, within the seclusion of a private garden. Yet, their villa was still close enough that a trip to visit friends, to shop on Bond Street, or enjoy a night at the theatre or the opera were all within easy travel distance. But perhaps most important of all, since the Wood was on the rise as a fashionable residential area, their leased villas would only increase in value, a solid hedge against any unforseen financial downturns.
The same rationale which made villas in St. John’s Wood so attractive to retired madams also made them a magnet for women still in the sex trade who had been able to acquire a wealthy protector. Fine clothes and exquisite jewels were certainly prized by the majority of those women, as a mark of their protector’s appreciation and devotion. But clothing would go out of fashion or wear out and the price of precious gems could fluctuate, assuming, of course, the gems were real. However, a smart and sensible woman would appreciate even more the gift of a paid long-term lease on a piece of property, especially a villa in St. John’s Wood. Such a gift was real security for a woman who often had very little of it. When the liaison ended, she could stay in the house, secure in the knowledge she had a roof over her head, if she did not find another protector. If she was able to find a new protector quickly, she could rent out her villa, should her new gentleman friend provide her with a different home. She could then bank or invest her rental income to help fund her retirement when she was ready to leave the business.
A villa in St. John’s Wood was also a good investment during the Regency for those men who were less generous to their women and chose not to bestow the lease for the property on an ex-paramour. The lease on such a property would only increase in value the longer they held it, thereby helping to off-set some of the costs of their pleasure, regardless of how many women they might choose to establish there over the years. In almost all cases, these men would be able to sell their lease on to someone else, at a profit, when they no longer had need of their villa. Many men preferred a secluded villa in St. John’s Wood for another reason, the privacy it afforded them. They would be free to visit their mistress whenever they liked, without having to worry about their visits being observed. Particularly for those men who did not want it known they kept a mistress, during the Regency, a villa in St. John’s Wood was ideal. But over the course of just the next few decades, so many men had taken to keeping their mistresses in St. John’s Wood that it was automatically assumed that any man who had a house in the Wood was keeping a mistress there. In the Victorian era, when the philosopher, Herbert Spencer, took a house in St. John’s Wood, a local bishop’s first response was, "And who is the lady?"
Due in large part to Walpole Eyre’s reasonable and unprejudiced attitude, St. John’s Wood gained a reputation for tolerance. It attracted not only retired madams and high-class courtesans, but also those in the theatre as well as musicians, artists, architects and writers. Mrs. Siddons took a villa in St. John’s Wood when she retired from the stage and entertained many of her friends there. Other successful actors and actresses also retired to the area. François Joseph Dizi, considered the best harpist in London and the owner of a harp factory in Soho, lived in St. John’s Wood when he became successful. The painter, Benjamin Robert Haydon, was one of the first of many artists to take up residence in St. John’s Wood. By the mid-nineteenth century, it was home to most of the notable British artists of the era. Charles Heathcote Tatham, architect and a protege of Henry Holland, not only designed a number of villas in the Wood, he eventually leased one for himself on Alpha Road. George Coleman, the Younger, was one of the first playwrights to take a villa in the Wood, at Melina Place. John Gibson Lockhart, the son-in-law of Walter Scott, and a writer himself, also had a home in the Wood, as did many other successful writers, right through the end of the nineteenth century.
Some of the better known, though somewhat scandalous, residents of St. John’s Wood included Maria Fitzherbert, the Prince of Wales’ morganatic wife, who lived for some time at Stockleigh House after her last break with the Prince Regent. And Jane Belmont, believed to have been the last mistress of George IV, also retired to a house in the Wood after his death, in 1830. The infamous Mrs. Everest, the daughter of a peer, eloped with one of her father’s footman, then later abandoned him for a wealthy sugar-broker. Her sugar-broker died two years later, leaving her a fortune, which she used to establish her own household in an elegant villa in Circus Road. Mary "Molly" Meers, the daughter of a Leicester blacksmith, had become a successful actress by the age of sixteen, but gave up acting for the life of an adventuress. She eventually garnered the protection of a wealthy, widowed and elderly banker, who set her up in her own villa in St. John’s Wood. It is believed that many of Molly’s real-life adventures were the inspiration for William Makepeace Thackery’s most memorable character, Becky Sharp, the heroine of his novel, Vanity Fair.
The Earl of Kingston was not the only homosexual to take up residence in St. John’s Wood. At a time when such a sexual orientation was punishable by death, the secluded villas in the Wood became a haven of tolerance, rural peace and relative safety. It may be that because two of his friends, the Hall brothers, had been subject to charges of being sodomites, Walpole Eyre was remarkably tolerant on this issue. He seems never to have discriminated against any of his tenants for their sexual preferences, an attitude which was quite rare for any landlord at this time. Perhaps because so many people who lived in St. John’s Wood during the Regency had come to the area seeking privacy, most residents tended to respect the privacy of their neighbors. The Wood’s reputation for tolerance was genuine.
Perhaps the most well-connected social outcast to live in St. John’s Wood arrived shortly after the Regency, during the reign of King George IV. William Pole-Wellesley, a nephew of the Duke of Wellington, married the heiress, Catherine Tylney-Long, in 1812, but the marriage was not a success. He soon became enamored of Helena Bligh, the wife of a captain in the Coldstream Guards. Even though he eventually married Mrs. Bligh, after his first wife died, he remained a social pariah, shunned by polite society. Pole-Wellesley was a notorious rake, and many believed he had caused his first wife’s death by giving her a venereal disease. Society was not very forgiving and he was never again accepted in the best homes. Having also run through the bulk of his first wife’s fortune, he took a modest villa in St. John’s Wood in the mid-1820s.
The early, slow pace of development of the St. John’s Wood property began to accelerate by the mid-point of the Regency. With the Napoleonic Wars finally over, vast numbers of potential construction workers were returning to England, as entire regiments were disbanded. Upwardly mobile middle-class men involved in new industrial ventures, the trade with India and China, as well as colonial investments, were returning to London with their wealth, seeking a comfortable home in an upscale area of the metropolis, and St. John’s Wood became increasingly attractive. But St. John’s Wood was a vast tract of land, and well into the middle of the 1820s, it was mostly open countryside, dotted here and there with villas and cottages surrounded by substantial gardens which screened the houses from prying eyes. This rural character began to slip away by the 1840s, as the pace of development intensified, and within another score of years, those who had lived in St. John’s Wood during the Regency would not have recognized the garden suburb heavily populated with successful businessmen, affluent professionals, and the more respectable artists, musicians, actors and writers.
Due to its diverse and not always respectable population, St. John’s Wood acquired some rather tongue-in-cheek nicknames, including "Apostle’s Grove" and the "Grove of the Evangelist." Alan Montgomery Eyre, an early historian of St. John’s Wood, wrote of it in 1913, "Whatever other titles to fame St. John’s Wood possesses, surely its last surviving association will be that with the heroines of passion and the victims of propriety." That perception did not really change as the nineteenth century progressed. Many wealthy men still set up their mistresses in St. John’s Wood, even into the early decades of the twentieth century. But by then, there were fewer villas and more flats, so the women in those later years did not often enjoy the same level of seclusion nor such spacious homes or extensive gardens as had their Regency sisters.
The next time a house in St. John’s Wood figures in a Regency novel you are reading, you will have a better idea of its history and how the area appeared during that time. Though the gardens around many of the villas in the early years of St. John’s Wood were not as large as those on a grand country estate, they were substantial, certainly larger than the plot allocated to most suburban houses today. In addition, many of those gardens had been laid out by professional gardeners, so they were often quite charming and attractive. During the Regency, a lady and her gentleman friend would be able to spend time out of doors in the garden of their St. John’s Wood villa and enjoy much the same privacy they would have enjoyed indoors, with little concern for prying neighbors. A great deal of naughtiness could be got up to in such a private setting.
For further reading on the history of St. John’s Wood:
Bowen, Elizabeth and Hepburn, Allan, editors, People, Places, Things: Essays. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008.
Cruickshank, Dan, London’s Sinful Secret: The Bawdy History and Very Public Passions of London’s Georgian Age. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2009.
Eyre, Alan Montgomery, Saint John’s Wood: Its History, its Houses, its Haunts and its Celebrities. London: Chapman and Hall, 1913.
Galinou, Mireille, Cottages and Villas: The Birth of the Garden Suburb. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.
Hirschfelder, Günther, Peter Borsay, Ruth-Elisabeth Mohrmann, New Directions in Urban History: Aspects of European Art, Health, Tourism and Leisure Since the Enlightenment. Mûnster: Waxmann Verlag, 2000.
Lawrence, Henry W., City Trees: A Historical Geography from the Renaissance Through the Nineteenth Century. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006.
Pevsner, Sir Nikolaus, and Cherry, Bridget, London: North West. 3. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991.
Sheppard, Martin, et. al., Regent’s Park and Primrose Hill. London: Frances Lincoln, Ltd., 2010.
Summerson, John Newenham, Georgian London: An Architectural Study. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.
Tames, Richard, St. John’s Wood and Maida Vale Past. London: Historical Publications, 1998.