Regency Bicentennial:   The First Builder’s Merchant

Prior to 1815, builders in England could not go down to the local builder’s supply house to order the materials they would need for their next project. Each builder, and/or the client who had commissioned the building, would have to locate all the building materials which would be needed for the construction project from multiple sources. The search for building materials could be one of the most complex and time-consuming parts of a construction project. That all began to change in 1815.

How Thomas Cubitt showed the way . . .

Building in Britain, as everywhere else, was not a standard process until the Victorian period. Prior to that time, every building larger than a hut or shed was a major effort, designed for the specific location in which it was to be constructed. And each building was constructed with whatever materials might be available in the area, most often procured and gathered by the construction crew as the building progressed. By the second half of the seventeenth century, the aristocracy and gentry of England had embarked on the building of fine manor houses on their country estates and stylish townhouses in London, Bath and other large cities in Britain. This trend would continue right through the nineteenth century.

Throughout the eighteenth century, right up to the middle of the Regency, whenever a new building was to be constructed in Britain, either the property owner who had commissioned the building, the architect or the builder had to procure the necessary construction materials. In many cases, all three parties would be involved in acquiring the necessary building materials. For example, the property owner might take responsibility for providing the stone, if he had a quarry available, or the timber, if he had access to a good stand of trees. The architect might have an ongoing relationship with an iron-monger whom he could trust to produce quality iron-work to his specifications, or a glass-works from which he knew he could order the volume of glass needed for the windows in the new building. The builder might rely on a brick-maker whom he knew could provide the quantity and quality of bricks he would need, or a slater who could deliver the slates required for the roof.

Not only would all these building materials have to come from disparate sources, it often happened that at least some of these sources could not provide the full quantity of a specific building material required to complete a project. In those cases, more than one supplier would have to be approached, frequently resulting in situations like bricks which might be of slightly different sizes or colors, window glass of different thicknesses or tints, or timbers of varying levels of quality. Any or all of these discrepancies could result in a host of problems on the construction site, as well as possible defects in the completed structure. Those who were gathering these building materials might invest huge amounts of time, only to find they still did not have enough of one type of material or another, which might cause delays in construction, raising costs significantly.

In 1806, the young Thomas Cubitt hired on as a ship’s carpenter on a voyage to India. He saved enough money from that voyage to set up his own joinery business, with premises in Holborn, upon his return. The re-roofing of the London Institution, which he carefully managed, secured him a tidy profit. Those funds were then invested in speculative building in Chiswick. As he steadily expanded his construction activities, he saw the need for a regular and reliable source of building materials for his many projects. Aware that there was no single source of construction materials anywhere in Britain, he determined his only option was to establish one for his growing company. In that way, he could ensure he would never be prevented from meeting his building commitments due to lack of materials.

In 1815, Thomas Cubitt set up what was the very first comprehensive building materials yard on Gray’s Inn Lane (now Gray’s Inn Road). He contracted with the top suppliers of the most commonly used building materials, including, brick, timber, stone, slate, glass, sand, lime, iron and lead, among other commodities. Initially, Cubitt had intended that the building supplies he stockpiled in his Gray’s Inn Lane yard would be used in his own building projects. But he was able to realize great cost savings by buying in bulk and soon found that he could bring in additional revenue by supplying smaller builders who found it difficult to secure supplies, particularly in the greater London area. Thus, Thomas Cubitt, who soon went into partnership with two of his brothers, William and Lewis, became the very first builder’s supply merchant. The Cubitts also began to offer a selection of builder’s tools at their yard as well. It was not long before London builders and workmen in the building trades relied upon the Cubitts to supply most of their needs when it came to both supplies and tools.

Through most of the second half of the Regency, Cubitt’s building materials yard on Grey’s Inn Lane was the only one of its kind. It was patronized primarily by small builders in the London metropolitan area. For some time, many who were building in the country still used the usual methods of gathering needed construction materials. However, as other merchants and builders saw the value and the potential profits to be made as aggregators and sellers of the most commonly used building materials from a single supplier, other building merchant firms were founded. Initially, these firms were located in London, but it was not long before such concerns were appearing in other large cities and towns around the country. But the middle of the nineteenth century, nearly every city and town of any size in Britain had at least one builder’s merchant in the area, all thanks to the logical and progressive ideas of Thomas Cubitt, implemented during the Regency.

And so, Dear Regency Authors, why should you care about the emergence of the builder’s merchant during the Regency? Perhaps you are seeking a new, progressive business enterprise by which one of your characters might make their fortune. Of course, it was not seemly for members of the beau monde to engage in trade. But, it might be that your aristocratic hero is an investor and silent partner in a new builder’s merchant firm run by a good friend, which enables him to restore the family fortunes. Then again, mayhap the heroine is a bright and enterprising young woman, born into a large family, the members of which are all purveyors of one type of building supply. In order to ensure the family’s financial security, might she convince them all to establish their own builder’s merchant firm? Might she even manage it? How will the hero react to that when he comes to the firm seeking supplies for a building he is having constructed on his estate? Thomas Cubitt was reportedly a very kind and unassuming man. Might this character from history make an appearance in a Regency tale, perhaps as an advisor to that enterprising young heroine?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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2 Responses to Regency Bicentennial:   The First Builder’s Merchant

  1. Very interesting article, I alway enjoy texts about aspects we take for granted today that had their origine in the Regency period. Thank you for sharing.

    By the way, there is today a restaurant in London named after Thomas Cubitt.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am glad you liked the article! I also enjoy things which originated in the Regency which have survived into the present day

      That restaurant is named after this Thomas Cubitt. In addition to being the originator of builders’ merchants, he was a prolific builder who also became a friend and adviser to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. From what I learned, he was also a very socialable man, so having a restaurant named after him is most appropriate.

      Regards,

      Kat

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