Over the years, several bibliographic references to this book have crossed my path, increasingly piquing my curiosity and my desire to read it. My local library has a copy of the first edition, but it is in storage and the lengthy process required to get hold of that copy was more daunting than I was willing to endure. Recently, I was able to acquire a used copy of the second edition, in very good condition and at a price that did not break the budget. Though it is a thoroughly researched and well-written book, with a nice selection of illustrations, not all students of the Regency period may feel it necessary to add this volume to their library. I am hoping this review will help them to make their decision.
The Regency parts of Regent Street: A Mile of Style . . .
First, I think it is important to take note of the author of this book, Hermione Hobhouse. At university, she studied history, then worked for a time as a researcher and writer for British television, before becoming a freelance writer. Hobhouse wrote a number of books, including the definitive biography of the Regency and Victorian architect, Thomas Cubitt. In addition to her own books on various aspects of British architectural history, she also served as the general editor of that magnificent multi-volume architectural history, the Survey of London, for eleven years. One of her best known books is Lost London, which documents many of the important architectural treasures of the metropolis which have been lost to demolition in the name of progress. Hobhouse was an active member of a number of British preservation organizations while she continued her research into various aspects of the architectural history of the greater London area. Sadly, Hermione Hobhouse passed away in October of 2014.
In 1975, Hermione Hobhouse published A History of Regent Street, which seems to have been the first time any scholar had focused solely on the history of that fascinating London thoroughfare. Sadly, at about that same time, Regent Street’s fashionable cachet and popularity were on the decline. Then, shortly after the turn of the twenty-first century, Regent Street began undergoing a major re-development which restored its fashionable prestige and prominence. Perhaps due to this successful transformation, after a long career recording and advocating for the historic architecture of the London area, Hobhouse decided to revisit her history of Regent Street. In 2008, she revised and updated her history of that famous and fashionable thoroughfare, bringing it into this century. That new book was published with the full title, A History of Regent Street: A Mile of Style. It is that edition of the book which will be reviewed here.
A History of Regent Street: A Mile of Style covers the history of Regent Street from the early days of its initial planning right through the re-developed street of the early twenty-first century. The "Regency" history of Regent Street is covered in the first two chapters of the book. It was one of the first organized urban developments in the greater London area. The Prince of Wales, who would soon become Regent, envied the grand boulevards which Napoleon Bonaparte had ordered constructed in Paris. He wanted similar grand streets to be laid out and constructed in London. Regent Street would be the first such development, but it would also be the last large-scale urban redevelopment plan in London for decades, due to the extensive upheaval it caused in the area for several years. One cannot help but sympathize with those who were affected, based on the narrative provided by Hobhouse.
In fact, planning for a new layout of wider, straighter city streets to replace the warren of medieval streets and alleys in this area had been in the works almost as soon as the flames of Great Fire of London were extinguished, in 1666. However, various impediments had prevented the undertaking of any comprehensive development in the area. That began to change in 1811, when the Crown Estate once again had regained ownership of most of the land plots along the right-of-way that would eventually become Regent Street. That same year, the Prince of Wales became Regent and he was eager to put his stamp on the British capital. In 1806, John Nash had been appointed to the Office of Woods and Forests. Even before that, he had become a trusted advisor to the Prince. The two men had discussed plans for a wide avenue which would run between Carlton House, the Regent’s London home, and what was then Marylebone Park, which would be renamed the Regent’s Park. Hobhouse explains in detail how this very complex plan came together, illustrated with various contemporary maps, plans and drawings.
In addition to the standard planning and architectural history of the development, Hobhouse also considers the social and cultural and economic ramifications of this large-scale development. Apparently, arrogance, snobbery and political power influenced the judgments which guided urban renewal two centuries ago, as they can sometimes do even today. It seems that Nash had intended to plot a straight boulevard between Carlton House and Marylebone Park, but he had not counted on the views of many of the residents and abutting property owners. The wealthy residents of Mayfair objected to the demolition of the fine buildings in their neighborhoods. They also did not want this new street to interfere with the elegant squares which punctuated their exclusive section of the city. Unable to over come this attitude, Nash had to move the right-of-way for his new street much further west than he had originally planned. By so doing, the route selected would become an unofficial dividing line between upscale Mayfair and working class area of Soho.
Quite a number of homes and businesses had to be demolished to make way for this new street. There was some effort to be fair, to those residents who were deemed acceptable. Such was not the case for those who did not meet the acceptability criteria applied by the authorities who managed the process. Those residents and business owners in the areas schedule for demolition who were considered respectable were given opportunities to take leases on comparable properties along the route of the new roadway. However, those who were deemed unacceptable in any way were usually denied such opportunities, apparently in an effort to maintain the "quality" of the tenants of the new avenue. According to Hobhouse, in particular, Nash wanted no purveyors of food to have premises along his brand new boulevard. He preferred that the tenants along this street be upper-class residents and upscale businesses. This seems to have been more because he felt such tenants could afford the higher rents that would be charged than simple discrimination against working-class folks.
There were no real zoning laws in force at this time, so the length of Regent Street was planned as what amounted to a mixed-use development. Hobhouse reports that there were a number of upper-class residences constructed along this new street. However, it seems that a large number of tenants along the street were tradesmen who kept a shop on their ground floor and had their residence on the floor(s) above. Several gentlemen’s clubs also took premises along Regent Street, though most of that seems to have taken place in the decade after the Regency came to an end. In fact, though the planning for Regent Street began in 1811, and the official design for the street was adopted by an Act of Parliament in 1813, demolition and construction took so long that the first tenants did not begin moving into the homes and shops along the first section of the street to be completed until 1818. The full length of the Regent Street development was not completed until 1825, after the Regency had come to an end, but while George IV was still on the throne.
Hobhouse has provided portraits of some of the men who were involved in this very ambitious development, including John Nash and the Prince of Wales. These are intermingled with a number of maps of the area, as well as plans and elevations for buildings which would be constructed along Regent Street. But she did not ignore the social and political illustrations which were associated with this grand development. She also sought out some of the caricatures related to the Regent Street development which were published at the time, with explanations in her text about the reactions their targets had to them. The last section of Chapter 2, "A Grand Commanding Street," features a series of rollout views of the completed Regent Street which were published by John Tallis in his Street Views of London, between 1838 and 1840. Though these street views were published during the early years of the reign of Queen Victoria, they are the most comprehensive views of Regent Street as it appeared soon after it was completed. By 1940, all of those buildings had been demolished. Today, none of the buildings from the original development are still standing anywhere along the length of Regent Street.
Hobhouse has also provided a select bibliography, which includes not only published sources, but also primary sources and various reports about the area. One of the gems listed in this bibliography is Metropolitan Improvements; or London in the Nineteenth Century: being a series of views, of the new and most interesting objects in the British metropolis & its vicinity, by James Elwes. The first edition of this book of London buildings was published in 1827, and includes illustrations of many of the original buildings along Regent Street. Today, this well-illustrated book is quite rare and expensive. But fortunately, the copy in the Cornell University Library has been digitized and is available for download at the Internet Archive, here. Another copy, though not as cleanly scanned, is also available for download and can be found at Google Books.
A History of Regent Street: A Mile of Style is comprised of eight chapters devoted to the two hundred-year history of this grand London thoroughfare. However, only the first two chapters cover the period of its origins through the Regency. It is well-written and lavishly illustrated, and the hardcover edition is still in print, though it retails for $58.95 US. Regency authors on a budget, who have only a passing interest in the full two centuries of Regent Street history, may want to seek out a more cost-effective, used copy of this book, if they feel the need to add it to their Regency research library. Otherwise, it may be enough to check it out from the local library.