"The Oldie is an incredible magazine - perhaps the best magazine in the world right now" Graydon Carter, founder of Air Mail and former Editor of Vanity Fair

Subscribe to the Oldie and get a free cartoon book


Mayfair lady - Simon Jenkins

Blog | By Simon Jenkins | Jun 09, 2022

Streets paved with gold: Grosvenor Square, first developed in 1725. Picture by Thomas Bowles (1712-53)

Tragic heiress Mary Davies owned a huge slice of London. Her estate was a model for building beautiful cities, says Simon Jenkins

It was the grandest of larcenies.

The year was 1701 and the lady was clearly unwell. She had arrived one night at a Paris hotel with a small retinue of servants and a Catholic monk. A doctor was called, who over the following week regularly bled her and gave her emetics and opium. Soon she was weakened, ranting and deranged. Her servants were mostly sent back to London.

Then one evening the monk’s penniless brother, one Edward Fenwick, whom the lady had hardly met, arrived, entered her room and spent the night in her bed. The following morning it was announced that the monk had married them, with two well-rewarded servants as witnesses. She was now Mrs Edward Fenwick. She never saw her ‘husband’ again.

The lady was Mary, 34-year-old widow of the recently deceased Sir Thomas Grosvenor and heiress to a vast estate across the western outskirts of London.

On her return to London, Mary denied utterly any knowledge of a marriage. Her frantic family rushed her north to the Grosvenor family home in Cheshire, fighting off suggestions she be certified a lunatic. Meanwhile, Fenwick began issuing rental demands on Grosvenor properties along Millbank.

Four years of litigation followed, with all London agog. Finally, the Fenwick marriage was declared null and void and Mary was to spend the rest of her life under guardianship. But her trustees and eventually her infant son were able to resume development of manorial farmland from what is now Pimlico north through Victoria and Belgravia to Mayfair. It was to be the richest urban estate in Britain.

London never belonged to monarchs or, after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, to bishops. It had no need of defensive walls and moats, or anything to stop it spreading wherever the market went. Those owning its surrounding land needed only to wait for the gold dust of bricks and mortar to fall into their laps.

One such was an infant girl named Mary Davies, descendant of a wealthy court official, Hugh Audley, who had amassed 500 acres west of London, which passed to Mary during the plague of 1665.

Mary Davies, 1665-1730

Mary’s practical mother waited until the girl was seven and ripe for the marriage market. She was paraded in Hyde Park, virtually with a price on her carriage. Lord Berkeley led the bidding on behalf of his ten-year-old son, but he was outbid and, in 1677, the girl went to the 21-year-old Sir Thomas Grosvenor, to whom she was married in St Clement Danes at the age of 12.

She was delivered to his house on maturity when she was 15.

At first all went well. The couple had three sons and a daughter and divided their year between the Grosvenor land in Cheshire and a house at Millbank, on the Thames, where building was begun.

But in 1700, Sir Thomas died suddenly and Mary began to lose her mind; this led to the disaster in Paris. After the court case, she spent most of the rest of her life in Cheshire. As the property market boomed, her family were in 1725 to begin work on what was to be the grandest residential estate in London, Grosvenor Square. The rest is history.

Leo Hollis has written a thorough and readable account of the Mary Davies saga, at times almost as a thriller, set in the glamour of Restoration London.

We dodge from the plague and the Glorious Revolution into matrimonial rights, lunacy acts and 99-year leases. The life of this otherwise inconsequential woman is meticulously recorded, and all for the incubus of an inheritance which she barely seemed to comprehend.

Her descendants were to put their names – and those of their country villages, such as Belgrave, Eaton and Eccleston – on a swath of west London. She herself is honoured only in Davies Street in Mayfair.

Mary Davies was not alone. Heiresses were the honey round which the bees of London’s estates market hovered. There was Henrietta Holles of the Portland, Rachel Wriothesley of the Bedford, Eliza Sloane of the Cadogan and Elizabeth Spencer of the Compton, all swept up by young aristocrats eager for money.

Other inheritances followed, with Portman, Ladbroke, Holland and Fitzroy all leaving their mark, or at least their names, on the metropolis.

That private property should be embodied in those who own it is not surprising. We all have stuff and, all things being legal if not equal, we like to pass it on to those we choose.

When that property is also a city it can clearly be problematic. What in the country is a matter of acres and cows, in London was one of squares, terraces, brickyards, kilns and people. In the 18th century, London was growing without limit and at the whim and to the profit of just a dozen or so families.

Hollis seems alternately fascinated and appalled by this state of affairs, and that it should so dictate the fate of one small girl. That Mary was a victim, not least of her mother, is plain but, at least in the outcome, a sort of justice was done. What is not clear is what harm was done to London.

The owners of the great estates that drove London’s growth, at least until the coming of the railway, were motivated by status and money. They were responding to a soaring demand for houses outside the pestilential and crowded streets of the City of London, but they mostly treated their estates as they did their rural ones, whose quality and value needed guarding for their heirs in perpetuity. Most were, at least initially, responsible developers.

They built round a London invention (albeit borrowed from Paris): the city square. This was in effect a micro-community, often gated, surrounded by a grid of streets, mews, courts and alleys, with properties for rich and poor. The spaces between the estates, such as St Giles and Soho, were among the poorest parishes in London.

All was not ideal. The market boomed and went bust. The Crown Estate at Regent’s Park was wracked by bankruptcies. Terraces had to replace intended villas. The Ladbroke Estate was a commercial disaster. The Grosvenors received less rent from Pimlico’s builder, Thomas Cubitt, than from the previous market gardens.

The state did attempt some control. Stuart monarchs, at least prior to the Great Fire, sought to curb building. When the Earl of Bedford wanted to build over Covent Garden in 1630 for a ‘fine’ of £2,000, the Star Chamber dictated its extent, design and even the architect, Inigo Jones.

Earl of Bedford’s Covent Garden with Inigo Jones’s St Paul’s (1633). 1820 picture

Building heights and materials were regulated by law. You can tell the date of an old London street by the depth of its window reveals. The story of London planning control is one of endless missed opportunities, but that is not the fault of the market – estate London was the envy and admiration of Europe.

Hollis is clearly unsettled by his story. He ends his account of a fascinating chapter in London’s history with the view that the estate system was somehow wrong and that London should have grown ‘on common land and to the common good’, rather than for private profit.

He applauds Jeremy Corbyn’s desire to make it ‘easier for a community to own and manage property for the benefit of the group’.

I have seen what ‘community management of property’ has given London, and it is mostly ugly and in the process of being demolished. We treasure and preserve what remains of the great estates.

Yes, the benefit of all should be the determinant of London’s appearance, and private profit is too often its enemy. But that requires public control, not ownership.

London’s best face today is a legacy of a market responding to public taste. It is that taste that has declined.

Leo Hollis is the author of Inheritance: The Lost History of Mary Davies – A Story of Property, Marriage and Madness (Oneworld)