In early 18th-century London, just as today, property speculation was big business. At the time, many people with capital and political connections would buy land and speculatively develop it, hoping for big profits. One such person was the 70-year-old retired military hero Richard Lumley. Lumley, the first Earl of Scarborough, was among the Immortal Seven, the group of men that invited William and Mary to England to take the throne from the deposed James II. Upon retiring, Lumley plunged his wealth into property speculation, purchasing, in 1713, a large area of land between Conduit Street and Oxford Street.
Such speculative ventures were highly competitive and financially risky. To succeed, investors had to attract rich aristocrats to take leases in their developments; if the developers failed to do this, they flopped spectacularly. So it was necessary to design a new quarter that was elegant and distinctive – that would attract the right sort of people.
Lumley appointed a designer, Thomas Barlow, who came up with a brilliant design: a new square approached by a funnel-like street on which he proposed to build a church. The shape of the street would give room for his spectacular church to be admired, and it would also provide a nice vista for his handsome new square.
It was all very ambitious. But the general knew what he was doing. Britain had just got itself out of a long and expensive war. The treaty of Utrecht, signed in 1713, ushered in a period of confidence and stability; it was a good time for new developments. The question remained just how to promote it. In this Lumley was clever, too.
Queen Anne had no heir, and it was clear that George, Prince of Hanover, would succeed her. In 1714 Anne died and as anticipated, the Prince, who of course was protestant, became George I of England. At that time, Lumley declared that his development would be called Hanover Square, that the church would be dedicated to St. George and that a huge statue of the monarch would adorn its portico.
This was a shrewd move: the new square was dedicated to the man that everyone now wanted to know. As the houses began to rise around it in 1717, wealthy and powerful aristocrats eagerly took leases. Many of the first inhabitants were military men, recently retired from the European wars, like Lumley. Other residents included the Lord Chancellor, the Duke of Roxborough and Lord Cadogan. All these men had fought to secure the protestant succession to the throne and they immediately created a fashionable community centred on the square and the church.
When it was completed, the square had a baroque feel to it. The houses were modelled out of finely cut and rubbed red brick, with columned door frames, and at the square’s centre was a garden for the inhabitants to enjoy.
Three centuries later, four of the original houses have survived – all on the western side. Number 24 was originally occupied by General Stewart and although it was largely rebuilt in 1983, it still has the distinctive tall windows with aprons beneath them, giving a strong vertical emphasis to the façade. Numbers 20 and 21 are also remodelled survivors of the early 18th century; they were probably designed by the Huguenot engineer, Nicholas Dubois.
When it arrived, Hanover Square was a big success, and a highly fashionable place to live. Today, it is no less fashionable – as a place to live or to base a business. Richard Lumley, I think, would be proud.