Mount Street Mayfair – Secrets and Spies since the 17th Century
I have spent most of my life in a 4th floor walk up on Mount St, Mayfair, where I brought up two husbands, three children and penned thirteen books – the Mayfair Times declaring them “A Right Royal Read” – I know Mayfair’s secrets past and present. I have seen the Queen Mother dine in Scott’s and the same year saw the Molotov Cocktail hurled by the IRA through the windows, killing diners inside. In the seventies, like most of London, Berkeley Square was piled with rubbish and sandbags and chicken wire encased many shop windows and clubs to deter passing gelignite hurlers, yet for all its glamour and brutality, Mayfair remains a true London Village and Mount St its High Street. Everyone knows everyone’s secrets, quite an achievement for a street International spies have called home since the 17th Century.
Sometimes sitting in my Dormer window seat I hear the whispering as I look out on Mount Street Gardens where amongst the exotic fronds and shady dappled light my father and other spies received their secret orders in World War II.
Mount St like most of Mayfair has had many incarnations. Mayfair, then Tyburn was listed in the Domesday Book as a spiritual site for pilgrims seeking the sacred waters of the springs that now run under Bond Street tube. In the 1640’s Mayfair was a battle ground in Cromwell’s Bloody War of attrition against Art and Beauty – Mount Street was Cromwell’s barricades known then as Cromwell’s Mount. Cromwell murdered King Charles I for his love of Art and Beauty. His court had become a haven for the arts thanks to his wife Henrietta Marie née De Medici who was a patron of opera, artists and literature. The Queen hired her friend Inigo Jones to build Covent Garden so Londoners could have a theatre land and open air piazzas such as those she knew from Italy. To the Protestants like Cromwell Art and Beauty were the pathway to hell and after killing off the King, he melted the Crown Jewels and sold off her art collection and executed the artists she had supported. Any expression of Art Beauty or joy was condemned as Papist under Cromwell and his rule a pogrom on Eccentrics artists and lovers of beauty.
During Cromwell’s Commonwealth from 1649-1659 Mayfair was known as the Catholic Killing Fields where women caught wearing lipstick, children playing with a ball or men caught singing or drinking were declared Papists and hung drawn and quartered in Tyburn along with artists, poets, actors, architects, dancers and jewellers.
Upon the Restoration of Charles II he transformed the blood soaked fields into a haven for eccentrics and lovers and creators of Art and Beauty and Mount St like the rest of Mayfair was hastily built into a retail and residential area. Since 1660 Mayfair has been always associated with luxury, eccentrics and spies. The first mansions and shops were built in the 1660s when London was really swinging and everyone of Quality wanted proximity to King Charles II’s merry court at St James’s Palace.
Later, in the 1860’s when the Jesuit’s built their Presbytery on Mount Street and The Church of The Immaculate Conception between Mount St and Farm St it quickly became the haunt of celebrity Catholics and converts including writers Oscar Wilde, Siegfried Sassoon, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and, later, actor Alec Guinness. The Jesuits transformed the graveyard where Laurence Stern and other Mayfair luminaries lay buried into a palm fronded paradise – where I’ve enjoyed many picnics playing croquet and sat upon the bench seats tapping away on my Mac.
Around this same time in 1860, The Grosvenor Estate underwent a comprehensive rebuilding program, wiping out all traces of the buildings and shops erected in the 1660’s – 1860’s. Mount St and the rest of Mayfair was completely rebuilt in a more orderly fashion, whilst maintaining its theme as a haven for eccentrics and “lovers of, and creators of, Art and Beauty”. Despite his attempts to preserve the two workhouses on Mount St in the rebuilding in 1880 the 1st Duke of Westminster, Hugh Grosvenor was forced to move the two work houses off Mount St to make way for Carlos Place.
During World War II Mayfair was hit hard in the Blitz, my father recalls parties in the Connaught where Charles De Gaulle resided along with many senior American serviceman. My father wasn’t the only spy who received his missions in the Mount St gardens at dawn and the area continues to attract spies and act as the setting for ‘hand-overs”, mysterious murders and unexplained deaths during the Cold War to this day.
Manning the Tombola Stall at our local residents association’s Annual Fete over the years I’ve sold tickets to Dukes and Dandies, for what defines a Mount St lover and brings us together, continues to be our shared love of Art and Beauty just as it was in the 1660’s. A regard for Art and Beauty, tolerance, cups of tea and saucers of champagne along with attention to detail; be it in a button hole or a perfectly crafted Martini are the hallmarks of The British Eccentric as laid down in the 1660’s – 1680’s when King Charles and his eccentric cross-dressing Queen Catherine were on the throne.
The entwined C’s on the lampposts of Mayfair represent this time in British history when Mayfair, which was named for the eccentric Catholic landowner of the area, Dame Mary “May” Grosvenor née Davies. Reading of the early mansions designed around garden squares and the glass-fronted shopping arcades of Mayfair in the 1670’s built to display and sell the plethora of exotic goods pouring into England from Queen Catherine’s port cities of Bombay and Tangiers, it is easy to connect this period with the present though three centuries apart.
By 1885 when King Charles II died, The Catholic Killing Fields had been changed beyond recognition. The burning ashen blood-soaked fields with the eternally burning pits in which the hearts and heads were flung by the executioners had been transformed into to a verdant paradise of exotic shopping arcades and magnificent mansions and churches of all faiths built by the world’s first woman architect Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham, though at the time she had them attributed to her pupil Chistopher Wren. Though none of her original buildings of the North Side of Mount Street from Carlos Place to Audley St and down to Piccadilly remain, it was never the less very similar to the present glamorous haunt it remains today. The sculptor Westmacotts a family of sculptors lived here and Whitby a notable cabinet maker of the time. The other side of Mount St hosted the model workhouse accommodation for 200 with schools for both sexes and a plaque boasting the workhouse was “a Model worthy of the Imitation of other Places”. The British Archives note that “its plan and elevation were engraved and printed with a note that ‘such a building … may be built in any Part of the Kingdom with Wood, Stone or Brick”,
The violent Mount St Riots of 1792 were focused on the workhouse watch tower and linked to other riots across Britain drawn from the principles of the rights of man as in the Revolutions in France.
Since its inception as a retail and residential area in the late 17th Century, Mount St has been linked to artists and eccentrics such as Martin Van Butchell who lived on Mount Street in the mid 1700’s and was a famous London eccentric. When Van Butchell’s wife died he kept her embalmed in the parlour and set upon his true life’s work of growing his beard which was known as The Mount St Beard. So famous was the Mount St Beard that people travelled from the Continent to purchase a hair of his beard at a Guinea each for ladies who wanted to become mothers of fine children. He would ride about Mount Street on a pony which he had carefully painted with spots. No wonder the comings and goings of spies on Mount Street went without note. It’s that sort of street.
When I was immersed in writing a book or poorly and couldn’t face the exhausting four flights of stairs, I’d ring up Allen’s the butchers (closed 2015) and drop a bucket down. The butcher would dash across and pop the required pheasant or grouse inside and I’d haul up my dinner. I had the same arrangement with Scotts Restaurant at number 20 Mount St and the chemist opposite.
If guests popped in I’d call up Scotts for Champagne and oysters on the half shell or a cigar from Sautters. Any occasion would inevitably result in a lowering of the bucket from our Dormer window. On those occasions when I was forced to go downstairs mid-book or sniffling (and the bucket wouldn’t do) like most Mount Street residents too rushed for “full-fig”, I’d throw on a full length sable, a slash of red lipstick, slip on my bespoke crocodile shoes and an 18th Century Tiara to run errands or meet a friend at the Audley (est 1730), or have my hair done at Nicky Clarke’s next to The Connaught, or my confession heard at The Church of The Immaculate Conception by Mount St Gardens.
My mother assured me, “as long as you’re in sable, red lipstick, smothered in Creed Perfume (99 Mount St) Large sunglasses and wearing an 18th C Tiara or Hermes Scarf on your untidy hair, no one will suspect you’re still in your flannelette nightie!”
I have seen changes on Mount St in the past 50 years but the essence of Mount St as the Eccentric’s High St remains unaltered. When my Children were home from boarding school they used to dangle Battenberg Cake from the dormer window to lure up sweet old ladies to tell them stories of Mount St in days of yore. Only on Mount St would such a mission succeed. A number of Grand Mount St Dames and several eccentric Bishops and Priests were lured by dangling Battenberg and Romeo Y Julietas.
Mount St has been home to luminaries and Great British Eccentrics from Winston Churchill who lived next door to an artist’s colony, Fanny Burney an inky scribe like myself and Laurence Sterne who wrote Tristram Shandy. Sitting in the fronds of Mount St Gardens looking for inspiration it is easy to lose oneself in history and though it is no longer the Mayfair street where one could buy a chop, pick up a medical prescription and post a letter, you can still buy a pair of Purdeys on the corner of Mount and South Audley and dine on caviar at The Connaught, imbibe Stout on tap at the Audley or buy an impeccable blouse at Celine or perilous heels at Louboutin. For while our “local” The Audley (41-43) has chandeliers and wood panelled walls and hums with secrets, spies and foreign tongues, no one will notice if you pop in for a black velvet or Martini in your flannelette nightie…as long as your wearing your 18th Century Tiara!