Townhouse (Great Britain)

In British usage, the term townhouse originally referred to the opulent town or city residence (in practice normally in Westminster near the seat of the monarch) of a member of the nobility or gentry, as opposed to their country seat, generally known as a country house or, colloquially, for the larger ones, stately home. The grandest of the London townhouses were stand-alone buildings, but many were terraced buildings.

Spencer House in St James's, London, one of the last surviving true townhouses still owned by the noble family that built it, the Spencers, although it is now generally leased out commercially. The corresponding country house is Althorp in Northamptonshire.
The Strand front of Northumberland House in 1752 by Canaletto, the townhouse of the Dukes of Northumberland. Note the "Percy Lion" atop the central facade.

British property developers and estate agents often market new buildings as townhouses, following the North American usage of the term, to aggrandise modest dwellings and to avoid the negative connotation of cheap terraced housing built in the Victorian era to accommodate workers. The aristocratic pedigree of terraced housing, for example as survives in St James's Square in Westminster, is widely forgotten. In concept, the aristocratic townhouse is comparable to the hôtel particulier, which notably housed the French nobleman in Paris, as well as to the urban domus of the nobiles of Ancient Rome.

Background edit

Historically, a town house (later townhouse) was the city residence of a noble or wealthy family, who would own one or more country houses, generally manor houses, in which they lived for much of the year and from the estates surrounding which they derived much of their wealth and political power. Many of the Inns of Court in London served this function; for example, Gray's Inn was the London townhouse of Reginald de Grey, 1st Baron Grey de Wilton (d. 1308). A dwelling in London, or in the provincial city of the county in which their country estate was located, was required for attendance on the royal court, attendance in Parliament, for the transaction of legal business and business in general. From the 18th century, landowners and their servants would move to a townhouse during the social season when balls and other society gatherings took place.[1]

From the 18th century, most townhouses were terraced; it was one of the successes of Georgian architecture to persuade the rich to buy terraced houses, especially if they were in a garden square. Only a small minority of them, generally the largest, were detached; even aristocrats whose country houses had grounds of hundreds or thousands of acres often lived in terraced houses in town. For example, the Duke of Norfolk was seated at Arundel Castle in the country, while from 1722 his London house, Norfolk House, was a terraced house in St James's Square, albeit one over 100 feet (30 metres) wide. Anciently the Dukes of Norfolk also had a townhouse, more properly a ducal palace, in the City of Norwich, the capital of the County of Norfolk, which was greatly enlarged by Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk (d.1572), whose London townhouse was then the London Charterhouse just outside of the northern wall of the City of London, re-named "Howard House".[2]

England edit

London edit

1593 Norden's map of Westminster shows and names many grand London townhouses on the Strand: Yorke House, Durham House, Russell House, Savoy Palace, Somerset House, Arundel House, Leicester House, all downstream from Whitehall Palace. Lambeth Palace is marked as "Lambeth Howse".

In the Middle Ages, the London residences of the nobility were generally situated within the walls or boundary of the City of London, often known as "Inns", as the French equivalents are termed hôtel. For example, Lincoln's Inn was the town house of the Earl of Lincoln, and Gray's Inn of the Baron Grey de Wilton. At that time the Tower of London, within the City, was still in use as a royal palace. They gradually spread onto the Strand, the main ceremonial thoroughfare from the City to the Palace of Westminster, where parliamentary and court business were transacted. Areas such as Kensington and Hampstead were countryside hamlets outside London until the 19th century, so mansions in these areas, such as Holland House, cannot be considered as true historical townhouses. Bishops also had London residences, generally termed palaces, listed below.

The greatest residence on the Strand was the Savoy Palace, residence of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, the richest man in the kingdom in his age and the father of King Henry IV. His chief seat was Bolingbroke Castle in Lincolnshire. The Strand had the advantage of frontage to the River Thames, which gave the nobles their own private landing places, as had the royal palaces of Whitehall and Westminster and further out from the City Greenwich and Hampton Court. The next fashion was to move still further westwards to St James's, to be near the Tudor royal court. In the 18th century, Covent Garden was developed by the Duke of Bedford on his Bedford Estate, and Mayfair by the Grosvenor family on their Grosvenor Estate. The final fashion before the modern era was for a residence on the former marsh-land of Belgravia, on the southern part of the Grosvenor Estate, developed after the establishment of Mayfair by the Duke of Westminster. Many aristocratic townhouses were demolished or ceased to be used for residential purposes after the First World War, when the scarcity and greater expense of domestic servants made living on a grand scale impractical. The following examples, most of which are now demolished, are comparable to the Parisian hôtel particulier:

Secular houses edit

Devonshire House, Piccadilly, in 1896
Leicester House on Leicester Fields, 1748

Episcopal palaces edit

English provinces edit

Whilst most English examples of the townhouse occur in London, provincial cities also contain some historical examples, for example Bampfylde House (destroyed in WW II) in Exeter, the county capital of Devon, the townhouse of Baron Poltimore of the Bampfylde family, whose main country seat was Poltimore House in Devon. Also in Exeter was Bedford House, also demolished, the town residence of the Duke of Bedford who resided principally at Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire but required a base in the West Country from which to administer his vast estates there.

Scotland edit

Edinburgh edit

Bute House, Edinburgh

Ireland edit

Dublin edit

Leinster House, 18th century Dublin townhouse of the Duke of Leinster. It is now the seat of parliament.

Georgian Dublin consisted of five Georgian squares, which contained the townhouses of prominent peers. The squares were Merrion Square, St Stephen's Green, Fitzwilliam Square, Ruthland Square (now called Parnell Square) and Mountjoy Square. Many of the townhouses in these squares are now offices while some have been demolished.[10]

See also edit

Notes edit

  1. ^ For a description of an 18th-century town house in England, for example, see Olsen, Kirsten. Daily Life in 18th-Century England. Greenwood Publishing Group, 1999, pp. 84–85.
    • Also see Stewart, Rachel. The Town House in Georgian London. Yale University Press for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2009.
  2. ^ Robinson, John Martin, The Dukes of Norfolk, A Quincentennial History, Oxford, 1982, p.56
  3. ^ Cokayne, The Complete Peerage, new edition, Vol.10, p.406, note f
  4. ^ Smith, Lives of the Berkeleys, Vol.II, pp.447 et seq
  5. ^ "Richmond Terrace and House". UK Parliament. Retrieved 20 February 2020.
  6. ^ "The Building". 29 September 2015.
  7. ^ MacNamara, Memorials of the Danvers Family, p.120
  8. ^ MacNamara, Memorials of the Danvers Family, p.120
  9. ^ For a general discussion of town houses in Edinburgh, see Brown, Keith M. Noble Society in Scotland: Wealth, Family and Culture from the Reformation to the Revolutions. Edinburgh University Press, 2004, p. 203ff.
  10. ^ For background, see Casey, Christine. The Eighteenth-Century Dublin Town House: Form, Function and Finance. Four Courts, 2010.

Further reading edit

External links edit