Albany: Elegant Regency bachelor quarters

Albany in 1800s

Cheryl Bolen (in raincoat) in front of Albany, 2005

While other buildings have been demolished and rebuilt around it on London’s bustling Piccadilly over the past two hundred plus years, Albany remains much as it was when the grand townhouse was converted to sumptuous gentlemen’s apartments in 1802. “No younger son of a duke need be ashamed to put [the Albany address] on his card,” said Thomas Babington Macaulay, who had chambers at Albany in the mid-1800s.

The former Melbourne House–later to become the Duke of York’s house–was less than thirty years old when the novel idea of making it a set of independent freehold apartments was borne. Over the next two hundred years Albany would provide the tranquility needed to breed great literary works. Indeed, many famed authors have called Albany home. These include Lord Byron, Monk Lewis, Macaulay, Edward Bulwer (Lord Lytton), and a host of others in the 20th century, including Aldous Huxley, J.B. Priestly, Kenneth Clark, Sir Harold Nicholson, and Georgette Heyer, who lived at Albany for 25 years. (In the 1890s Albany’s trustees began to allow women to reside in the chambers.) Others of note who lived there include the Duke of York in the Georgian period, Jane Austen’s favorite brother, Henry, and the Regency-era fencing master Henry Angelo, who chambers there were said to have been used by the famed pugilist Gentlemen Jackson.

Three prime ministers have called Albany home: George Canning, William Gladstone, and Edward Heath.

Most of the information I learned about Albany came from Lady Birkenhead’s excellently researched 1958 book, Peace in Piccadilly.

In 1771 Sir Peniston Lamb (soon to be the first Lord Melbourne) bought a house and grounds on the site from Lord Holland (who had moved to Kensington) for £16,000. Unlike the row-style townhouses one usually associates with London, the townhouses in this section of Piccadilly were comprised of a grand house, courtyard, stables, several outbuildings and a garden. Next door to the house Lord Melbourne bought on Piccadilly stood the vast Burlington House, London residence of the Duke of Devonshire. Melbourne House fronted Piccadilly just southwest of the present Piccadilly Circus. The rear of the house could be entered (and still is) from Vigo Street, which is just a stone’s throw to both Saville Row and Regent Street. (Presently there is nothing to identify the house in the front, but the back entrance does post a sign “Albany.”)

Lord Melbourne’s young wife, Elizabeth, had visions of being a great society hostess, and they would need an elegant townhouse in which to entertain. Lord Holland’s house was demolished, and William Chambers was hired as architect for the magnificent new townhouse at the salary of £300 a year. (Robert Adam was a young colleague of Chambers’.) Four years later, the fabulous townhouse was ready for occupancy. Lord Melbourne estimated that the house and land had cost a staggering £100,000.

The three-story townhouse was set back 100 feet from Piccadilly, but those walking along the pavement in front of it were not likely to get a good view of the house because it was surrounded by a huge wall with gates. Those fortunate enough to enter through the big pedimented gates would drive their carriage into a great courtyard in front of the house. Other buildings on the site included stables for 13 horses, a coach house, a porter’s lodge and premises for the kitchens.

The interior of the house was centered with a grand staircase, and from that staircase one could see up to the roof. Reception rooms on the first two floors featured tall, large-paned windows that looked out over the garden. Rooms on the side would end in twenty-foot wide rounded bays. Lady Melbourne engaged the Florentine Cipriani (who painted the panels on George III’s state coach) to paint the ceiling of the 52-foot long saloon. Biagio Rebecca, whose works adorned Windsor and Kew Palaces, was engaged to paint trompe-l’oeil on the walls. All the ceilings were richly moulded. (Little of this decoration–save for some of the moulding and the frieze in the saloon–remains today.)

Lady Melbourne did become the darling of the ton. Having delivered her husband’s son in 1770, she was soon to have many affairs. The first of her lovers was Lord Egremont, the immensely wealthy peer who was easily the most sought-after bachelor in the kingdom. Young and handsome, Egremont had eyes for no one except Lady Melbourne. There was no disputing that the twins Lady Melbourne bore in 1777, and who died shortly after their premature birth, had been fathered by Egremont, as was her son William Lamb, husband of Caroline Lamb and later to be prime minister. Her son George, born in 1784, was said to have been fathered by the Prince Regent. Some sources say the father of her daughter Emily was the Duke of Bedford.

In her later years Lord Byron, who had lodgings in her former home, said Lady Melbourne, “was the best friend I ever had in my life, and the cleverest of women.” This seems a bit ironical in light of the fact Lord Byron had a widely known affair with Lady Melbourne’s favorite son’s wife (Lady Caroline Lamb). Nevertheless, Lady Melbourne assisted Byron in his decision to take a wife. He married Annabella Millbanke, the only child of Lady Melbourne’s brother.

Lady Melbourne most assuredly knew of her own husband’s philandering. Within a year of their marriage he asked to meet a Mrs. Baddeley, an actress he had admired. At his persuasion, she left the stage and lived lavishly under his protection in a house in St. James Place.

Seventeen years after the Melbournes moved into their elegant townhouse they decided to exchange houses with the Regent’s brother, the Duke of York and Albany. While dining with the Melbournes, Frederick, the Duke of York and Albany and King George III’s favorite son, remarked that he was tired of his house in Whitehall and would like a house like theirs, whereupon his hostess said she would gladly exchange the chimes of St. James for the chimes of Westminster Abbey. The exchange was made in 1791, with the Duke of York paying Lord Melbourne over £23,000 in addition to the deed to York House in Whitehall, which was situated near the Horse Guards. It was thought that Lord Melbourne, despite his wealth, was glad to get out of the mortgages he had put on Melbourne House.

During the decade the home was owned by the Duke of York, he spent very little time there. If he wasn’t off performing his military duties, he was at his country home, Oatlands in Surrey, the residence preferred by his Prussian, dog-loving wife.

Like his regent brother, the Duke of York and Albany spent money recklessly, and his banker hit on the idea that development of the townhouse site was the best way of getting his money back from the heavily mortgaged property. Thus, the idea for Albany was born.
Fortunately for posterity, the first two plans for the site were nixed. The first was to demolish Melbourne/York House and build rows of townhouses in its place. The second was to keep the mansion and convert it to the Royal York Hotel. The third and final plan was to “make extensive additions to York House and Offices, and to distribute the whole into elegant and convenient Sets of Freehold Apartments.” (Birkenhead)

The duke agreed to sell York House to a builder named Alexander Copeland for £37,000. A lengthy legal document was drawn up, establishing Albany. Though some refer to the lodgings as The Albany, that document said, “That the premises mentioned in the foregoing articles shall be called Albany.” (Birkenhead) The first meeting of the Albany trustees met on April 28, 1803.

Henry Holland, architect of the regent’s Carleton House, oversaw the additions and conversion of the premises. The townhouse was divided into 12 apartments. The Piccadilly wall was torn down, as were the gateways and the porter’s lodge. In their place, facing Piccadilly, four houses with shop fronts were built. Further construction included erection of two long blocks of three-story stucco buildings east and west of the rear garden. Buildings west of garden bore the letters B-F, and those east of the garden G-L. Those chambers in the mansion used the letter A, or sometimes just the numeral with no letter, as Lord Byron did. At the far end of the garden two rows of larger brick buildings (F and G) were constructed. The apartments in the stucco buildings consisted of a hall with fireplace, a living room with double doors into the bedroom, and a dressing room with hip bath. Those with apartments on the ground floor had a kitchen in the basement; those on the next two floors had kitchens in the attic. Apartments in F and G were larger than those in the stucco building and had 20 foot ceilings, the same as in the mansion. The covered walkway, known as Rope Walk, stretches between buildings for 500 feet. Original plans called for a restaurant, but all attempts at establishing a successful restaurant failed. Those facilities were later converted to apartments for a cost of 600 pounds.

It was in the street-facing shops that Angelo had his fencing studio (1804-1809) and that Henry Austen had his financial establishment (1804-1807). Henry is the brother who negotiated all of his sister Jane’s book sales. It is thought that Jackson’s salons were once located in the street-facing shops, but there is no record of his ever having taken a lease.

A porter was engaged for the front gate at a salary of £50 a year plus livery and coal and candles for one room. The porter for the back gate received £45 a year, along with livery. The livery consisted of a round hat which cost 8 shillings, a coat with scarlet cuffs and collar with white buttons for £2, 12 shillings, a scarlet waistcoat for 19 shillings, a pair of velveteen breeches with leather lining for 1 pound, 5 shillings and sixpence, and a livery great coat with two rows of buttons, pockets behind and scarlet collar for £3, 6 shillings. A night porter, paid a guinea a week, had the additional task of pumping water into the several cisterns.

Albany’s earliest resident of distinction was Matthew Gregory Lewis, who from the age of 21 was known by the name of his enormously successful novel, The Monk. Monk Lewis leased chambers at Albany in 1802 and bought his chambers at K.1 in 1809, when he was 34 years old. Lewis, who inherited a vast fortune, would live at Albany until his death in 1818. He died after contracting yellow fever while visiting his extensive plantations in Jamaica.

Lord Byron leased chambers in the mansion from Lord Althorpe in 1814. Byron wrote, “Viscount Althorpe is about to be married, and I have gotten his spacious bachelor apartments in Albany . . . I have been boxing, for exercise, with Jackson for this last month daily.” Byron’s address was 2 Albany. His living room, which had a great bow window, had been Lady Melbourne’s library. He was appropriated a maid’s room in the attic and a cellar in the basement. He brought with him a maid known as Mrs. Mule, his valet, Fletcher, and many books and sabres.
Upon his marriage the following year, Byron took up chambers at 13 Piccadilly Terrace.

That same year Burlington House next door changed hands. The Duke of Devonshire sold it for £57,000 to his uncle, Lord George Cavendish, who was the grandson of the third Earl of Burlington, who had remodeled the house a hundred years earlier. In 1819 Lord Cavendish would build on his grounds the Burlington Arcade, a covered promenade from Piccadilly into Cork Street, with shops on either side and rooms above. The arcade is still home to exclusive shops. In 1854 Burlington House would be sold to the government for 140,000 pounds and would eventually be demolished, with the Royal Academy being built on the site.

When Albany was built a Mr. Patrick was hired to daily light the lamps in the courtyard, the mansion house, covered way and staircase for £90 a year. Sixteen years later Albany’s trustees accepted a contract to light Albany with gas for £190 a year. That same year trustees turned down the residents’ requests to furnish the building with water works. Hydraulic water wasn’t brought to the Albany until 1853. Electricity would come in 1887.

Future Prime Minister William Gladstone lived in L.2 at Albany from the time he was elected to Parliament in 1832 at the age of 23 until he left to marry Catherine Glynne when he was 29. During his six years at Albany he would serve in Sir Robert Peel’s cabinet, despite his tender years.
In 1835 Edward Bulwer (later Lord Lytton) came to Albany at the age of 32 from a disastrous marriage. Forced to write for a living after his mother disinherited him upon his decision to marry Irish Beauty Rosina Wheeler, he distinguished himself with his pen. He wrote poetry, plays and books, most notably The Last Days of Pompeii, and was a member of Parliament. He legally separated from his wife, for whom he generously provided for the rest of his life. He was never to know happiness or tranquility because his vindictive wife would keep their lives in a constant state of upheaval. In his chambers at Albany he knew peace, but even there Rosina once caused a loud scene that was wildly reported in the newspapers. He left Albany in 1837.

The next great author to reside at Albany was Macaulay, who took lodgings there when he was 41 in 1841. His initial chambers consisted of an entrance hall, two sitting rooms, a bedroom, kitchen, cellars and two rooms for servants. For this he paid 90 guineas a year. Shortly after coming to Albany he wrote, “I have taken a very comfortable suite of chambers in the Albany, and I hope to lead, during some years, a sort of life peculiarly suited to my taste–college life at the West-end of London.” A true scholar who read voraciously in several languages, Macaulay had met with some success as an author in his younger years but because of financial obligations to his family, he was forced to take a post in India that would grant him financial independence for the rest of his life. After earning £10,000 a year in India, he returned to England when he was 39. He planned to dedicate the rest of his life to his writing, writing that met with a great deal of commercial success. He was happiest in his rooms at Albany surrounded by some 3,000 books and the tranquility to write. Even his terms in Parliament (a liberal, he had supported the great Reform Bill) he saw as distracting from his life’s work, notably his multiple-volume History of England. Thackeray said of Macaulay, “He reads twenty books to write a sentence; he travels a hundred miles to make a line of description.”

A life-long bachelor, Macaulay lived for five years at E.1 and in 1846 moved upstairs to larger chambers in F.3 near the Vigo Street gate. “If I had to choose a lot from all that there are in human life,” he wrote, “I am not sure that I should prefer any to that which has fallen to me. I am sincerely and thoroughly contented.”

Unfortunately, poor health visited him when he was in his fifties. After 10 years in F. 3 he was forced to move because climbing the stairs was too rigorous for him. On May 1, 1856, he wrote, “The change draws very near. After 15 happy years passed in the Albany I am going to leave it, thrice as rich a man as when I entered it, and far more famous; with health impaired, but with affections as warm and faculties as vigorous as ever . . . I do not at all expect to live 15 more years. If I do, I cannot hope that they will be so happy as the last 15. The removal makes me sad, and would make me sadder but for the extreme discomfort in which I have been living during the last week. The books are gone, and the shelves look like a skeleton. Tomorrow I take final leave of this room where I have spent most of the waking hours of so many years. Already its aspect is changed. It is the corpse of what it was on Sunday. I hate partings. To-day, even while I climbed the endless steps, panting and weary, I thought it was for the last time, and the tears would come into my eyes. I have been happy at the top of this toilsome stair. Ellis came to dinner;–the last of probably four hundred dinners, or more, that we have had in these chambers. Then to bed. Everything I do is coloured by the thought that it is for the last time. One day there will come a last in good earnest.” (Birkenhead) Macaulay died three years later.

Beginning in the middle of the century, Albany was to be home to another literary product, The Saturday Review. For nearly 40 years the periodical was edited from G.1 at Albany until it was sold in 1893.
The following year Albany began to serve as headquarters for another literary business, The Bodley Head, a small but elite publishing house with offices at G.1 Albany. The original bay window there facing Vigo Street was converted to the entrance. During the 1890s nearly all the writers of the day congregated at Bodley Head, which published William Butler Yeates, H.G. Wells and Oscar Wilde, to name a few. In addition to finely printed books, Bodley Head later began to publish an at-that-time scandalous art review titled the Yellow Book.

In the 20th century, American playwright turned British citizen Edward Knoblock signed the lease for rooms at G.2. He was then 40 and had had resounding success with his play Kismet, which he had adapted from Burton’s Arabian Nights. The Harvard-educated playwright had always wanted to live at Albany and jumped at the chance to buy the lease to the very chambers he had coveted for years. His rooms had a huge bay window looking out on Vigo street, and the ceilings soared to 20 feet. Departing from the then-current fashion for Victorian oak furnishings, he furnished his rooms in elegant Regency style.

In the period following World War I a popular novel was set at Albany. Written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyal’s brother-in-law E.W. Hornung, Raffles later became a motion picture. Its hero was an amateur burglar who had chambers at Albany. Hornung, unfortunately, used inaccurate information. He had the “clurks” and manager of Albany showing prospective residents the vacant chambers. In fact, there never has been a manager of Albany, nor are there clerks. The secretary of the trustees, an unpaid position, performs those duties, and those wishing to purchase chambers must apply to the secretary.

During the next war, World War II, the author who created the Regency genre moved to Albany. Georgette Heyer had always wanted to live there and was financially secure enough to purchase the lease to F.3 in 1942. She and her husband, barrister Ronald Rougier, made their home there until their lease ran out in 1966. They had to get special permission from the trustees to allow their son to live there during his holidays from school because Albany–in its effort to provide a quiet oasis in the center of London–prohibited children from residing there. Ms. Heyer particularly liked Albany’s proximity to the London Library, where she did research, and after having penned some 21 novels, she was very happy to have her own study at last.

The Rougiers’ apartment also had two attic spare bedrooms. The apartments must have been quite elegant because her brother Boris was married there, and the reception for her son’s wedding was held there. The only drawback to the Rougier’s quarters was that, like all sets of rooms numbered 3 or 4, it was up a grueling flight of stairs. At the time their lease expired, Ms. Heyer was 64, and as happened with Macaulay, she had difficulty climbing the stairs.

Albany is much the same today as it was when Holland built Albany in 1802, with the exception of the shop-front buildings that faced Piccadilly. The buildings to the west of the entrance were pulled down and rebuilt in 1926; the buildings on the east side of the entrance were demolished and rebuilt in 1937. G block was almost entirely destroyed by bombs during th Blitz in 1940. In all, ten bombs fell on Albany, smashing every window and damaging the covered walkway. The cover was repaired, and the walkway is still lit by the same lamps that have stood there for two centuries, lit first by oil, then gas, now electricity. One traveling that walkway today could almost expect to hear the clop of horses outside the gate and see men with high white neckcloths and ruffled sleeves for within this cloistered enclave time seems to have stood still.
Peace in Piccadilly, Sheila Birkenhead, 1958.
The Private World of Georgette Heyer, Jane Aiken Hodge, 1984.

Note: Each person who comments to this post will be eligible for a drawing of a gently used copy of Dorothy Wordsworth’s Journal, which I will mail to the winner

London’s Spencer House

If the former Lady Diana Spencer had never become the world’s most famous woman, her ancestor’s London town home would still be one of the most significant sites in what is surely the world’s greatest city.Spencer House (back, from Green Park)

In 1985 the 200-plus-year-old mansion was acquired by the fabulously wealthy J. Rothschild Administration and thus fell out of the Spencer family, which still uses the house for occasional entertaining. The house is open to the public for one-hour guided tours only on Sundays ten months of the year. (Tours are not given in August and January.)

Under the chairmanship of Lord Rothschild, the house has been expertly restored to the same condition it was when it was built by the extravagantly rich first Earl Spencer in the last half of the 18th Century.

Part of the house (not on tour) is used as offices; the rest is decorated with magnificent furnishings and paintings of the era and is designed as a place to hold entertainments in a historical setting.

And what a setting it is! The massive casement windows at the rear of the mansion all give out to Royal Green Park and a view that has likely remained unchanged for two centuries. The front entrance is on the exclusive St. James Place just around the corner from White’s Club (where Prince Charles is a member).

The splendors inside the house befit the first earl, who inherited the fortunes of his great grandmother Sara, Duchess of Marlborough, and his grandfather, the Third Earl of Sunderland. One of the richest men in the kingdom on his twenty-first birthday, the First Earl Spencer married his childhood sweetheart and commissioned Spencer House, where he and his loving partner lived happily until their deaths. He was so wealthy, the diamond buckles on his honeymoon shoes were valued at £30,000!

Spencer House was recognized as one of the most ambitious private palaces ever built in London. Rooms on the tour include the morning room, the ante room, the library, the dining room, the music room, the palm room, Lady Spencer’s private drawing room, the great room, and the painted room.

It is thought the morning room was where visitors waited and where Lord Spencer conducted business. It is in the front of the house, the first room to the left from the entry stair hall.

Across the hall is the ante room, a grandly gilded room where it is thought the family may have taken meals when not entertaining.

The large dining room is noted for its columns of polished Sienna marble. Upstairs is Lady Spencer’s red drawing room, along with the cozy music room and the great room where balls were held.

The Painted Room at Spencer House

The town house’s two most remarkable rooms are the palm room and the painted room. Carved and heavily gilded palms form columns lining the palm room, where gentlemen retired after dinner while the ladies climbed the stairs to Lady Spencer’s drawing room. A reputed beauty who experienced the rarity of a happy marriage, Lady Spencer furnished her drawing room with a game table and a baroque gilded desk.

The Palm Room at Spencer House


The painted room, which took six years to complete, is said to be among the most famous 18th century interiors in England. There are garlands of flowers and roses and paintings covering the walls and ceilings. Many of the festive scenes are painted directly on the wall’s plaster; others are painted on canvas then applied to the wall and framed in gold.

The library is modest by English standards but wonderfully cozy with its asparagus green walls and dark woods.

Three lavish living floors are topped by a much smaller, dormer-windowed fourth floor, where the servants resided. The kitchen was located in the basement.

For those interested in the Regency period, a visit to Spencer House (27 St. James Place) is a must. The nearest tube stop is Green Park. Hours are on Sundays from 10:30 to 5:45 (last tour starts at 4:45) and admission is £12.