Quarters in London
By Cheryl Bolen
While other buildings have been demolished and rebuilt around it
on Londonís bustling Piccadilly over the past two hundred years,
Albany remains much as it was when the grand townhouse was converted to
sumptuous gentlemenís 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 Yorkís
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 Georgette
Heyer, who lived at Albany for 25 years. (In the 1890s Albanyís
trustees began to allow women to reside in the chambers.) Albany also
housed the editorial offices of The Saturday Review and Bodley Head.
Others of note who lived there include the Duke of York in the Georgian
period, Jane Austenís 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. Future Prime Minister William
Gladstone also lived at Albany.
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 pounds. 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 stoneís throw to both
Saville Row and Regent Street.
Lord Melbourneís young wife, Elizabeth, had visions of being a
great society hostess, and they would need an elegant townhouse in which
to entertain. Lord Hollandís house was demolished, and William
Chambers was hired as architect for the magnificent new townhouse at the
salary of 300 pounds a year. (Robert Adam was a young colleague of
Chambersís.) Four years later, the fabulous townhouse was ready for
occupancy. Lord Melbourne estimated that the house and land had cost a
staggering 100,000 pounds.
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 porterís 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 IIIís 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-líoeil 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 husbandís 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. It has been surmised that 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
Melbourneís favorite sonís wife. Nevertheless, Lady Melbourne
assisted Byron in his decision to take a wife. He married Annabella
Millbanke, the only child of Lady Melbourneís brother.
Lady Melbourne most assuredly knew of her own husbandís
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
Seventeen years after the Melbournes moved into their elegant
townhouse they decided to exchange houses with the Regentís brother,
the Duke of York and Albany. While dining with the Melbournes,
Frederick, the Duke of York and Albany and King George IIIís 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 thousand pounds 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 wasnít 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."
The duke agreed to sell York House to a builder named Alexander
Copeland for 37,000 pounds. 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 regentís 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 porterís 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 Janeís
book sales. It is thought that Jacksonís salons were once located in
the street-facing shops, but there is no record of his ever having taken
A porter was engaged for the front gate at a salary of 50 pounds a
year plus livery and coal and candles for one room. The porter for the
back gate received 45 pounds 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 pounds, 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
pounds, 6 shillings. A night porter, paid a guinea a week, had the
additional task of pumping water into the several cisterns.
Albanyís 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."
Byronís address was 2 Albany. His living room, which had a great bow
window, had been Lady Melbourneís library. He was appropriated a maidís
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
That same year Burlington House next door changed hands. The Duke
of Devonshire sold it for 57,000 pounds 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
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 pounds a year. Sixteen years later Albanyís trustees accepted a
contract to light Albany with gas for 190 pounds a year. That same year
trustees turned down the residentsí requests to furnish the building
with water works. Hydraulic water wasnít 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 Peelís 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 pounds 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
lifeís 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
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 Burtonís 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 W.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
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 Albanyís 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 Rougiersí 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 sonís wedding was held there. The only drawback to the Rougierís
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
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
Peace in Piccadilly, Sheila Birkenhead, 1958.
The Private World of Georgette Heyer, Jane Aiken Hodge, 1984.