They look as if they've been there forever and most possess a monumental grandeur which is hard to equate with a sudden speculative spree. But London's mansion blocks were the high density housing of their time and a source of much controversy and concern
The story sounds surprisingly contemporary. In the late nineteenth
century central London was running out of space and wealthy bachelors
and well-bred families were finding it difficult to locate suitable
Flats were the obvious solution but in the eyes of the fashionable and the fastidious sharing a roof with total strangers was simply unthinkable.
Flats were damned with a double dose of original sin. Since the first to be built in London were philanthropic ventures, Model Dwellings for the deserving poor, they were forever equated with the lower orders and therefore beyond the pale.
But even worse, flats were foreign. The French, more specifically
Parisians, lived in flats and everyone knew what a badly behaved,
unhygienic, morally corrupt lot they were.
French flats, as R. Phene Spiers told the Royal Institute of Architects in 1871, were small and poorly designed, forced the upper classes to live in close proximity to their servants, and generally lacked refinement and sophistication.
In Paris, he continued, "utterly dissociated and discordant people" lived under one roof, but this would never do for London, where delicate English ladies would suffer "incalculable distress" if they encountered a common artisan on the stairs.
The French, he concluded, clinching the argument, "use very little water, believing they can wash themselves with the corner of a wet towel."
Convincing uptight English Victorians to live in flats was therefore a tall order, and there weren't many speculators keen to test the market.
When the first great mansion block, Albert Hall Mansions, was started in 1876 the developer Thomas Hussey worried that the scheme might fail and Norman Shaw, the architect, divided the block plan into three distinct sections, to be built separately, in an effort to minimise the risk.
As it turned out they had a winner on their hands and Albert Hall Mansions, with its ornate red-brick exterior, Dutch gables, triple windows, and iron balconies, kick-started the late-Victorian craze for mansion blocks which continued well into the new century.
Once Shaw had shown them how to do it more and more developers took the plunge and a rash of mansion blocks appeared in Kensington and St John's Wood, Marylebone and Maida Vale, Belsize Park and Battersea, Fulham and Chiswick.
As the fashion took hold whole streets were give over to mansion blocks Fitzgeorge and Fitzjames Avenue in West Kensington, Prince of Wales Drive in Battersea but the building frenzy came to a halt with the war, and never really revived.
Some exceptional mansion blocks were built in the thirties but thereafter the energy of the initial flurry was never reproduced.