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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

The College Archives
History of Belgrave Square


The district of London known today as Belgravia was developed in the 1820s. Previously it was called the Five Fields and was a rural area between London as it was then and the village of Knightsbridge. Hay, herbs and vegetables are said to have been grown there and it was also considered a difficult and dangerous area to cross on the journey to the west.
 
In the early 19th century the landowners, the Grosvenor family, Dukes of Westminster, began developing the area. The name Belgrave comes from their property of that name in either Cheshire or Leicestershire. This was a time of expansion for London and the overall architect of Belgrave Square, Thomas Cubitt, is said to have done 'more to change the face of London than any other man'.The square is ten acres in size (about 4 hectares). The street layout was the work of Thomas Cundy II, the Grosvenor estate surveyor, and the terraces were designed by George Basevi, a cousin of Disraeli, who also designed the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Cubitt and other architects, his brother Louis Cubitt, Philip Hardwick, HE Kendall and Sir Robert Smirke designed the villas at the corners. Together this represented a break from the previous uniformity of Georgian squares.
 
Belgrave Square was laid out in 1826. The development proceeded quickly, partly because it was taking place on an open field site belonging to a single major landlord. The corners of the square are on the points of the compass and number 17 is part of the south west terrace line, the last to be completed. The first house to be occupied was one on the north west side in 1828, the first occupants in number 17's terrace came in the early 1830s and all the houses, including the mansions on the corners, were occupied by 1848. The development was a success from the start, probably helped by George IV's decision to convert nearby Buckingham House into a palace for his residence. Later Queen Victoria rented number 36 for her mother and this was considered to be a royal seal of approval for the square.
 
It is no longer possible to appreciate the original layout because of the growth of trees in the central garden but apart from the traffic Belgrave Square remains much as it was when it was built in the 1820s and 30s.
 
Many of the tenants were members of the aristocracy and people of political importance. The first tenant of number 17 was Sir Ralph Howard, whose uncle was Earl of Wicklow and who was himself MP for Wicklow with extensive property in Ireland. In the 1841 census he was living at number 17 with his wife, seven female servants and four male servants. He was away on the night of the 1851 census and only a housekeeper, butler and servent were in the house. The census records for 1861 are missing but the Howard family remained at number 17 until the late 1860s.
 
The next tenant was Pandeli Ralli, a British subject born in Marseilles whose family had come to England from the Greek island of Scio in the early 1800s. He became a Liberal MP, first for Bridport and then Wallingford. In 1871 his household consisted of his mother and sister, a domestic companion, a butler, two footmen, three lady's maids, a cook, a housemaid and a kitchen maid. His mother wasn't there in 1881 so there was only one lady's maid but there was an extra footman, another housemaid and a scullery maid. Pandeli Ralli himself was away when the 1891 census was taken but the long-standing companion, now described as a housekeeper, three housemaids, a cook, a kitchen maid and a hall boy were left in charge of the property.
 
Pandeli Ralli died in 1928, having been tenant of number 17 for about 60 years. It is said that his house was used by Lord Kitchiner as a social headquarters during the First World War. His family, which was very wealthy, helped finance the Greek struggle for independence from Turkey.
 
The next tenant was Leontine, Lady Sassoon. She too had overseas connections, for her husband's family, the Sassoons, came originally from Baghdad. She lived here from 1929 until 1942 and, like Pandeli Ralli and Lord Kitchiner during the previous war, kept open house for the troops during the Second World War. During that war, part of the property was used as a supply depot for the Red Cross. Lady Leontine left in 1942 but retained the tenancy until she died, aged over 90, in 1955.
 
The Austrian Embassy, which is the College's neighbour at number 18, was there by 1871. The Ambassador, who was a Count and the representative of what was then the vast Austro-Hungarian Empire, lived there with his Countess, her companion and 15 servants. By 1891 a different ambassador had 26 servants, including a governess, tutor and schoolroom maid for his three young children.
 
Number 16, the College's other neighbour, was lived in for many years by Sir Roderick Impey Murchison,, a famous geographer and geologist.
 
At the beginning of the 20th century, most of the houses in the square were occupied by private tenants and their domestic staff, with the coachmen, grooms and their families living in the mews houses at the rear. As the century passed this changed, so now most of the tenants are companies or organisations. The current voters' list show that there are very few private individuals living here and the names of occupiers displayed at the entrances to buildings indicate that some have three or more organisations as tenants. Number 17 is one of the few that has a single occupier.
 
It is clear from Kelly's Directories of London that until the 1950s not only were most of the houses occupied by families but that many of these families were members of the aristocracy or gentry. In the 1909 Directory, for example, nearly half the occupiers listed have titles. Although some of the houses were put to other uses in the First World War, for example number 13 was used by the St John's Ambulance and numbers 19 and 43 were annexes to King Edward VII's Hospital for Officers, it was not until after the Second World War that the modern pattern of occupation by embassies and organisations developed.
 
Number 17 was taken over by the Institute of Metals in 1956 and the College came in 1974. Thus since it was first occupied 17 Belgrave Square has only had five different tenants.