The London Rich, by Peter Thorold

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The Independent Culture

Though the London poor held more interest for Mayhew and Dickens, Thorold reveals that the capital's nobs are equally fascinating. His absorbing survey begins in 1666, when, in the aftermath of the Great Fire, London burst its boundaries. The West End was developed by the avaricious rivals Lord Leicester and Henry Jermyn, later Earl of St Alban's. London's smogs encouraged the well-off to move to the suburbs.

Commuting presented familiar problems in the 18th century. Walking from Westminster to his digs in Chelsea, Swift had to contend with a fight between a seaman and a drunken parson: "A pretty scene for one that had just come from sitting with the Prime Minister." Trying to visit friends in Southwark, Boswell discovered that the policy of "Not south of the river, guv" pertained even then.

Houses on Park Lane, part of the Grosvenor family's Mayfair estate, turned their backs on Hyde Park and were charged a lower rent for the proximity of hoi polloi. Then as now, the fortunes of developers ebbed and flowed. Automatically renewable leases became a nightmare for landlords at times of inflation. Thorold notes a "grotesque" example at 21 Berners St, where the lease of £28 a year was last renewed in 1915 for 99 years. The lucky leaseholders have another 13 years to go. CH

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