London’s Great Estates

Sinead Campbell from London Flats Insurance looks at London’s Great Estates. As most are aware London is a wonderfully diverse city characterised as a melting pot of people, cultures, and architecture. But it may be surprising to know that the bulk of it’s high-end leasehold property is owned by just a handful of families. In this article we’ll look at the history of four of London’s most prolific landowners.

The Grosvenor Estate

Gerald Cavendish Grosvenor, the 6th Duke of Westminster, was London’s wealthiest landlord. He passed away in 2016 and at that time, according to his obituary, his fortune was estimated at 8.3bn by Forbes magazine- making him the 68th richest person in the world the 3rd richest person in the UK. His son, Hugh, inherited the estate.

The family own around 300 acres of land including some of London’s most exclusive addresses which make up part of the Grosvenor Estate. The estate is most famous for its landmark residential properties in Mayfair and Belgravia but it also owns a portfolio of businesses, rural estates and other assets. According to figures from 2016, the organisation employs more than 10,800 people.

The history of the Grosvenor Estate began in 1677 with the marriage of Mary Davies and Sir Thomas Grosvenor, who was part of a family that can trace its roots back to William the Conqueror.

Mary had inherited 500 acres of land north of the Thames to the west of the City of London but it remained largely untouched until the 1720s when the Grosvenors developed the northern part (now known as Mayfair) around Grosvenor Square.

In the 1820s, building on their success in Mayfair, the family began to develop the area known as Belgravia, building Eaton Square, Chester Square and other famous addresses.

Later in the 19th century, Pimlico was developed but Grosvenor’s property holdings in this part of London were sold in 1953.

Despite much of the family’s present-day portfolio now being located in other parts of Britain and Ireland, it is the London estate that is most often associated with the Grosvenor family.

The best known of Grosvenor’s properties in Mayfair are located in and around Mount Street, Grosvenor Street, North Audley Street, Duke Street, and Park Street. In Belgravia, Grosvenor owns freehold properties in Eaton Square, Motcomb Street, Elizabeth Street, Pimlico Road, and Ebury Street.

The Cadogan Estate

The Earl of Cadogan comes a close second to the Duke of Westminster in the London property stakes as the main landlord in the west London districts of Chelsea and Knightsbridge. The portfolio covers 93 acres in fact!

Cadogan Estates Ltd is particularly associated with the area around Cadogan Square, Sloane Street and the King’s Road in Chelsea where the company owns the freehold on a mix of residential, retail and commercial property. It also owns property in London’s exclusive Knightsbridge.

The company’s origins date back to Sir Hans Sloane, the eighteenth-century scientist who purchased what was then known as the manor of Chelsea in 1712. On his death, the Chelsea estate was split between his two daughters, one of whom was married to a member of the Cadogan family.

On the death of Sloane’s other daughter, her share of the estate was left to her son Hans Stanley who in turn passed it to his sisters when he died. On their death, their half of the estate reverted to the Cadogans in 1821.

The Cadogan estate includes some of London’s most sought after retail locations and residential property in some of the capital’s most exclusive squares. In 2000, the company acquired the Duke of York’s Headquarters, a former barracks adjoining Sloane Square, which has been converted to retail, office and residential use, as well as providing a home for the Saatchi Gallery.

The Chelsea estate comprises approximately 3,000 flats, 200 houses, 300 shops, 500,000 square feet of office space and over a dozen gardens covering 15 acres.

The Howard de Walden Estate

As of 2020, the Howard de Walden Estate in Marylebone was reported to be worth £4.7 billion.

The estate manages and leases around 92 acres of property in Marylebone, covering the streets running east to west from Portland Place to Marylebone High Street and north to south from Marylebone Road to Wigmore Street.
The Estate’s portfolio is largely made up of Georgian property, including Harley Street, with a mix of medical, residential, office, retail/restaurant and education space- particularly in and around Marylebone High Street.

Much of the property now owned by the Howard de Walden family, was designed in the eighteenth century by architect John Prince. He was commissioned by the Earl of Oxford to produce a masterplan for a housing development centred around Cavendish Square, with Oxford Street acting as the southern boundary. In 1719, he drew up the first plan for the Estate, but progress was slow.

When the Earl died in 1741, his daughter, Margaret, who was married to the second duke of Portland, inherited the estate. The Duke of Portland continued the building programme- overseeing construction of the elegant properties that visitors to London are familiar with in Portland Place, Wimpole Street and Harley Street.

By the 1790s, the whole area from Oxford Street to what is now the Marylebone Road had been developed. Leading architects, the Adam brothers, were commissioned to design Chandos House in Queen Anne Street as well as houses in Mansfield Street and Portland Place (which was described as “the most magnificent street in London” by John Nash who designed Buckingham Palace and the Brighton Pavilion).

The Portland Estate, as it was then known, remained in family ownership until1879 when Lucy Joan Bentinck, widow of the 6th Baron Howard de Walden, inherited the land and the Howard de Walden Estate came into being, with the first family estate company established at the end of the First World War.

By the mid-1990s the area had fallen into decline with a third of the shops sitting vacant. By undertaking a major project to re-inject life into the area including providing schools and making buildings available for community use, the Estate has successfully revitalised the High Street with a trendy and eclectic mix of shops. Residential property in the area now commands top end rents in what has become one of central London’s most desirable locations.

The Portman Estate

To the west of Marylebone High Street are the 110 acres of London land owned by the Portman Estate. The Estate is held in trust for the benefit of the wider family, with over 130 beneficiaries.

With a history dating back to the 16th century, the Estate covers Oxford Street from Marble Arch to Orchard Street, from the Edgeware Road in the west to Baker Street in the east and north almost to Crawford Street. It includes Portman Square, Manchester Square and the residential properties located in Bryanston and Montagu Square as well as two rural estates in Buckinghamshire and Herefordshire.

In addition to its core landlord operation, The Portman Estate runs The Portman Foundation- a charitable trust which supports charities and other causes located in or that are of benefit to the Marylebone area.

Henry William Portman, followed by his son Edward Berkeley Portman, built Portman Square in 1764 and then Manchester Square in 1770, followed in around 1810 by Bryanston and Montagu Squares. But building work wasn’t carried out by the Estate themselves. Instead, design was commissioned for the streets and the land then leased to private developers and builders, much in the same way that major regeneration projects are achieved today.

Financial pressures during the last century have changed the nature of the Estate, with what had been mainly residential property converted to hotels and commercial premises. A key feature has been the redevelopment of many of the original grand Georgian houses as mansion blocks which were let on long leases.

These blocks of flats and hotels are mainly located behind the Oxford Street/Edgware Road boundary of the Estate and today the area remains one of the most vibrant in London; a cosmopolitan, multicultural mix of tourism, retail, commercial and residential property.

The Evolving Role of the Estate

Each of these great London estates has survived for more than 200 years despite dramatic changes in society, the swings to right and left of government policy, two world wars and financial booms and busts as well as changes to the tax regime, landlord and tenant legislation and successive town and country planning acts.

This is a testament to the business dexterity of the families that own these estates and their ability to move with the times- as well as their undoubted desire to ‘keep it in the family’ and provide for future generations.

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