Had the game of Monopoly been invented in the 17th century, the most valuable square on the board would not have been Mayfair. Back then, there weren’t many blue plaques on its walls. Mind you, there weren’t that many walls, either. Today, this may be the home of Britain’s most expensive property, but circa 1675, this was a nondescript patch of open ground made muddy and boggy by the River Tyburn.
Suddenly, though, in 1686, the area acquired not just a name, but also a purpose. King James II granted permission for a fair to be held there, during the first two weeks of May. Unsurprisingly, people who had recently escaped the grip of the Great Plague took the opportunity to let their hair down. Before long, the May Fair became a byword first for music, dancing and merriment, and then for what the authorities termed “lewd and disorderly practices”.
But the area’s downmarket reputation was not to last long. Modern-day estate agent Peter Wetherell explains in his new book The Story of Mayfair how it was thanks to a 12-year-old girl. She was Mary Davies, the daughter of a wealthy banker. Her inheritance included 100 acres of what was termed “swampy meads”, south of Oxford Street and east of Park Lane. When she married into the Grosvenors, the powerful, Cheshire-based landowning family, the seeds of modern-day Mayfair were sown.
The couple’s son, Sir Richard Grosvenor, set about the construction of upmarket Grosvenor Square. At the same time, other wealthy families were also developing prosperous streets nearby. They included Brook Street, Clarges Street and Hanover Square. All of a sudden, those meads were becoming not swampy, but swanky. “When it was built, Grosvenor Square put everything else in the shade and became a magnet for dukes, earls, viscounts and marquises,” says Wetherell, who set up his specialist Mayfair firm 32 years ago. “Of the initial 277 houses, 117 had titled owners.”
It wasn’t long before the area’s reputation grew, helped by testimonies such as that of the Rev Sydney Smith, canon of St Paul’s: “The area,” he said, “contains more intelligence and human ability – to say nothing of wealth and beauty – than the world has ever collected in one space before.”
Hard to think of any estate agent blurb that could outdo such a recommendation. Even Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe, found himself mesmerised by the area. “I passed an amazing scene of new foundations,” he wrote. “Not of houses only, but, as I might say, of new cities, new towns, new squares and fine buildings, the like of which no city, no town, nay no place in the world can show.”
It was no surprise, therefore, when the May Fair was moved from its original site in Shepherd Market. In 1764 it moved to Bow in the east where the rowdiness would not upset the rich, new residents.
Mind you, says Wetherell, the story of Mayfair has not been one of continually rising reputation and prices. “There have been several distinct step changes over the years,” he adds. “The First World War bankrupted everyone, and those that didn’t die in the Trenches were killed off by Spanish flu. “And in World War Two, what saved the grand houses was when they were taken over and put to commercial and office use.”
In 1939, three-quarters of Mayfair’s houses were used as offices, not homes. Those that weren’t demolished, that is: a two-page spread in Wetherell’s book depicts 16 mansions that were reduced to rubble. They included Aldford House, Londonderry House and Chesterfield House.
“Now, they are all being returned to residential use,” says Wetherell. “I must have sold 100 or so buildings for the Grosvenor Estate that have been turned back into homes. “If all our planning applications work out, we will increase the residential population of Mayfair by 10 per cent. These buildings are worth twice as much as homes than they are as offices.”
As well as having a substantial amount of money, buyers are from a hugely diverse range of nationalities. Many are personalities too (Wetherell once sold a house in South Street for Joan Collins).
He is also privy to local secrets, such as the fact that if you got a job as an estate agent in Mayfair, you used to be provided with a TR4 sports car to impress clients. Or that a special bell used to ring in the Ritz Hotel, alerting doormen to the imminent arrival of royalty.
When it comes to divulging the how to sell to multimillionaires, he has a revealing reply. “Quite simple,” he says. “If you’re a natural salesman, you settle into the persona of the person you’re with. If he or she is quiet, you’re quiet; if he or she is brash, then you become brash. “With Russian buyers, you know that if they want a trophy property, they are fully prepared to pay for it. With Middle Eastern buyers, though, there is more of a culture of negotiation. And we haven’t even seen the Chinese yet.”
As for prices, the Wetherell eyebrows no longer rise. It’s not so far back that the building housing the In and Out Club, on Piccadilly, sold for £130 million, while the Canadian High Commission, in Grosvenor Square, went for £306 million. Nor do residential properties come cheap, with average asking prices of £3.31 million, according to Zoopla. “The highest rent I’ve come across was £36,000 a week,” explains Wetherell. “As I recall, the tenant paid a £500,000 deposit in advance.” Which is roughly twice the price of the average UK home. Then again, Mayfair is unique. Practically anywhere else, half a million pounds will buy you a couple of houses. In this rarefied part of London, however, it won’t get you half a one-bedroom flat. If you think buying here is anything like the Monopoly version, you have been warned.