St James’s has been one of London’s grandest areas since Charles II gave permission to his aristocratic mates to build around the royal palace of St James’s in the 17th century. By the following century it had become a centre of fashion as well as high society: George “Beau” Brummell and other Regency dandies were buying boxes of snuff from the bow-windowed premises of Fribourg & Treyer, while their skin-tight pantaloons and tailored silk waistcoats came from shops in nearby Piccadilly and Pall Mall.
Today St James’s is re-emerging as a residential area, and while it may not have as many shops selling pantaloons and waistcoats, it has a surprising number of shops and clubs unchanged since the time that the dandies swashed and buckled their way around town.
After being bombed during the second world war, St James’s, bordered on the west by Green Park and on the east by Haymarket, was redeveloped to create a large number of offices, a trend which is finally being reversed.
A swath of new apartments and houses is being created by the Crown Estate, which owns half the freehold of St James’s by value. Its decade-long £500m regeneration plan, which began in 2011, will combine new commercial buildings and improvements to public spaces with an extra 260,000 sq ft of residential accommodation, double the current amount.
The incoming residents of these high-end properties may be surprised to learn that in many places this corner of the capital retains remarkable links to its 18th-century heritage. A stroll up St James’s Street, the gently inclining road that runs north from St James’s Palace to Piccadilly reveals historic shops, gentlemen’s clubs and companies such as Berry Bros & Rudd, the wine merchant which has occupied its site since 1698.
Wealthy and aristocratic families flocked to the area at that time to be close to the royal court and the Berrys were on hand to sell them tea, coffee, wine and groceries. It became fashionable for customers passing through the shop — Brummell, Lord Byron, and William Pitt the Younger among them — to get themselves weighed on Berry’s agricultural scales and have the results recorded in copperplate handwriting on the shop’s ledgers, which it retains to this day. Brummell weighed in at 12st 4lb aged 20 in 1798, while Lord Byron — first weighed on January 4 1806 at the age of 17 “in boots but no hat”, was 13st 12lb. A more cumbersome and recent client was the Aga Khan III, who dropped almost half a stone to 16st 7¼ in 1931 “after influenza”.
In Brummell’s time, wine was not regarded as a high-end item, says chairman Simon Berry: however expensive it was, the bottle was always worth more. “You bought wine by the cask, and if you were very rich you had a servant whose job it was to put the cask wine into bottles. He was called the bottler, which is where the word butler comes from.”
Despite the abiding air of continuity in St James’s, Berry points to aspects that have been transformed since he joined the family business in 1977. Then, he says, there was just one wine bar in the area and food options were limited to sandwich bars or club dining rooms — not known for their culinary excellence. “Now you can’t move without stubbing your toe on a new restaurant,” he says. More are to come: under the Crown Estate’s plans, another eight are due to open.
A little further up the street stands the old, much-repaired doorway of Lock & Co Hatters, which has been providing headgear to St James’s customers since the 17th century. As I arrive, a handful of well-dressed younger customers are examining classic top hats as worn at weddings and Ascot, where men must still wear black or grey morning dress to gain access to the royal enclosure.
An extraordinary contraption made in 1852 is still used for fittings. Resembling an instrument of medieval torture, the brass “conformateur” is placed over the head, causing pins and levers around its rim to mark a card with precise measurements of the lumps and bumps on a customer’s head. Past victims have included Queen Elizabeth, for the refitting of the coronation crown in 1953, and Emperor Akihito of Japan.
A similar level of individual assessment is available at bootmakers John Lobb. Here, visitors are faced with glass cases containing exquisitely rendered footwear fashions from previous eras — including the first prototype of the Wellington boot — while craftsmen wearing thick leather aprons cut and stitch leather into bespoke shapes using a bewildering array of hand tools.
Combining the role of shopfront, workshop and head office, the business is now run by the fifth generation of the Lobb family. The founder, Cornish bootmaker John Lobb, set up the company in 1849 after cutting his teeth in the far harsher environment of an Australian gold rush, where he abandoned panning for gold to sell boots to prospectors, including one model featuring a hidden heel compartment for gold nuggets.
A historic source of its custom has been the gentlemen’s clubs that pepper the area. In Regency times these were often riotous places. From the “Beau” window of White’s, which still looks out on to St James’s Street, Brummell and other dandies stood in view of passers-by, laying down the law on matters of dress, taste, manners and politics.
White’s, and Brooks’s opposite, were the venues for huge and sometimes catastrophic wagers between members, who bet on everything from the turn of a card to the outcome of a Napoleonic battle. Brummell biographer Ian Kelly refers to him winning £26,000 in one sitting (£1.6m in today’s money) during one of his all-too-brief winning spells, before crushing debts forced him into exile in Calais.
The clubs remain a mainstay for the masculine businesses that colonised the area. Adjacent to the Carlton Club on the western side of St James’s Street is Truefitt & Hill, founded in 1805. Glass cases at the front of the shop bristle with badger brushes and cut-throat razors.
Senior master barber Dennis Hornsby describes one popular customer who used to emerge from his club after generous refreshment. Champagne coupe in hand, he would make his way down the street, stopping to catch his breath on the steps of the chemists DR Harris (est. 1790) until, with a beaming smile, he would fling open the door of Truefitt & Hill to greet the staff and customers. “We don’t get the characters now,” Hornsby says with an air of regret.
Other survivors from Regency times include cheese shop Paxton & Whitfield, grocers Fortnum & Mason, Hatchards bookshop and, the biggest of the lot, Christie’s, the auction house founded in 1766. Jermyn Street remains a hub for tailors and shirtmakers, which in Regency years redefined male fashion under Brummell’s tutelage, adhering to his still-recognised colour rules that gentlemen should wear only three shades: white, black and dark blue.
In property terms, St James’s has suffered by comparison with Mayfair, as its northerly neighbour hosts more residential stock, smarter hotels and restaurants, cafés, casinos and nightclubs. St James’s may have the quintessential gentlemen’s clubs but Mayfair offers ritzier lures such as Annabel’s, Harry’s Bar, Aspinalls and Crockfords.
“St James’s has always been quite sleepy compared to Mayfair. It’s never had the lifestyle offering that Mayfair has had,” says Charles Lloyd, head of the Mayfair office of agent Savills.
The regeneration plan may change that. The shifting economics of development have made it feasible to purchase former offices or embassies and rejuvenate them as private homes. “There’s a very strong demand from Middle East and Indian communities that has driven the market for these apartments,” says David Adams, managing director of high-end estate agency John Taylor.
A mainstay of the Crown Estate’s plan is St James’s Market, its biggest single development, which will convert two unremarkable buildings between Regent Street and Haymarket into offices, restaurants and shops around a new public square. Promising to “bring the area back into line with historic St James’s”, the developers have revived the name of a 17th-century hay and straw market on the site, which used to be densely surrounded by inns and shops demolished when the architect John Nash developed Regent Street.
As part of the planning agreement for the market, the Crown Estate is building homes at three other sites in St James’s. They will range from one-bedroom flats to large family apartments and houses and will be priced between £2,000 and £5,000 per sq ft. One example is Cleveland Place, close to St James’s Palace, which is being converted from offices into five three-bedroom apartments and one four-bedroom apartment. The other residential developments are at Russell Court and on Bury Street.
Anthea Harries, St James’s portfolio manager at the Crown Estate, says the market scheme is an attempt to connect its eastern and western assets, which are at present bisected by Regent Street St James’s. “The development is about creating an eclectic mix of retail in fashion, lifestyle and sports,” she says. He may not have recognised the words, but it is a combination whose sentiments might have appealed to Brummell.
James Pickford is deputy editor of FT Money
St James’s hot property
By Claudia Knowles
St James’s Street, £9.75m
What A four-bedroom penthouse in a new-build on St James’s Street. The 3,234 sq ft property has four bathrooms, a spiral staircase, eye-catching oval windows and a roof terrace offering views of the London Eye.
Who Sotheby’s International Realty, sothebysrealty.co.uk, tel: +44 20 3714 0750
Bank Chambers, Jermyn Street, £2.35m
What A three-bedroom, split-level apartment with 1,362 sq ft of living space on Jermyn Street, the home of British tailoring since the 17th century. The building has a lift and porter service.
Who Foxtons, foxtons.co.uk, tel: +44 20 7973 2000
Arlington Street, £17.5m
What A 4,002 sq ft flat in a Grade II-listed building. On the corner of Arlington Street and Piccadilly, the property faces The Ritz hotel and has Green Park on its doorstep. It has two reception rooms, three en-suite bedrooms and a fourth bedroom or studio.
Who Foxtons, foxtons.co.uk, tel: +44 20 7973 2000
Carlton Gardens, £12.5m
What A three-bedroom apartment with a private terrace. The 2,610 sq ft property features natural wood panelling, hand-painted silk wallpaper and Fior di Bosco marble and gold bathroom fittings.
Who Knight Frank, knightfrank.co.uk, tel: +44 20 8012 3476
Pall Mall, £5.9m
What A 1,672 sq ft apartment with three bedrooms and three bathrooms. The property is part of the Pall Mall Collection, a recently completed “luxury boutique scheme” set behind the traditional Regency-style stonework façade that dominates the area.
Who Knight Frank, knightfrank.co.uk, tel: +44 20 7861 5321
Photographs: Jack W Taylor; Bonhams; Carl Bigmore; The Crown Estate
Slideshow photographs: Carl Bigmore