Sunday, 25 March 2012

BARBON THE BUILDER - Charlotte Betts

 This week the Hoydens are delighted to welcome guest blogger, Charlotte Betts, author of The Apothecary's Daughter.

The Great Fire of London
The Great Fire of London started in the small hours of 2nd September 1666 after a scorching hot summer of drought. The city was as dry as a tinderbox and before the night was out the warehouses by the river below Thames Street had ignited and become an unstoppable inferno. The fire leaped from building to building, fanned by a fierce east wind. The populace, led by the Duke of York and Charles II, frantically pulled down houses to form firebreaks but to no avail.

After the fire had raged through the city for four days the wind died down and the progress of the fire slowed and finally came under control. A smoking wasteland under a glowering red sky was all that remained. Almost everything within the city walls was destroyed, churches, guildhalls, shops, offices and taverns as well as an estimated 13,000 houses. Over 100,000 homeless citizens fled to camp out in the fields of Islington or Moor Fields with their few remaining possessions gathered around them.

Something had to be done and done very quickly. Christopher Wren, John Evelyn and others produced plans for regeneration in a matter of days for a new city on a geometric plan with wide, straight roads, open piazzas and grand boulevards by. But it was not to be. The difficulties in registering the ownership of plots of land and the Crown’s lack of funds to buy them resulted in rebuilding on almost the same higgledy-piggledy street plan as the mediaeval city of London.
Nicholas Bardon

Whilst Christopher Wren was designing cathedrals and guildhalls, one Dr Barbon saw the rebuilding of the city as an opportunity to make his fortune. The son of a preacher called Praise-God Barebones, Dr Barbon had been christened If-Jesus-Had-Not-Died-For-Thee-Thou-Hads’t-Been-Damn’d. Who could blame him if he asked his friends to call him Nicholas? He attended university in Holland but never practiced medicine, preferring instead to turn his skills to property speculation.

After the fire, Barbon began to build his empire with astonishing speed and extraordinary opportunities were there for the grasping. He began by buying leases from landlords whose property had burned and who didn’t want, or couldn’t afford, to rebuild. New laws had been made for the rebuilding, which set clear rules. Houses had to be built of brick or stone with no windows or jetties projecting from the face of the house. A lesson had been learned and ramshackle and combustible wooden hovels would no longer be tolerated.

Barbon didn’t have the funds to build these new houses himself so he sought other investors, constantly borrowing money from one to start a project, delaying payments to another for as long as possible  and only settling his large debts when the percentage of capital and costs were about half the cost of borrowing. As an MP, he used his Parliamentary right of immunity to prosecution shamelessly to shield himself from the courts when he defaulted on payments and defrauded partners. His projects were often underfunded and sometimes he skimped on the quality of building materials. Some of his houses collapsed due to unsafe foundations. He didn’t always bother to apply for the necessary licenses and simply moved onto a building plot, violently beat off any objectors, demolished what remained of any previous house and set to work to cram in as many new terraced houses as possible onto the site.
Devonshire Square

In spite of his unscrupulous methods, Barbon and his property speculator partners built swathes of terraced housing. Amongst others, he developed Red Lion Square, Devonshire Square, Marine Square, Gerrard Street, Conduit Street, Bedford Row in Holborn, Cannon Street, Fetter Lane and the Middle Temple Courts. Essex Street he laid out in the grounds of Essex House. The fine Essex Street Water gates built in 1676 before the building of the embankment and the road on the north side of the Thames, prevented the tidal wash that reached the properties along The Strand and Fleet Street.

Barbon didn’t care what people thought of him; money was all. He dressed in the latest fashions and lived as splendidly as a lord of the manor in Crane Court off Fleet Street, all the better to impress his investors. In 1680 he pioneered the Insurance Office for Houses, later renamed the Phoenix Office. This was an insurance scheme, which provided fire insurance for over 5,000 householders. In 1694 he patented a design for pumping water from the Thames to his new developments and with John Asgill, he founded the successful National Land Bank, which issued mortgages. His economic theories resulted in his tract Discourse on Trade (1690).

Barbon moved to a sixteenth century manor, Osterley House, and died there in 1698, still in debt despite of his opulent surroundings. Utterly ruthless and disliked by many, Nicholas Barbon must however, have possessed considerable charisma when it suited him or he would never have persuaded so many investors to part with their money. Although he was the property developer people loved to hate, he left behind him a housing stock, much of it still in existence, which changed the face of London for the better.

1 comment:

Anita Davison said...

Welcome Charlotte and what a lovely guest post-I'm still intrigued as to how different the city would look now if Wren's Piazza design had been implemented.