One of my favorite parts in developing a character is trying to determine where they live. I’m currently writing An Unexpected Countess and my hero, the Earl of Hartwick, would rather chew glass than live under the same roof as his father. After looking at a number of options, I decided Hart would live in one of London’s most exclusive addresses during the Regency era for a fashionable bachelor, an apartment-type building known as Albany. One of the best things about this building is that it has survived and continues to be one of London’s most exclusive residences. It’s located on Piccadilly next to the Burlington Arcade and is set back from the street by a private courtyard. For over two hundred years a sense of privacy has been valued here. Today, I’d like to tell you a little bit about it.
Albany was originally designed by Sir William Chambers in 1774 as a residence for the first Lord Melbourne and his wife. In 1791 the Duke of York and Albany proposed a house swap to Lord Melbourne and an agreement was reached. The Duke, who was the second son of George III, and his wife lived there until 1803, when compounding debt forced him to sell the house to a young developer named Alexander Copland for £37,000.
Copland recognized the need for small London residences for fashionable gentlemen who didn’t wish to live alone in large townhouses and wanted to be close to the clubs and shops of St. James, as well as the Houses of Parliament. He worked with the architect Henry Holland to convert the mansion into a subscription house with a small garden behind it. Holland added two parallel buildings to the mansion and divided the entire structure into 69 apartments (or sets as Albany residents refer to them). The sets in the attached buildings are accessed from a 100ft. passageway known as the Rope Walk.
The sets were marketed exclusively to wealthy, well-connected gentlemen who were either bachelors or men who did not live with their wives. Some of the notable residents in the early nineteenth century include Matthew “Monk” Lewis, Lord Byron, and George Canning. Residents had an option to lease or buy a set. In 1814 Lord Byron took a seven-year lease at £110 per annum, with the option of purchasing the set for £1900 within one year.
Occupants were, and still are, subject to certain rules and regulations established by a group of Trustees who are elected from among the residents. Some of the original rules stipulated that residents could not alter any part of the building structure and owners could not rent or sell chambers without the consent of the Trustees. And it was understood that no women or children were permitted on the premises, although there is a rumor that Byron’s lover, Lady Caroline Lamb, managed to enter this forbidden land dressed as a page-boy. It wasn’t until the 1880s that the ban on women was finally lifted and beginning in the twentieth century women were permitted to reside there.
In the early nineteenth century a standard set contained an entrance hall, two main rooms in the front of the unit, and two or three smaller rooms in the back. Each set came with a wine and coal cellar in the basement and accommodations for a servant on the upper floor. In 1818 gaslights were installed in the building, and in June of 1820 the Trustees agreed that the parish should light the entrance from Piccadilly, the courtyard and the portico of the mansion.
Regency history buffs might find it interesting to discover that in 1804 Henry Angelo’s fencing school was located in Albany’s courtyard, and in 1807 the pugilist John Jackson might have used the same apartment. For a short time Jane Austen’s brother Henry, of the banking firm Austen and Maunde, also had his office in the courtyard.
I love that this building has retained its sense of the past and hasn’t changed much in over two hundred years. According to one of its current residents, there is such a sense of decorum that uttering a friendly hello to a neighbor as you pass on the stone stairs or the Rope Walk is frowned upon. For the residents of Albany, a nod or a hat tip to a lady is the appropriate greeting.
British History Online: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols31-2/pt2/pp367-389
Georgette Heyer’s Regency World, Jennifer Kloester. 2010. Print.
New York Times Magazine, London’s Best and Most Secretive Address. November 11, 2013. Print.