Townhouse (Great Britain)
Townhouse in British usage properly refers to the town or city residence of a member of the nobility or gentry, as opposed to their country seat, generally known as a country house or colloquially for the larger ones stately home. The grandest of the London townhouses were stand-alone buildings, but many were terraced buildings. In modern usage for marketing purposes British property developers and estate agents often call new city terraced houses "townhouses" following the North American usage of the term, to aggrandise modest dwellings and to avoid the negative connotation of cheap terraced housing built in the Victorian era to accommodate workers. The aristocratic pedigree of terraced housing, for example as survives in St James's Square in Westminster, is widely forgotten. The term is comparable to the Hôtel particulier which housed the French nobleman in Paris.
Historically, a town house was the city residence of a noble or wealthy family, who would own one or more country houses in which they lived for much of the year. From the 18th century, landowners and their servants would move to a townhouse during the social season (when major balls took place).
In the United Kingdom most townhouses were terraced. Only a small minority of them, generally the largest, were detached, but even aristocrats whose country houses had grounds of hundreds or thousands of acres often lived in terraced houses in town. For example the Duke of Norfolk owned Arundel Castle in the country, while his London house, Norfolk House, was a terraced house in St. James's Square over 100 feet (30 metres) wide.
In the Middle Ages the London residences of the nobility were generally situated within the walls or boundary of the City of London, often known as "Inns", for example Lincoln's Inn was the town house of the Earl of Lincoln, Gray's Inn of the Baron Grey de Wilton. They gradually spread onto the Strand, the main ceremonial thoroughfare from the City to the Palace of Westminster, where parliamentary and court business were transacted. Areas such as Kensington and Hampstead were countryside hamlets outside London until the 19th century, so mansions in these areas, such as Holland House, cannot be considered as true historical townhouses. Bishops also had London residences, generally termed Palaces, for example Lambeth Palace, Ely Palace, etc. Many aristocratic townhouses were demolished or ceased to be used for residential purposes after the First World War.
The greatest residence on the Strand was the Savoy Palace, residence of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, the richest man in the kingdom in his age. The Strand had the advantage of river frontage to the Thames, which gave the nobles their own private landing places. The next fashion was to move still further westwards to St James's, to be near the Tudor royal court. In the 18th century Covent Garden was developed by the Duke of Bedford on his Bedford Estate and Mayfair by the Grosvenor family on their Grosvenor Estate. The final fashion before the modern era was for a residence on the former marsh-land of Belgravia, developed after the establishment of Mayfair also by the Duke of Westminster. The following examples, most of which are now demolished, are comparable to the Parisian Hôtel particulier:
- The Albany
- Apsley House
- Bedford House
- Bridgewater House, Westminster
- Buckingham House (now Buckingham Palace)
- Burlington House (now home of Royal Academy)
- Chesterfield House (demolished 1937, now eponymous Mayfair block of flats)
- Clarence House the residence of the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and now the residence of Charles, Prince of Wales
- Clarendon House
- Crewe House, Curzon Street, Mayfair, currently the Saudi Arabian embassy
- Devonshire House (formerly on Piccadilly, opposite present Ritz Hotel. Formerly Berkeley House)
- Dorchester House
- Essex House
- Grosvenor House (replaced by eponymous hotel)
- Harrington House formerly the London residence of the Earl of Harrington
- Hungerford House, residence of Baron Hungerford until 1669. It later became the site of Hungerford Market and then Charing Cross railway station
- Lansdowne House
- Londonderry House (formerly on Piccadilly)
- Marlborough House residence of the Prince of Wales and later Queen Mary the Queen Mother (1936–1953) (now the Commonwealth Secretariat)
- Montagu House
- Norfolk House
- Northumberland House (demolished)
- Pembroke House, Whitehall
- Somerset House
- Spencer House formerly the London residence of the Earls Spencer
Whilst most English examples of the townhouse occur in the capital, the provincial cities also contain some historical examples, for example Bampfylde House (destroyed in WW II) in Exeter, the county capital of Devon, the town house of Baron Poltimore of the Bampfylde family, whose main country seat was Poltimore House in Devon. Also in Exeter was Bedford House, also demolished, the town residence of the Duke of Bedford who resided principally at Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire but required a base in the West Country from which to administer his vast estates there.
- Bute House - former residence of the Marquis of Bute in Edinburgh's Charlotte Square, now the official residence of Alex Salmond (First Minister of Scotland)
- Dundas House - former Edinburgh home of Sir Lawrence Dundas, now the principal branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland
- John Knox House - 15th-century townhouse on the Royal Mile
- Old Moray House - 17th-century dwelling of the Earls of Moray in the Canongate
- Queensberry House - bought in 1689 by William Douglas, 1st Duke of Queensberry, now incorporated into the new Scottish Parliament Building and housing the office of the Presiding Officer
- The Georgian House, Edinburgh - restored 18th-century townhouse which is open to the public
- Leinster House in Dublin - residence of the Duke of Leinster (Ireland's premier duke) and now the seat of Oireachtas Éireann, the Irish parliament.
- Powerscourt House - Dublin residence of Viscount Powersourt, a prominent Irish peer. It was sensitively converted into an award-winning shopping centre in the 1980s. (See an image of one of its decorated ceilings here.)
Georgian Dublin consisted of five Georgian squares, which contained the townhouses of prominent peers. The squares were Merrion Square, St. Stephen's Green, Fitzwilliam Square, Ruthland Square (now called Parnell Square) and Mountjoy Square. Many of the townhouses in these squares are now offices while some have been demolished.
- For a description of an 18th-century town house in England, for example, see Olsen, Kirsten. Daily Life in 18th-Century England. Greenwood Publishing Group, 1999, pp. 84–85.
- Also see Stewart, Rachel. The Town House in Georgian London. Yale University Press for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2009.
- For a general discussion of town houses in Edinburgh, see Brown, Keith M. Noble Society in Scotland: Wealth, Family and Culture from the Reformation to the Revolutions. Edinburgh University Press, 2004, p. 203ff.
- For background, see Casey, Christine. The Eighteenth-Century Dublin Town House: Form, Function and Finance. Four Courts, 2010.
- Cunningham, Peter. Handbook of London Past and Present, London, 1850 (see section 20: "Palaces & Chief Houses of the Nobility & Gentry in the Present Day).
- London's Mansions by David Pearce, (1986) ISBN 0-7134-8702-X
- The London Rich by Peter Thorold (1999) ISBN 0-670-87480-9
- Daisy, Countess of Fingall. Seventy Years Young. First published 1937 (autobiography of an Irish peer's wife, covering the late nineteenth and early twentieth century).