Charles Dickens, Mayfair and Little America

From the evidence of his writings, Charles Dickens did not like Mayfair. More precisely, he did not like what, socially, it represented. Given that Dickens was prone to write more about what he disapproved of in life, than about what he approved of (no doubt that approach made business sense) it is no shock that Mayfair, when picked on, got the great man’s treatment.

That Dickens wrote about Mayfair at all may surprise some. Ask a question of what scene comes into your head when you hear the phrase “Dickens’ London”, and many will conjure up Fagin in his den (off Saffron Hill on the edge of the old City of London) or in the condemned cell of Newgate Prison (now the site of the Old Bailey) on the night before his execution.

But there are Mayfair references in Dickens’ work, and they centre on the Grosvenor Square area.

Way after Dickens’ time, the area became known as London’s Little America, based on it being General Dwight D Eisenhower’s London headquarters during World War II. The headquarters building was on the north side of the Square and the Square was nicknamed Eisenhower Platz.

However, the US connection started much earlier, and before Dickens’ birth. John Adams lived on the north-east corner of the Square from 1785 to 1788, and established the first American Mission to the Court of St James’s (still the official seat of British monarchy) in 1785.

From 1938 to 1960 the US Embassy was on the east side of the Square; it then moved to the new monolithic building on the west side, although the connection will be lost when the Embassy moves south of the river to Nine Elms.

Signs of the US connection still abound in an around the Square. Here are a few examples:

President Franklin D Roosevelt
The pigeon diminishes the gravitas
The Eagle Squadron Memorial
240 US pilots volunteered in 1940, joining 16 British pilots in the Squadron

The 9/11 Memorial
A metal girder from the twin towers is buried underneath
President Ronald Reagan
Unveiled  4th July 2011 to commemorate his role in ending the Cold War

So what of the Dickens theme? Mayfair figures in his perspective, and his reference in Nicholas Nickelby to “the aristocratic gravity of Grosvenor Square and Hanover Square”, demonstrates that he understands its social status. However, the tone of his feelings towards Mayfair is revealed better by lines from Little Dorrit, where he describes:

“...the great streets of melancholic stateliness, and the little streets that try to be as stately and succeed in being more melancholy, of which there is a labyrinth near Park Lane [one block away to the west].”

Subtly uncomplimentary, you might say.

The tone continues, with the area appearing in various parts of the Little Dorrit story:

"In the back streets of Mayfair are the mews properties – denoting stables with living accommodation, and at the top end of one of these lives Mr Tite Barnacle in Mews Street, Grosvenor Square: “not absolutely Grosvenor Square, but it was very near it”.

Dickens goes on to paint a picture of the street:

“It was a hideous little street of dead walls, stables and dunghills, with lofts over coach-houses inhabited by coachmen’s families.”

Today the picture is different, a Mayfair mews property with stable now garage being a desirable location.

Brook's Mews

Back to the main streets.  Just around the corner is Brook Street. Here, Mrs Skewton in Dombey & Son borrows a property from a “stately relative” for “nuptial purposes”, that is to make a “handsome appearance” and encourage the wealthy but socially inferior Mr Dombey (whose own house was sited by Dickens slightly further north in Bryanston Square) to marry her daughter Edith. The marriage went ahead, but with unhappy consequences.

Finally we come to Mr William Dorrit, who on release from the Marshalsea Prison was taken to stay in “an hotel in Brook Street, Grosvenor Square.”

Was the hotel Claridge's?

Claridge's Hotel

The dates indicate it was certainly a possibility. The first part of Little Dorrit was published in 1855. In 1854 William and Marianne Claridge bought the five adjacent houses in Brook Street known as the Mivarts hotel. The hotel became known as Claridge’s, late Mivart’s, until Mivart’s death in 1856.

The photo above shows that refurbishment works at today’s Claridge’s are under way. To finish, a bizarre further photo of the hotel.

Claridge's - an alternative perspective

Almost the House of Mirrors at the end of a seaside pier? The answer is a chrome or similar facade (nothing downmarket here) to the works hoarding. The hotel signage shows through, and the distorted image mirrors houses on the opposite side of the road.

The author is a City of London Guide, City of Westminster Guide, and former law firm partner, who runs walking tours in the City and in Westminster. On Thursday 5th April he is running a walk Inside & Outside the Law. See tabs for further details.