Within These Walls: 6 Layers of History
No 3 Savile Row, Mayfair
Let me introduce you to a Grade II listed mansion house in London’s Mayfair that has recently been in the news due to an unsuccessful campaign to prevent its conversion into an Abercromby & Fitch childrenswear store. Knowing the history of this grand old building it is somewhat ironic to find that an American transformation has materialised. For the truth is that this building has some very interesting and important connections. Since its construction in 1733 this house has been occupied by people who have helped shape the course of British military and cultural history. Let’s go inside…
1. Admiral John Forbes (1714-1796)
John Forbes was Wellesley-Pole’s father in law
John Forbes began his naval career at the age of 13 and progressed up through the ranks until he became Admiral of the Fleet from 1781 until his death. This was an era when a great many servicemen returned from war incapacitated, and disability was not considered a barrier to high office. Even though Forbes was unable to walk and rarely seen in society he still managed to exercise overall control of the British Navy – and he did so by holding meeting as his house at 3 Savile Row, where he had lived from around 1760.
Execution of Admiral Byng (1757)
Forbes most important contribution to British history came when he was involved in the trial of Admiral Byng, who was blamed for the loss of Minorca in 1756. He was tried and found guilty of failing to “do his utmost” to prevent the defeat. When Byng was sentenced to death an appeals for clemency was angrily refused by King George III. Forbes was the only Admiral to refuse to sign Byng’s death warrant though his action failed to prevent Byng’s execution by firing squad on 14 March 1757. Such was the effect upon the public mind that this was the last time a serving naval officer was executed on this charge. Forbes fearless refusal to bow to enormous pressure singled him out as a compassionate man of principle and made him a role model for fairer treatment of naval personnel.
In 1784 Forbes twin daughter Katherine married 3rd Lieutenant William Wellesley-Pole in a ceremony at 3 Savile Row with guests including Arthur Wellesley, later Duke of Wellington. Wellesley-Pole inherited the house in 1797 but decided to rent it out
2. General Robert Ross (1766-1814)
Perhaps Wellesley-Pole’s most famous tenant was Robert Ross a famous British general who is best known across the water in the United States. Irish-born Ross lived at Savile Row until 1805 after returning from action at the Battle of Alexandria (1801). He was subsequently present at the Battle of Corruna (1809) before serving under Arthur Wellesley during the Peninsular War. Despite being seriously wounded at the Battle of Orthes on 27th February 1814, Ross agreed to lead command a British expeditionary force to attack the United States
Hard to believe even today – Britain burning down the White House (1814)
Having routed the Americans at Bladensburg (27th August 1814) Ross advanced into Washington DC where he destroyed all the public buildings including the White House. For this act Ross is perhaps the best remembered of all British soldiers ever to set foot on American soil.
The death of General Ross
It was not to end well for Ross as he was killed by American snipers near North Point on 12th September 1814. He is buried in the Old Burying Ground at Nova Scotia but has a monument inscribed to him in St Paul’s Cathedral.
3. The Duke of Wellington (1769-1852)
When Arthur Wellesley returned from 8-years service in India the first place he stayed was with the Wellesley-Pole family in Blackheath, for he was at that time unmarried and had no London home. However, he was to repeat the exercise in 1814 when he triumphantly returned from the Peninsular War following Napoleon’s surrender and exile. It’s very telling that the newly ennobled Duke of Wellington chose Savile Row rather than his own marital home. Imagine if you can the thousands of people who gathered outside, mounting a daily vigil to catch a glimpse of their conquering hero. Wellington remained at Savile Row for a month before returning to Paris.
4. William Wellesley-Pole (1763-1845)
Wellesley-Pole owned 3 Savile Row between 1797 and 1842. In his role as Master of the Mint Wellesley-Pole presided over the introduction of new silver currency that was to remain in circulation from 1817 right through until decimalisation in 1971.
The humble shilling must surely be on of the greatest symbols of Britishness. Wellesley-Pole he also helped to create the instantly recognisable St George & Dragon motif designed by Benedetto Pistrucci which is still in use today.
5. The Bowler Hat (1849)
Quintessentially British – The bowler hat
Perhaps the greatest stereotypical representation of the English gentleman must be the wearing of a bowler hat. No 3 Savile Row can claim the distinction of being recognised as the place where the bowler hat originated. William and Thomas Bowler are credited with creating the first prototype for the bowler hat in 1850, but it is generally acknowledged that the hat was after a design by British soldier and politician Edward Coke, who was fed up with seeing his gamekeeper’s hats continually knocked off by low-hanging branches when out riding. When he was in Town, Coke lived at 3 Savile Row.
Bowler hats have travelled up the social spectrum
Initially very popular with the Victorian working classes, the bowler hat went on to become standard uniform for middle-class businessmen, and by the 1960s it had elevated to the aristocratic realm.
6. The Beatles (1969)
On January 30th 1969 the Beatles played their last ever public performance on the roof of Apple Records HQ at No 3 Savile Row. Just a year earlier the Beatles paid £500,000 to purchase the mansion and they are said to have spent the best part of 18 months living there leading up to that famous rooftop escapade.
Not surprisingly, to this day 3 Savile Row is still considered a tourist attraction for Beatles fans and there has been a steady clamour for a blue plaque to recognise their use of this building.
Whilst researching this post I came across a reference to Lady Hamilton, Admiral Nelson’s lover, stating that she too once lived at 3 Savile Row. But I have not included her in this blog as I can’t see where she would fit in this timeline, unless she rented the property before General Ross. However, I think there is sufficient here to demonstrate that we should hold Savile Row dear not just because of the Beatles, or to keep American tailoring out of this important British fashion location, but because of its connections to everything British: from the stiff upper lip (Forbes), to military escapades (Ross & Wellington), the British currency (Wellesley-Pole), Quintessentially British headwear (Bowler hat), not to mention The Beatles.
In fact No 3 Savile Row has given us a wealth of characters and symbols that mean a lot to our notion of Britishness.
Kier Holdings paid £20 million for the mansion in 2009 but its fate today remains undecided. Who knows what the future holds…
If they knew their history, these chaps would be wearing bowler hats!
A marvellous set of 1950s photographs showing some amazing interiors of No 3 Savile Row
For more info on General Ross I recommend War of 1812 website
The Daily Telegraph has written a splendid history of the bowler hat
Until such time as Geraldine Roberts Angel and the Cad is published by MacMillan, my main focus on this blog will be Wicked William’s father Wellesley-Pole. There is much to write about Wicked William so stay tuned on that score!
However, you might like to know about Wicked William and the Epping Hunt, or why the Duke of Wellington considered him lamentably idle – alternatively you could always read about the death of a Regency Prizefighter
I hope you have enjoyed this post and would be most grateful for any feedback for any additional information you may be able to provide to fill in the gaps.