Mewed is a French word describing a building where Falcons were Mewed, or left to shed their plumage. The first use in London was for the Royal Mews which were round about where the National Gallery is on Trafalgar Square. That is where the Royal falcons were kept.
After a fire at his stables in Bloomsbury in 1537, Henry VIII rebuilt the buildings in Trafalgar Square and used them as stables. The birds were evicted but the buildings still kept the name the Royal Mews. So Mews eventually became a generic name for coach houses and stabling.
In this blog I am deliberately only looking at the area within the Parish Boundary of Kensington, from Notting Hill Gate/Holland Park Ave northwards to the Canal/Harrow Road and eastwards to the peripheries of the boundary and west to Latimer/Norland Roads where the boundary ran down Counters Creek.
It was said by the Victorian social researcher Henry Mayhew that “The Mews of London constitute a world of their own”. There are 433 original stabling Mews left in the whole of London and 70 are in W11 and W10, which is a reasonable number for such a small area. The Mews always seem to have given W10/W11 quite a large part of the area’s identity.
The humble Mews represented one side of the aspirations of the land owners, developers and speculative builders who constructed the estates and houses in W11 in the 1850’s & later in W10. Often it was Wild West frontier capitalism. Then everything was Leasehold and a lot of the Mews still are.
When development started the owners sold off blocks of land, or even singular plots to speculative builders, who constructed the houses at their own expense. The land owner stipulated how the buildings would look and also had their surveyors approve the details when the houses had been built. The builder got his money from the lease while the land owner got a ground rent which made them money from what had previously been fields and pasture, or for example – a failed racecourse. When the 99 year leases were finished the property reverted to the land owner.
The builders and speculators were building single family dwellings for the new metropolitan middle class, who had moved from places near the edge of city, like Bloomsbury – to the leafy suburbs developing round the Hippodrome Racecourse above Notting Dale. These new estates were designed with everything that this new metro group would want. There were shops nearby and the Mews were hidden away round the back.
The Mews were built for the residents who had leased a house, to stable their horse, carriage and driver, who would transport them to the City or wherever else they wanted to go. The Mews also housed the horses and carts needed to move goods around and the Hansom cabs for moving people.
Mews were part of the support system for the new inhabitants of the area. They also provided all the transport business’s needs, supporting everything the stabling trade required such as blacksmiths, chandlers, bridle repairers. And who supplied the feed for the horses? If you were one of our many Welsh Dairies you needed stabling for the transport that went everyday to Paddington to collect the churns of fresh milk. This would then be sold from the shop or decanted into bottles and delivered round by horse and cart. When you were a self – employed Hansom Cab driver, where did you rent a place to keep your cab and the horse? How did you pay the rent, weekly or monthly?
The Mews had been thrown together really cheaply and for most of the time, pretty badly. They were shoddy, small, cold, cramped and draughty places, always damp, with very little natural light. The coachman might live upstairs in quite primitive conditions, with probably just a cold water supply.
The Mews were always on cobbled streets sloping steeply to the centre, to easily allow mucking out the stables and wash everything down to where the drains and sewers were in the middle of the road. Given the nature of life then, probably very little was wasted. Straw and horse manure was probably moved on…. by horse and cart.
In posh places like Horbury Mews, which was probably the Mews for the very large houses in Ladbroke Square, there was definitely superior accommodation commensurate with the status of the owner of the house. In less swanky parts it was not so top notch.
This worked well until a number of things happened. Inhabitants of the new developments in the northern end of Ladbroke Grove used the recently opened omnibus routes and Ladbroke Grove station to get around and connect to other parts of London. These residents were the modern Metropolitans and had no need for a horse and carriage.
There already had been an awareness by the developers that less Mews were needed in the north of the borough. The Mews would have seen a subtle evolution of use. They have always changed to suit the needs of the people who use and live there. So they drifted into light industrial, storage – like for some of our Portobello Stall holders and their carts.
The Mews in North Ken were generally quite mundane compared to the opulent ones down in the south of the Borough. Those often had elaborate arches over the entrance. Up in the North no space was wasted and sometimes the entrance to the Mews were built over, to maximise income.
Nineteen Century reformer Charles Booth commented that the Mews were “more generally occupied by poor families carrying on little trades, and by profligate and destitute persons, than used as stables” He marked Bolton Mews off Portobello Rd as dark blue in his poverty map. Which is “Very poor, casual, Chronic want”. As was Talbot Mews, a particularly malodorous place.
World War One changed everything. We lost so much of the population from all classes, the demographics of our life totally changed. A surplus of ex WW1 army trucks helped to replace the vast number of horses requisitioned and killed in the Great War. And so equine power was replaced by horsepower. The internal combustion engine became the prime power source, which also coincided with the big houses being split up into flats. There was just not the need for the big family houses and their servants and separate Mews any more.
Not a lot changed physically with the Mews but sometimes the use evolved. Small industries moved in. They changed to automotive use, mechanics and car showrooms, an example being the Sports Cars adverts in Pembridge Mews.
In the 50’s many Mews had become a dump, but sometimes cheap bijou dumps. Places hidden away, a dead end, a no through route. Although also providing you with a space to park your car – cars needed to be garaged more at that time.
In the 60’s, TV series like The Avengers and The Saint, made Mews hip places to be. There was also the 1980’s famous VW Golf advert that featured a Mews with the actress who looked like Princess Diana. If you wanted a home in a fashionable area but did not want or could not afford a whole house then the Mews became an option. What they lacked in convenience they made up for in novelty.
Mews are fascinating and frustrating. There are a number of areas, which so far I really have failed to find definitive answers to certain arcane questions; did the speculative builders who constructed the houses build the Mews as well? Probably – yes. So when you bought a lease on one of these nice big houses, did it include a space in the Mews? Or was that a separate lease or rental? I assume a separate lease/rental. Why did/do the Mews have a different ownership from the leasehold tenants? Does that explain why quite a few Mews are private, gated and unadopted?
Mews have frequently been private but when parking regulations came in, sometimes it gave the owners reason to gate it. And as the mews were always quite narrow, parking generally had caused a lot of problems. There are quite a few where the Council did not adopt the road and so do not maintain it. These generally are the private ones. Ruston Mews is one, the residents paid to be connected to the sewer system, while the Council charge them for electricity for their street lights.
There are very few totally original Mews left. Many have been reconstructed, rebuilt, altered and often a pastiche of what a Mews should be. My personal favourite is Portobello Mews a genuine throwback to the old days. It has not been substantially altered, mucked around with or gussied up and still retains a 70’s bohemian feel.
All kind of businesses and houses are hidden away in Mews these days. Going round you see how the buildings have adopted to the modern times, service industry, light engineering, Internet, shops. You see small and larger business operating out of the spaces now.
Some Mews have even been transformed into mega houses. Certainly the Mews have moved on with the times. The history of the mews tells the story of how we have gone from the working class to the well off.
List of mews in W10 and W11 (Alphabetical)
Addison Mews (now Addison Place)
Angola Mews (demolished)
Archer Mews (demolished)
Albert Mews (now Bulmer)
Albion Place (now Alba Place)
Boundary Mews (now Powis Mews)
Bolton Mews (demolished)
Blechynden Mews (demolished)
Bramley Mews (demolished)
Bramley Mews (demolished)
Bourne End Mews
Clydesdale Mews (demolished)
Camborne Mews (new build)
Denbigh Mews (now Close)
East Mews Road (demolished)
Edenham Mews (demolished)
Golden Cross Mews
Holland Park Mews
Kensington Park Mews
Ledbury Mews North
Ledbury Mews West.
Lionel Mews (demolished)
Lansdown Mews (previously Ladbroke Terrace Mews)
Lambton Mews (now Place)
Ladbroke Stables (now Mews)
Norland Stables (now Place)
Oxford Mews (now Malton Mews)
Pelham Mews (now Simons Close)
Princedale Mews (now Princes Place)
Royal Crescent Mews
Sylvester Mews (demolished)
Silchester Mews (demolished)
Stanley Garden Mews (lost to development)
Symphony Mews (new build)
St Johns Mews
St Lukes Mews
Thorpe Mews (now Close)
Vernon Mews (now Yard)
Victoria Grove Mews
Dave Hucker 2018