Originally covering an area of 270 acres stretching from Oxford Street to Regents Canal, the land was acquired by Sir William Portman of Somerset, Lord Chief Justice to Henry VIII, in 1532. The land remained relatively undeveloped to 1755 when the main occupation in the area was pig farming, and the depositing of ‘night soil,’ but by 1820 the road system existed as it is today, and the original building development was largely completed. The driving force behind the Estate’s rapid expansion was Edward Berkeley Portman: his knowledge of engineering and his irrepressibility changed the landscape of Georgian London.
After the Peace of Paris in 1763, new blocks sprang up to the West of Cavendish Square, gradually filling the space defined by the Marylebone Road, the world’s first city by-pass, which was built to ease ‘traffic congestion’ on Oxford Street.
Henry William Portman developed 200 acres of meadow passed down from a Tudor ancestor. He started in 1764 with a square, which was to owe its popularity to buildings by Robert Adam and James ‘Athenian’ Stuart, the architect of Montagu House - built in the northwest corner of Portman Square for Mrs Elizabeth Montagu. This lady, who became particularly associated with the Square, called it the 'Montpelier of England', and said she ‘never enjoyed such health as since she came to live in it.’ Lizzy Montagu was an enigmatic and cultured woman and her home became the meeting place for some of London’s most enlightened thinkers. She became a power in the literary world, and a founder of the Blue-Stocking Club, so named because of the informal blue stockings that many of the group wore. One of the rooms in her magnificent house was truly unconventional in that, instead of wallpaper, it was decorated with ostrich feathers. In addition to her sponsorship of the arts, Montagu also had a reputation for philanthropy. On May 1st each year she put on an annual feast for all the chimney sweeps in London. She did this because a child of a family member had been kidnapped by chimney sweeps and was restored to the family by accident when discovered working in her own mansion.
After Portman Square, the jewel in the crown, came Manchester Square, established around 1770, and Bryanston and Montagu Squares, both established around 1810. The actual building was not undertaken directly by the Estate, though the architect responsible for the design and characteristics of these twin squares was James Thompson Parkinson, who was no doubt instructed by the Estate. In fact the Estate dictated the lines of streets and the open spaces, then it leased the land to private and speculative builders who were responsible for providing services. This separation of responsibility was the way in which the area developed: direction and control came from the Estate, while the builders were responsible for providing the services. As Viscount Simon said: 'Planning is not a question of ownership, but of control and management so long as one has the necessary powers to give a direction and control'.
A principal feature of the Estate was the redevelopment of the sites of many of the original grand houses as mansion blocks which were let on long leases. This secondary development started in the south of the Estate, as did the original one in the 18th century, but then spread along the major traffic routes, Edgware Road and Baker Street. These blocks of flats and hotels have grown up in an arc lying about 200 yards behind the Oxford Street/Edgware Road frontages of the Estate between Berkeley Street, Portman Square, Bryanston Street and Square, and Blandford Street.
The street names of course, were given with reference to the family and estates of the sole landowner of the district - namely Edward Berkeley Portman, Viscount Portman of Bryanston, near Blandford, in Dorset, who was for many years MP for Dorset, and for a short time MP for Marylebone.
London is alone amongst the world’s great cities in that its streets and squares commemorate not culture or history but property: not great politicians or thinkers, or historical events or abstractions - Washington Square or the Arc de Triomphe - but the names of courtier/speculators like Jermyn, Grosvenor, and Portman, their country Estates like Euston or Wimpole, even builders like Cubitt.
Indeed, the history of the Portman Estate is as much its invisible tapestry of people and events as the physical remains that make up one of London’s most fascinating quarters.
William Baker, on land leased from Portman, laid out Baker Street from 1755. Before Sherlock Holmes, it was the home of William Pitt the Younger (once of Berkeley Square), of Lord Siddars, of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and of Sir Richard Burton, the explorer and orientalist.
In an era that was built on imagination, one of England’s greatest scientists was himself discovered on the Estate - Michael Faraday (1791-1867) at 48 Blandford Street.
The site we know as Marble Arch has been traversed since Roman times, when the routes which became Oxford Street, Bayswater Road and Edgware Road were established. It remained a mainly rural area well into the 18th century, with Hyde Park set aside as a Royal deer park and hunting ground by Henry VIII. Its history has been one of almost continual change ever since.
Until 1851, when the arch was removed from Buckingham Palace and repositioned as a gateway to Hyde Park, the site had been known as 'Tyburn'. Named after the local river which drained into the Thames, Tyburn lodged itself in the public imagination as one of London’s primary places of public execution. Prisoners were led down Oxford Street to a vast gallows, which dominated the intersection from 1571 to 1759, and executed in front of crowds of up to 200,000 people. As early as the 16th century this site has been an important place of social assembly - whether as an encampment for the military, a rendezvous for protesters and visitors to public festivals, or the gateway to what is now Speaker’s Corner. Change and renewal have become characteristics of the site. Hyde Park was seized by the Crown in 1536 and it remained a Royal preserve until a century later; in the 17th century the public began to be admitted and the park became a fashionable venue for May Day celebrations. The park was fortified during the Civil War and walled-in during the 1670s.
During the 1720s the Marble Arch site began to be subjected to a process of rapid evolution, driven largely by the development of the Grosvenor Estate to the south east, and later the Portman Estate to the north east. During the following decades Cumberland Gate was inserted into the wall of Hyde Park at its north eastern corner, the Tyburn gallows were replaced by a toll-house, and Park Lane began to appear. By the 1820s, a street map that we would recognise today was in place.
With thanks to Conrad Keating