Believed to be an ancient haunt of the Romans, London’s most exclusive district has come a long way since its humble beginnings. Mayfair began life in the modern era as nothing more than a scattering of fields and farm land until the annual St. James’s fair arrived to shake things up.
Otherwise known as the May Fair, this vibrant festival centred on and around what is now Shepherd’s Market, just north of Piccadilly. Performers and merchants came from across London to entertain revellers, which satiated the masses from 1686 up until 1764, when upper class residents successfully petitioned an end to frivolities as they claimed the fair lowered the tone of their increasingly affluent neighbourhood.
That neighbourhood was primarily founded through the marriage of 12 year old Mary Davies and Sir Thomas Grosvenor. Davies came from a family of shrivners who owned 500 acres of land west of the city, with 100 acres lying south of Oxford Street and east of Park Lane being particularly valuable to potential developers. Whilst building had already begun in the late 17th century, it was not until the couple’s son, Sir Richard Grosvenor, joined forces with surveyor Thomas Marlowe that today’s Mayfair truly began to take shape.
The first of the district’s three major squares arose in 1717, named Hanover Square after King George I, Elector of Hannover. A decade later, Mayfair was absorbed into the new parish of St. George Hanover Square, which stretched as far east as Old Bond Street and continued into Hyde Park to the west, with Oxford Street and Piccadilly providing the borders to the north and south. The Grosvenor family, later claiming the Dukes of Westminster titles, still owned a substantial part of the area, developing opulent residential quarters for the aristocracy surrounding Mayfair’s glorious centrepiece, Grosvenor Square.
Whilst the Grosvenors held the monopoly on the district’s northern estates, the equally prosperous Berkeley family were busy developing in the south, with the foundation of Berkeley Square and its surrounding grandiose residences. Throughout the 18th century, wealthy Londoners continued to flood to this new and attractive neighbourhood, owing to Mayfair’s greater expansion. The district remained a hotspot for the rich and famous up until the 1920s, as the financial crisis forced many inhabitants to move to the suburbs or relocate to America.
The Second World War witnessed a further shift in occupants, as many businesses headed to the area to escape the Blitz. The district retained its corporate edge until very recently, with the past two decades embracing something of a revival, replacing offices with luxurious family homes, top notch restaurants and deluxe boutiques, returning Mayfair to its former glamorous glory.