The Disreputables Of Mayfair

London

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Londoners tend to think of the city’s oddest corner, Mayfair, as the home of embassies and billionaires, and leave it well alone. The only time I ever seem to cross it is when I’m a/ heading to the dentist, b/ taking a wander down Bond Street or c/ cutting through on my way to the Lebanese and Iranian restaurants of the Edgware Road. There’s Park Lane, of course, but who in their right mind ever walks beside this racetrack lined with its weird stores (spying equipment, absurd cars) and unattractively dated hotels?

We’re right to find something slightly sinister about those perfect facades and dingy alleys. Mayfair was named after the fifteen-day May Fair that took place on the site in the 17th and 18th centuries, and was banned in 1764 because of revellers’ relentless boisterousness and disorder. Most of the 18th century mansions here were destroyed, although the Saudi Arabian Embassy still inhabits one.

At the very heart of Mayfair is a square developed in 1735-46 by Edward Shepherd, Shepherd Market (there’s no ‘s’ as I’d always thought).

The narrow backstreets off the square always had a scandalous reputation. I still remember these dark roads when they were full of prostitutes. Here both Keith Moon and Mama Cass died, Jeffrey Archer met his whore and lied about it, and Bertie Wooster lived with his faithful butler. There were shifty-little basement bars tucked away, and one of the most infamous, the Embassy Club, is still there.

Here too was the home of ‘Skittles’, London’s last real courtesan (I don’t count the women who now ply a very similar trade in the Soho House). Mrs Catherine Walters really didn’t give a toss about what society thought of her. She lived at 15 South Street from 1872 to 1920, and was the mistress of the Duke of Devonshire and the Marquis of Hartington, among many others. She drove better carriages and wore finer clothes than any of her clients’ wives, and she swore like a navvie. Any good book on London will reveal dozens of juicy tales about her.

In her dotage she was pushed through Hyde Park in her wheelchair by Lord Kitchener, and although disreputable, was awarded that highest of honours, a blue plaque that can still be seen outside her house.

Mayfair’s reputation for scandal is still alive and well. Here too was the already infamous spot where Charles Saatchi was seen trying to ‘strangle’ his wife Nigella Lawson, sending both their careers into freefall.

13 comments on “The Disreputables Of Mayfair”

  1. Keith Page says:

    The last time I looked there were still some of the old ‘soot-blackened’ buildings of the 1950’s

  2. Dan Terrell says:

    Another evocative piece and a place well known to readers.
    So much better than most of our tales of crime and odd happenings.
    For example, a teenager pumping gas in a gas station built in 1960, on a corner, in broad daylight, is killed in an unsolved drive-by shooting. Other than a creepy feeling, where’s the atmosphere and the romance of history? (And I think this month we’ve had two more school shootings; one in Colorado, again, and close the former two bigges out there.)

  3. Cid says:

    For once I can identify the street – White Horse Street.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    It’s rather claustrophobia inducing with the high buildings and narrow street. If you drove a carriage down it the metal wheels would make a terribly echoing din, to say nothing of the horse(s)’ hooves. Car traffic could drive you nuts, too. And very little sunlight available, although perhaps more at the quieter(?) back.

  5. admin says:

    I never think of these streets as claustrophobic. Conversely, when I lived in Los Angeles, I felt very agoraphobic about the width of the boulevards, and still dislike wide-street cities.

  6. C Falconer says:

    Wasn’t there also a club called something like the 2 to 2 club? I have a vague memory as a small child reading / eavesdropping on my elders and hearing the name with interesting pauses in the conversation….

  7. Helen Martin says:

    It’s all in what you’re used to, I guess. I don’t feel comfortable with multi lane roads, either. Anyone on the far side could be living in another country.

  8. jan says:

    One of the more interesting thing about Mayfair – and this extends down into parts of Soho – is the interlinking of the buildings. You can go to a cafe on the corner of one street and exit halfway down the next street at basement level. Lots of shared “facilities”! The cellars cross from one side of the street to the other as in the case of Berry Brothers the wine merchants and Penhaligons the perfume company is an entry and exit point for a series of tunnels which head out in all directions one goes toward St James’ palace but is as u would imagine well cordoned off by now.

    Another interesting fact about Mayfair the outer sector the part that backs onto the outer reaches of Hyde Park well the older houses there have gardens which pretty much relate to the border of the medieval plots the remains of very old strip lynchets where the peasants farmed the land ……honestly not winding you up. And next to the big hotel not the Dorchester but the Hilton is it (i’m becoming befuddled and forget its name the hotel where Trader Vics is) well the road next to that which is a bit below the lines of the surrounding streets well under that road runs the Westbourne before its dammed up to become the lakes in the park near Buck House. Its a good cut through that street and is useful if u want to nip through Mayfair without being spotted!
    Also in Mayfair a M15 building which was behind a Natwest bank it took some demolishing took months to get rid of. i better go am well rambling now……..

  9. Helen Martin says:

    But you ramble to such fascinating purpose, Jan. I’m envisaging a mad dash through tunnels, up into basements, through ‘facilities’, down through more tunnels, and back up to air two miles away from where you started. Great for film, harder in a book.

  10. Zoe Blake says:

    Very odd area indeed. Shepherd Market is also where Edith Templeton has her heroine meet her strange and sadistic lover in the peculiar, long-banned novel ‘Gordon’. Set in a very recognisable London in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, the relative social (and sexual) freedom of the war and the claustrophobia of the relationship and of their West End is brilliantly evoked.

    I hope I’m not going to ruin it for anyone who hasn’t yet read it, but thankfully (particularly as it’s semi-autobiographical) she survives the affair better than he does….

  11. jan says:

    Yes thats another thing about Mayfair that i’d almost forgotten the walk up flats! for some reason in addition to the many prostitutes who used to regularly work the streets of Mayfair there were “walk ups” where punters used to walk up a set of stairs where the prostitute would work in a small flat. Because these places were only inhabited by one sex worker and a maid and the girls services were advertised and priced on lists from which the punter would make his selection on his way up the stairs these places were allowed to operate. The working girl was not soliciting for the purposes of prostitution within the meaning of the law that is she was not soliciting on the street
    nor was she loitering on the street so she could carry on. This is years b4 the phone cards and adverts in local papers lots of the Mews flats and flats above restauraunts and garages were used in this way punters would almost magically find these little places! In the good old days b4 prostitution became international when British girls staffed the market the street walkers of Mayfair had a habit of going into the bars at the Hilton particularly the one at the top of the building Windows on the world or the park or whatever they called it then and drinking double brandies which as u can guess were not cheap. In fact getting past the hotel detectives who chased away so no “loitering in the lobbies took place was a right performance. Anyway thats me done have a good Christmas

  12. jan says:

    OOps in my first entry i was referring to the grand old houses which back onto Park Lane with Hyde Park on the other side of the road…. did you know that until relatively recently there were a few trees in Hyde Park which were there at the time of the Great Exhibition? and one or 2 trees which were even enclosed by the Crystal Palace. After making this provision by leaving the trees in situ the builders of the palace and its visitors found bird poo all over the exhibits surrounding the trees………no one said conservation was easy

  13. jan says:

    Double oops (I’m beginning to regret putting pen to paper computer stylie in the 1st place I didn’t mean Penhaligon’s perfume shop which is in Covent Garden but the FLORIS perfumery another outfit entirely – but u can see how I mixed them up surely? Another quickie concerning Floris perfumery it contains display cabinets the proprietor got when they sold off goods from the great exhibition – honestly go and ask ’em in there. Posh London’s like that theres always something interesting. theres another shop in Mayfair that had (probably still has) these china Elephants in the window they were left over from another exhibition not the Great Ex but another famous one maybe in Paris. The elephants have been there years and years It is a china ware shop I can’t quite remember where but in a very posh part of town near Claridges maybe i’ll come up with it…………..leave it with me. The stuff I engage in to avoid Xmas shopping

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