Hidden In Plain Sight: The Albany

London

There are places in London that fail to be noticed because they’re protected not just by wealth but by class. You might find yourself in an elegant street filled with architecturally fascinating houses, but the urge to hurry on is encouraged by private security guards or a look about the place that says ‘You have no business here.’

The Albany (or simply, ‘Albany’) is rather unusual. You don’t find many photos of it online, probably because there are lots of rules and regulations; ‘no whistling, no noise, no publicity’. It’s a three story ‘bachelor apartment complex’ built five years before the American declaration of Independence, in plain sight right on Piccadilly, yet few people notice it. It was occupied by Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany (hence the confusion over the definite article; residents favour dropping it) and subsequently turned into 69 apartments or ‘sets’.

From the entry off Piccadilly the vista that opens before you is complete and timeless, but in keeping with the period it’s mostly for show. Like a lot of prestigious old London properties the back of the building is unattractive. But lying to the east of the Burlington Arcade and the Royal Academy of Arts, a minute’s walk from Piccadilly Circus, Albany might be fifty miles away from London. It’s in complete contrast to the chaos of Piccadilly Circus, yet situated right within it.

So who can’t live here? Anyone with less than a couple of million – the sets vary in size but the smallest are very small indeed and not much of a bargain. A larger one on two floors will set you back about five million, but they’re still smallish. You buy into Albany because of the prestige. There are no children under 14 and you no longer have to be a bachelor, but residents are vetted – unusually for London – by a daunting residents’ committee. That means no riff-raff, which in turn means it’s about class, not money, although times have changed a little on that score.

And what a roll-call of previous occupants! They include (and this is just a grab at the first few names I spotted) Byron, Wordsworth, Gladstone, Lord Stanley, Sir Thomas Beecham, Isaiah Berlin, Dame Edith Evans, Sir Kenneth Clark, Bill Nighy, Aldous Huxley, JB Priestley, Terence Stamp. ‘The story of Albany is largely the story of the people who have lived there,’ wrote Sheila Birkenhead in Peace in Piccadilly in 1958.

It’s rare that you get to see interiors of the building, but as far as I can tell the sets are poky and dark, laid out in a way that prevents any radical redesign. But the rooms look private and quiet. Recently a New York designer, intent on ripping out the interior of hers, came up against the full might of the committee in charge of her Listed Building status and eventually abandoned the idea. When Soho’s oldest houses came up for sale in the early 1980s many a moderniser discovered a Georgian fireplace behind a wall that would prevent any repurposing of interiors.

But unlike the more raffish, bastardised Aldwych, Albany remains an enclave. There are many more dotted across the capital, as we shall see.

22 comments on “Hidden In Plain Sight: The Albany”

  1. Peregrine says:

    Coincidently, I’ve been having a clear out, and have just transferred a huge pile of old house and gardens from the sixties into the garage in preparation for disposing of them, and in one of the issues I flicked though was an article about Terence Stamps Albany apartment , mainly about the designer he hired to decorate it, with lots of colour photos!

  2. Peregrine says:

    And of course Raffles stayed there!!

  3. Interesting that Albany, Albania and Albion all have the same origin. It raises questions about house prices: £5 million for an apartment of 20 sq metres in Albania?

  4. Martin Tolley says:

    I think Ted Heath lived in Albany from the ’60s. There’s a story in his memoirs that he sub-let his set to a French couple whilst he was PM, but when he was ousted suddenly, the couple refused to vacate their lease early and he was left to slum it around Belgravia.

  5. Bee says:

    Bill Nighy seems like an ideal resident.

  6. Ian Luck says:

    Raffles lived there – shown quite clearly in the Anthony Valentine starring TV show. Is it also where Richard (The 39 Steps, Greenmantle, etc.) is supposed to have lived?

  7. Anne Billson says:

    The sad story of John Morgan, GQ’s Style Editor, who fell or jumped to his death from his Albany flat in 2000. I met him on occasion in the 1990s, when I wrote regularly for GQ, but can’t say that I knew him. Reading these pieces, it sounds as though no one did.

    https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1348460/Mysterious-death-of-the-man-who-made-manners-his-life.html

    https://www.theguardian.com/g2/story/0,3604,342847,00.html

  8. Ian Todd says:

    How about Mr Fascination Fledgeby from Our Mutual Friend who resided at that address?

  9. Jan says:

    See I agree with you to an extent about the Aldwych but it’s still very interesting around there. You know if London had developed slightly differently the Aldwych could have been a sort of of a version of Soho. Didn’t happen though. As it goes what did develop in what was at one point an area in which there were a wide range of bookshops (if I’ve remembered properly – ever more of a gamble) was that the BBC moved in.

    A BBC social club existed at the Aldwych with a health club and swimming pool included. I think that was in the 1920-30s far ahead of its time. The swimming pool amazingly was filled from a natural spring on site. A massively fast flowing spring. Interesting when you consider the ancient well site nearby……

    There’s lots of other interesting little facts around there but I won’t drivel on and bore you to tears. Just one last bit it abutts into Kingsway complete with the old tramway underpass now full of very secure storage areas p!us the entrances to those strange tunnels originally built in order that London survive WW3 with the massive lifts still present in Furnival street. Off of Kingsway theres Sicilian Avenue lovely but sort of out of place like it should be over near the Ritz somewhere. Sicilian Avenue is a bit of a clue that the area around Kingsway was visualized or planned to be a bit like Ramblas in Barcelona – didn’t exactly work out as planned at all!

  10. Richard says:

    Didn’t the hunter character in the Challenger stories live there?

  11. Paul Graham says:

    Lord Roxton, Richard.

  12. Richard says:

    That’s him, thanks Paul.

  13. admin says:

    The contrast in the two obituaries is instructive, Anne. ‘Almost certainly homosexual and unlucky in love’ from the stiff-necked Telegraph, a more generous and human version in the Grauniad.

  14. Ken says:

    I confess I had never heard of it before it was mentioned in Stephen Fry’s most recent book of memoirs, which surprised me when I realised what distinguished company he was joining.

  15. admin says:

    Alan, the master bedroom is 14 feet square and the kitchen is 6 feet wide. Maybe ‘bachelor’ is code for ‘person of restricted growth’.

  16. Anne Billson says:

    Jan – I attended Central School of Art & Design in Southampton Row in the 1970s, which was right opposite Sicilian Avenue. I used to gaze through the window and fantasise about living in a room in one of those turrets. We used to frequent a sandwich bar called the Five Star, right next to it.

  17. Ian Luck says:

    And the answer to the deliberately missed out word in my entry earlier, is ‘Hannay’.

  18. Jan says:

    Anne I think I might have gone inside one of the flats above the fancy chocolate shop which at the time wasn’t that mpressive. The turrets were something else though weren’t they? The stuff that dreams are made on. Bet they genuinely are fabulous inside now.

    In the early 2000s Holborn- the whole area- lifted and got very nice. I worked there in the mid 1990s when it was all a bit lost. The insurance companies had moved out of London and off into the sticks and the whole place seemed a bit at a loose end. Half forgotten really.

    In retrospect I liked working in the area when like that probably more than I would have done when it all went a bit upmarket. Interesting place.

  19. Helen Martin says:

    No, Richard Hannay in The Thirty-nine Steps had a leased flat on the first floor of a “new block behind Langham Place.” It was near Portland Place. In the previous paragraph he wondered if he could get a job in Albania, which does that Albany/Albania/Albion connection referred to above. There is no reference to where he lived in Mr. Standfast (it is a war/spy story) and I can’t find my copy of Greenmantle.
    Loved looking at that Albany floor plan and wonder what the bay window looks out on. My husband describes the kitchen as a pullman kitchen and assumes the residents would have eaten out a lot.

  20. Alan Morgan says:

    It *is* mad tiny.

    You’d probably best stay in Fowler Towers.

  21. Ian Luck says:

    Helen – thank you for correcting my mistake. I don’t have any of the Richard Hannay books at present – I made the cardinal error (is that a higher ranking type of ‘Curate’s egg? Dean single? No, that’s a type of railway engine.), of lending my collected stories to a work colleague. Who then left. Pity.
    I wonder if the TV series, ‘Hannay’ starring Robert Powell is available on DVD? Powell got the gig after starring in the ridiculously entertaining movie version of ‘The 39 Steps’. It’s not as good as Hitchcock’s 1935 version, but honestly, what is?

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