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The London Season

The Season was an annual phenomenon, which saw elite[4] and powerful families in Society migrate to the West End of London between May and July[5] to participate in a frenetic round of social engagements. While traces of the Season can be found in earlier decades, the period began in earnest in the eighteenth century, growing to greatest popularity during the reign of Queen Victoria.[6] This popularity is witnessed in primary sources. Boyle’s Fashionable Court Guide included the names of 6,000 families participating in the Season in 1800, rising to 26,000 participants by the end of the century.[7] This rise is attributable to the increased numbers of aristocracy surviving, thanks to advances in medical care, and the loosening of strict rules of social acceptability, which allowed for wealthy industrialists to participate in the latter stages of the nineteenth century.[8] While those attending the Season may have been influential, this was a numerically insignificant proportion of the population as a whole. Even in London, with its estimated 2,362,236 residents in 1851, families participating in the Season accounted for only 0.8 per cent of the capital.[9]

The Season is difficult to summarize in its many forms and facets; however, Thompson has offered a description that highlights, albeit at a broad level, the nature of the period: “This was the world of politics and high society of attendance at the House and gaming in the clubs, the place where wagers were laid and race meetings arranged, the source of fashion in dress and taste in art, as well as being the world of drawing rooms and levees, glittering entertainments and extravaganzas, soirées, balls and operas.”[10]

Events such as balls, court presentations, concerts, dinner parties, and appearances at artistic and cultural exhibitions were purposefully designed to allow for social mixing and congregation. Such opportunities were clearly taken: Lady Dorothy Nevill recollected that in 1843 she attended fifty balls, sixty parties, thirty dinners, and twenty-five breakfasts.[11] It was in the intricate world of the ballroom that many of the most significant moments of the Season took place. The dancing between suitors and debutantes that characterized this social meeting having been described as nothing more than a “mating ritual” by Inwood.[12]

While the Season was far from homogeneous, the desire to participate can be explained most clearly through the perceived necessity of elite members of society to forge connections with other powerful individuals or whole families, in order to further political careers or to secure the marriages of their offspring. Marriage, in particular, provided those at the apex of the social pyramid with the opportunity to renew social positions, to select a new member of their family based upon reputation, wealth, and landholdings, and hence was the reason why the Season as a “marriage market” became a useful tool for the elite.[13] The process of marriage and accompanying dowry transactions allowed the landed estates owned by the elite to be maintained and their power secured. Further down the tiered system of the elite, however, securing a marriage proposal from a family with greater amounts of land, wealth, and status afforded a step up the rung of social acceptability. The importance of securing an advantageous marriage is demonstrated best by rumours circulating in 1876 that William Vanderbilt spent $10 million on securing his daughter Consuelo’s marriage to the Marlborough dukedom.[14]

Wealth, in general, was crucial during this period; the Season was a costly affair. The expected standard of living during the summer months in London was high; displays of wealth were seen to be crucial in forging alliances.[15] Earl Fitzwilliam spent £3,000 on entertaining guests during the 1810 Season alone, a figure dwarfed by the Duke of Northumberland in 1840, who spent over £20,000.[16] No amount of money, however, would have assured the social acceptability necessary for attendance at particular events until the very end of the nineteenth century.[17] In order to ensure the eligibility and aristocratic status of social engagements taking place during the Season, Society created exclusionary systems. Smaller events took place in the private setting of individual homes, attended through invitation only, with larger gatherings, such as Almack’s ball, guarded by a conclave of ten influential hostesses who supervied the issuing of tickets. These measures ensured that the Season was an elite event, perpetuating patterns of behaviour and rules of etiquette that conformed to the expectations of Society at the time.[18]

The elite nature of the Season was also reflected in the spatial relationships generated by the phenomenon. The majority of families attending would rent a townhouse in the West End for the summer months. This desire to rent created a vigorous and competitive market, dictated by an adherence to changing trends in the fashions of certain streets over time.[19] The spaces occupied by the Season changed throughout the course of the nineteenth century in response to fluctuating fashions; however, the area loosely spanned Marylebone to the north and Westminster in the south and from Kensington in the West to Bloomsbury in the east.[20] This geography played a vital part in creating the Season. Participants resided, socialized, shopped, entertained, and travelled within this area of the West End, leaving it only to attend infrequent events outside the capital. This residential clustering was made possible by the nature of this area of London, partly attributable to the development of land in the area by wealthy members of Society itself. The Duke of Bedford was responsible for eighty acres of development in Bloomsbury and the Duke of Portland owned much of Marylebone, but the most influential landowning family were the Grosvenors (titles: Baronet 1622, Baron 1771, Earl Grosvenor 1784, Marquis of Westminster 1831, Duke of Westminster 1874).[21] Building on the Grosvenor Estate began in earnest in 1721, developing large houses and private squares, ideally suited to the demands of the Season. By the 1820s, the Grosvenor estate had become synonymous with the work of developer Thomas Cubitt, who was responsible for the building much of Belgravia. The importance of estate development in enabling the elite to concentrate in this area of London is significant. The large-scale planning of an “aristocratic townscape” created a unique part of London, which, as the result of leasehold regulations, remained relatively unchanged throughout the decades of the Season.[22] With the desire to network socially with one another as frequently as possible being a driving force behind participation, locating in close proximity with one another allowed the frequent associations that characterized the Season. It is for these reasons that space must be seen as a crucial factor in the existence and maintenance of the Season during the nineteenth century.

The London Season’s Relationship to Space

The concentrated nature of estate development in the West End, and the desire exhibited by participants to locate in close proximity to one another during the Season, ensured that this area of London was heavily influenced by the practices of the Season, and by the thousands of elite participants who resided there. Much previous research has treated the West End during the period as a blank canvas upon which the Season merely existed.[23] The present research moves beyond this reading, instead highlighting the ways in which the spaces of the West End were monopolized and reconfigured by the practices of the Season. This approach takes inspiration from the work of scholars such as Lefebvre who understand places and spaces as being socially produced.[24] The impact of the Season on the spaces of the West End can be understood on two scales: an overview of the area as a whole, and a more detailed study of the implications witnessed in individual streets and houses. The broad impacts included the temporally specific alteration of both the economy and the character of the area, the popularity of certain streets through an adherence to fashionable trends in residential demand, and the monopolization of certain streets and squares for the activities of the Season. These impacts will be explored further below.

The West End as a Part-time Place

Throughout the nineteenth century, the West End of London was subject to the mobility of the Season. Families would arrive in this pocket of the capital in May and migrate back to their country estates at the end of July. While this area was therefore frenetically busy for the few months of the Season, during the rest of the year it fell comparatively silent. Colson likened the area during winter to Pompeii: “After Goodwood, the last smart racing fixture of the Season, Mayfair and Belgravia settled down for their winter sleep. The streets of Pompeii are not more silent than were Berkeley, Grosvenor and Belgrave Squares and their surrounding streets. Gone were the gay window-boxes, the smart carriages, and powdered coachmen and footmen; indeed, almost the only sign of life was an occasional caretaker smoking his evening pipe … and chatting with a yawning policeman.”[25]

While it would be inaccurate to depict every resident of the West End as a migrant and participant of the Season, in order to ensure that the area was never a “ghost town,” a significant majority of homes housed temporary migrants, as witnessed by the census in 1861. Viewing the houses in St. James’s Square, surveyed on 7 April before the Season began, it is possible to see that only eleven of the thirty houses surveyed were occupied by the main family group or individual renting the property. The other nineteen were recorded as hosting only domestic staff, most commonly a “housekeeper” and a “servant.” Because of the spatial concentration of the Season in this small corner of London, the absence of many residents rendered a significant proportion of the West End empty during the major portion of of the year, causing Atkins to refer to it as a “part time place,” one continually in flux, poised for the arrival of its residents.[26] Evidence of this “part time place” can be found by comparing the 1861 census conducted in April, with the 1841 census, recorded in June at the height of the Season. In 1841, twenty-six of the thirty properties were occupied by the full family group, housing with them an average of eleven servants and housekeepers. This increase from eleven in April to twenty-six in June reveals the extent to which migration occurred into this area of London, and the obvious effect this had on the surrounding spaces. The Illustrated London News contrasted Regent Street during the Season and the winter months: “In the former case, all is bustle and gaiety; in the latter, gloom and desolation.”[27] This “desolation” during the winter led to much unemployment among domestic staff and those involved in the service economy that supported the Season. While this economic cost of the Season is not the focus of this article, it is important to appreciate the social implications of the period for all those residing and working in the West End during the nineteenth century.[28] The contrast between these two faces of the West End is testament to the significance of the Season in altering the nature of the spaces in which it existed.

The Season as an Enclave

The alteration of space in the West End was not caused only by temporal changes in usage, however. The elite families who owned the land in the major portion of the West End also controlled the character of the space physically. Through a system of gates and bars, landowners allowed elites to monopolize the area, by imposing strict guidelines detailing who could access and travel through the spaces they owned. The creation of this gated community was clearly felt at the time. A social commentator of the day, Captain Gronow, speaking of Mayfair, noted, “The lower or middle classes [did not] think of intruding themselves in regions which, with a sort of tacit understanding were given up exclusively to persons of rank.”[29] This quote is significant because it illustrates that the elite residents of this area of London, many of whom participated in the Season, characterized the area to such an extent that other London citizens understood they were not welcome.

The creation of this enclave in which the Season existed was far from a benign assumption on the part of those who felt excluded, however. Throughout the nineteenth century, planned developments in the West End were designed to keep the area exclusive.[30] When the prominent elite shopping area of Regent Street was first designed by Nash in 1811, the plans excluded areas to the East, primarily the less desirable area of Soho, and instead aimed to “look to the West.”[31] This was to be achieved through a limitation placed on the number of roads entering Regent Street from the east, favouring access routes from the more fashionable west side of the street. Not all these plans came to fruition, yet the intention to use the new street development as a barrier for the West End and the elite families who resided there is clear.[32]

The development of Regent Street was not the only example of blockading the lower classes by the elite, however. Atkins suggested that the West End during the nineteenth century was a “gilded cage of privilege” demarcated not only through the social status of the people who resided there, but physically through the creation of street barriers designed to keep out undesirables.[33] These barriers took the form of gates, bars, or posts erected at the boundaries of the estates that comprised much of the West End.[34] Officially introduced to prevent the use of privately maintained estate roads by those who did not pay rent to the ground landlord, they also reinforced the elite nature of the gated community inside.[35] While these gates and bars were introduced across London during the nineteenth century, their proliferation in the West End illustrates the enclosed nature of this area of London in comparison with other areas of the capital.[36] This is witnessed in figure 1, where the West End clearly contains a dense covering of gates and bars.[37]

Figure 1

Gates and bars in the Metropolitan Board of Works Administrative Area Atkins, “How the West End Has Won,” reproduced with permission from Elsevier

Gates and bars in the Metropolitan Board of Works Administrative Area Atkins, “How the West End Has Won,” reproduced with permission from Elsevier

-> See the list of figures

The influence of gates can be witnessed in the case study of Bloomsbury, an area at the eastern boundaries of the Season’s occupancy in London.[38] The five gates erected to defend the Bloomsbury estate from unwanted traffic were positioned in Upper Woburn Place, Endsleigh Street, Georgina Street (now known as Taviton Street), Gordon Street, and Torrington Place. These protected the northern boundary of the estate and had all been erected by 1831. The rules for the gates were designed to strictly limit the ability of non-residents to enter. As stated by Olsen, “The rules for the new gates … permitted ‘gentlemen’s carriages of every description, cabs with fares and persons on horseback’ to pass through them. They prohibited ‘omnibuses, empty hackney carriages, empty cabs, carts, drays, wagons, trucks, cattle and horses at exercise, or funerals.’ The gates were closed to all traffic from 11pm to 7am.”[39] The daytime restrictions limited entrance to those who could afford to keep a carriage, providing a barrier against those who could not. The complete closure of the northern barrier of the estate between 11 pm and 7 am, however, effectively privatized the area completely. While those inside were travelling within the area to balls and entertainments, displaying frenetic and fluid mobility, those on the outside of the gates had their mobility prohibited by these elite residents on the other side of the barrier.

This control of space by the elite living in the West End is significant, reflecting the work of Lefebvre, who suggested that such spaces are made meaningful by those who have the ability to inscribe power on space.[40] Estate owners and leaseholders held a powerful position in society, which was manifested in their control over the spaces in which they invested.[41] Not only is this significant in highlighting the exclusive nature of the Season, it also illustrates the extent to which these powerful families locating in the West End had influence over this space. Using physical barriers and planning designs, those living in the West End moulded the space, creating a gated community in the heart of London throughout much of the nineteenth century.

Fashionable Spaces

Although gates and bars marked the boundaries of the estates in the West End, once inside these barriers, residents found that the popularity of individual streets within the West End was subject to the changing rules of fashion, adherence to which was an essential tool to demonstrate wealth. Space became an important marker of status because of these fashionable trends, and the importance of a good address in the “right” street enhanced the reputation of a participant in the Season. Atkins declared that “to reside at an unfashionable address was to risk social ostracism.”[42] The importance of this adherence to fashion can be witnessed through rental prices. Wilson Brothers of South Audley Street advertised to their clients in 1871 that they had “all the fashionable positions in the West End of Town” and listed a fourteen-bedroom house in Grosvenor Place with six sitting rooms at a rent of 800 guineas for the Season. This can be contrasted with the advertised property in Devonport Street, off Gloucester Square in Bayswater, and away from the central area of the Season, which commanded one-eighth of the rental price of Grosvenor Place for a similarly sized property.[43] This rent differential is evidence of Jackson’s claim that certain areas never gained the same level of aristocratic reputation as Mayfair—an argument supported by Charles Dickens Jr. in 1879: “Mayfair … is still, from the society point of view, the crème de la crème of residential London.”[44]

The residential fluidity created by fashion in the West End is significant because, as suggested by scholars such as Lippard, space is influenced accordingly.[45] Lippard’s contribution is important here, because her account specifically identifies the temporal nature of people’s engagement with space, a useful way of understanding the impact of the Season on the West End during this period. The dedicated adherence to fluctuating residential fashion displayed by elites participating in the Season ensures that the spaces of the West End cannot be seen as fixed entities during the period. Instead, the West End was in a constant state of change, the periphery continually shifting around a relatively central core of Mayfair, adherent to the fashion of the period. Atkins investigated these changing fashions in relation to the Season through the use of court directories, concluding that throughout the nineteenth century the West End was a “spatial envelope which was open to the south-west but closed to the north east,” reflecting the patterns of residential movements by the elite during the period.[46] In 1800, fashionable addresses in the West End were located solely to the east of Hyde Park; however, by 1860 fashions had shifted west (due to the demand for the larger properties of Kensington), and elite residences now spanned all four corners of the park.[47] The way in which fashion influenced residential spaces can also be witnessed using ball attendance lists, which were published daily in the Morning Post throughout the nineteenth century. This detailed information can be combined with Boyle’s Fashionable Court Guide, printed twice annually in which the London addresses of all those participating in the Season in that particular year were listed.

To demonstrate the important role fashion played in demarcating space during the Season, two balls taking place during the same evening (28 May 1862) are compared. One ball was held in fashionable and expensive St. James’s Square and was hosted by the Countess of Derby, the popular and influential wife of the former prime minister. The other, taking place on the same evening, was hosted by Lady Colthurst, a less titled and less well-known lady. Her ball was held in her home away from the fashionable centre of the 1862 Season in Wilton Crescent. By combining the lists of attendees at each event found in the Morning Post with each of their addresses, located using Boyle’s Fashionable Court Guide, it is possible to identify differences between the two. The ball hosted by the Countess of Derby was attended by a significantly higher proportion of people living in fashionable residences (78% of attendees lived in streets demarcated by Atkins as fashionable).[48] By contrast, attendees at the ball held by the less popular hostess Lady Colthurst would presumably have accepted her invitation only because they were not invited to the more prestigious ball held by the Countess of Derby and did not reside in fashionable accommodation to the same degree.[49] Only 39 per cent of those attending the ball in Wilton Crescent resided in houses located in fashionable streets. This comparison is significant, because it confirms that the fashion of spaces played an important factor as a social distinguisher during the Season. Those who wanted to display status resided in the fashionable core of Mayfair, whereas those on the edges of Society were restricted to less fashionable accommodation. It can be concluded, therefore, that space was prescribed with meaning by elite participants during the Season. Areas were made fashionable or unfashionable, dependant on the trends of the elite and influencing the social character of certain areas considerably.

The Stable Core of the Season

The fashionable “core” space of the Season discussed above can be understood further at the micro-scale. The specific character of one street within this area has been analyzed using Boyle’s Fashionable Court Guide in relation to Grosvenor Square,[50] depicted by several scholars and commentators as the centre of the Season and a permanently fashionable residence.[51] Table 1 depicts the residents of house numbers 1–10 in Grosvenor Square in 1862 and for the four years either side of this central year. In a period depicted as fluid, where participants were often noted as renting different houses each year for the Season, the results of this analysis are significant.[52] Italicized names depict changes from the resident of the house in 1862. As the table shows, in 1863 there were only three changes in the residents between the two years, rising to four changes in 1864. In 1862 there was only one resident who was different from the previous year. In the square as a whole between 1861 and 1864 there were only ten changes of resident, leaving thirty-nine houses unchanged. Over a longer period, the trend remains similar. In 1850, only sixteen of the forty-nine houses on Grosvenor Square were occupied by residents different from those living there in 1862, twelve years later. And the table reveals additional interesting trends. Several of the occupancy changes appear to have been temporary. In 1862, number 8 Grosvenor Square was occupied by the Bathurst family. However, in 1863 the property was inhabited by General and Lady Mary Fox, only to be replaced by the return of the Bathursts in 1864. Boyle’s Fashionable Court Guide indicates that the Bathurst family had also lived in the property for the previous four Seasons 1858–1861. The temporary abandonment of the property and their absence from the 1863 Boyle’s Fashionable Court Guide indicates that the Bathursts may well have missed this Season, renting out their leasehold on number 8 to General Fox for the single year of their absence.[53] Table 1 also reveals the relocation of certain residents in the square; it appears that changing homes in the same location was common. In 1864, the Clifton family moved from their previous residence at number 2 Grosvenor Square to number 42, a house that was slightly smaller than their previous location. Similarly Richard Benyon (not included in table 1), who for sixteen years had lived at number 34 Grosvenor Square (1850–1866), had relocated twenty doors along to number 17 by 1870, a house of much larger proportions.

Table 1

Residents of numbers 1–10 Grosvenor Square, 1858–1866

Residents of numbers 1–10 Grosvenor Square, 1858–1866

Note: Italicized names depict changes from the resident of the house in 1862

-> See the list of tables

This analysis reveals that the Season created a core in the West End, an area that satisfied the needs of the period and hence remained a relatively stable space for the primary use of the elite throughout much of the century. A significant proportion returned to the same house every year between 1850 and 1870. The desire to remain in Grosvenor Square illustrates the core of fashionable elites who remained in this area throughout the nineteenth century.[54] Just as an analysis of ball attendance and the work of Atkins have illustrated, the fashionable heart of Mayfair remained stable throughout the century, in contrast to other areas of the West End, which fluctuated in their usage and social geography. Those participating in the Season attributed this area with fashionable meaning, monopolizing the spaces of central Mayfair as an elite centre as a result.

The Season, Space, and Status

The influence of the Season on the spaces of the West End can also be witnessed at the micro-scale. Not only did elite participants dictate the fashion of streets during the period, they also dictated the desire for larger properties to demonstrate wealth and status. Space was used as a tool by those participating for these means. To locate in a certain space during the Season would give a participant a level of status greater than a participant living in another street in the West End. The ability of space to create these increased capacities to succeed in the Season means that space can never be seen as dormant, but instead is loaded with power. These were areas subject to the fluid trends of the Season, actively made powerful in a continual construction and reconstruction in accordance with the fashions of the Season.

The attribution of power to certain spaces during the Season can be understood most clearly through analysis of rate books and ball attendance. Rates were recorded annually and provide a record of the gross estimated rental for each property on a street, with this value representing the size of the property.[55] The gross estimated rental values of properties in Belgrave Square, another fashionable street declared by Rosen and Zuckermann to be the “most aristocratic area in London,” can be seen in figure 2.[56] Houses occupied by those participating in the Season are depicted by a white dot.[57]

Figure 2

Gross estimated rental values of the houses on Belgrave Square in 1862

Gross estimated rental values of the houses on Belgrave Square in 1862
Source: Reproduced with permission from Guildhall Library, London

-> See the list of figures

The gross estimated rental of the houses in Belgrave Square was relatively uniformly high in relation to other streets, indicating that they were large properties, as would be expected in a street popular with the elite. Analyzing the distribution of white dots reveals an interesting trend, however. In all but one instance, every participant in the Season was residing in one of the largest properties on the Square, while smaller properties were avoided. The latter would not have attracted ball attendees who were anxious to display status through their property. This contrast illustrates the role of space in the Season and the importance of an appropriate location to those participating. Atkins suggested that those participating in the Season used their physical location in the “pecking order” of the West End to illustrate their position in Society, a conclusion supported by the differences in popularity between these individual houses.[58] This trend is repeated across the West End. Numbers 73–98 Eaton Square had the highest gross estimated rental values in the Square, indicating that properties in this row were significantly larger than others along the street. As well as being the largest houses in the square, numbers 73–98 were also the properties popular with participants in the Season. Of these twenty-five large houses, twenty were rented or owned by elites attending events held during the Season. This correlation again reiterates the desire for large housing by those participating in the Season, again leading to a monopolisation of space.

This analysis of gross estimated rental values raises some important points about space in 1862, highlighting the particular demand for larger properties in the West End during the nineteenth century. It also reveals that houses were used as status symbols during the Season, spaces were made important through the size of the properties located in given streets. The more large properties a street contained, the more popular it became. The spaces of the West End are therefore ascribed with meaning during the Season in accordance with the values placed on property by Society at the time, illustrating again Lefebvre’s assertion that places are made meaningful by those with the power to define what is and is not appropriate.[59] Through the enduring principles upon which the Season was based, these individuals had the power to continue to ascribe meaning on the streets of the West End throughout much of the nineteenth century, ensuring that certain streets, and individual houses, were used as tools for the continued dominance of the elite in this area.

This dominance is particularly significant in the light of earlier discussions that highlighted the residential composition of the West End. While the area was dominated by the activities of those participating in the Season, it is important to note again that not every resident living in the West End was involved in these elite practices. As figure 2 illustrates, despite Belgrave Square’s position as a prominent and popular residential space during the Season, not every resident was a participant.[60] Of the forty-eight houses occupied on the square in 1862, only thirty are listed in the Morning Post as having attended a ball during the Season.[61] At the heart of the Season, in one of the central squares of the West End it is possible to conclude that over one-third of the residents there did not participate in the social activities that characterized this period.[62] While these people may have been aristocratic or elite members of Society, they did not participate in the publicized social whirl of engagements and networking opportunities in the spaces surrounding them.[63] Finding the existence of these non-participants contrasts with the work of scholars such as Pullar, who depict the West End as occupied solely by those engaged in the practices of the Season. This article marks a departure from this assumption and instead calls for scholarship that is mindful of the varied nature of residents in the area. The variety of residents in Belgrave Square supports the work of Massey, who stated that far from being homogeneous, places are made up of a combination of different residents, both permanent and temporary, ensuring that no place can be viewed as having a single identity.[64] The contribution of Massey’s work here is important, because she identifies the importance of gender, class, age, wealth, and past experience in a person’s engagement with place. In discussions regarding the Season, it is important to remember that this pocket of London during the nineteenth century was far from homogeneous, yet the dominance of the elite ensured that the area was characterized as homogenous. Despite the presence of “normal life” in the West End, the residential and leisure spaces in the area were defined and influenced by the activities of the Season.[65] Located in the West End were residents who did not participate in the activities of the elite, yet were directly influenced by the rental market created by those participating in the Season. This provides a clear example of the power of elite residents to influence the social character and economic value of spaces in which other non-elites were also resident.

The Influence of the Season in Redesigning Space

The ability of elite residents to alter the character of spaces in the West End was made possible through the existence of landowning estates and systems of leasehold ownership. The redesign of streets and individual houses was undertaken throughout the nineteenth century. As the demands of the Season changed over time, changes were made to the spaces of the West End to accommodate these new demands and ensured that status was maintained through a continued adherence to fluctuating fashionable trends in residential appearance and design.[66] The issue of ownership and occupation of space is a complex one, a tangled web of ground landlords, long-term leaseholders (both individual families and housing landlords), and short-term residents who leased in turn from longer-term leaseholders, most commonly housing landlords. This complex pattern of ownership is covered in greatest detail by the work of Olsen; however, for the purposes of this research, it is the overall influence of the ground landlords that highlights with the greatest clarity elite influence over space.[67]

Ground landlords, in particular, could modify space to their own specifications, controlling both the uses of space and the experiences of those residing there. During the second half of the eighteenth century, the Duke of Westminster, who was known as “Daddy Westminster” and a supporter of temperance, “protected” his tenants by reducing the number of public houses from forty-seven to eight, and, through carefully worded licence agreements, limited their opening hours.[68] Upkeep and control over buildings was also the responsibility of the landlord.[69] In this way, the nature and development of large sections of space in the West End was reconstructed according to the wishes and demands of single landholding families, who had the power to control how the space was used, who lived in it, and what it could look like.

This utilization of space to serve the particular demands of the Season is witnessed in Thomas Cubbitt’s development of Belgravia in 1820. Streets in this area of the West End were accompanied by mews, every property was built with individual outbuildings, coach houses to protect carriages, and stables for the horses that pulled them. Without the inclusion of mews developments, movement could not have occurred with ease, as the technologies required for mobility would not have been readily available. Much of the space in Belgravia and Mayfair was therefore given over to the trappings of this elite lifestyle. Olsen has suggested that spacious mews facilities were planned specifically to attract very wealthy tenants, many of whom would have required the space for several carriages and pairs of horses.[70] Rosen and Zuckermann indicated that in Belgrave Square Thomas Cubitt “perfected” these mews developments.[71] The major alteration in the design of the mews in Belgrave Square included the building of arches set into street facades, which screened the mews behind, “at one stroke enhancing the front streets and hiding the mews” from view.[72] The inclusion of this design feature illustrates the way in which space reflected the demands and priorities of the Season. Participants were concerned with the display of movement; the unsightly mechanics and working-class staff that facilitated this mobility ruined the desired vision of opulence and glamour required by those participating in the Season and were consequently hidden from view. In these new mews and street facades was evidence of Massey’s “power geometrics of everyday life,” unequal relationships built into the fabric of the West End.[73]

It was not only the residential requirements of the Season that were responsible for influencing the way in which space was utilised, however. Social spaces of the Season were also catered to in the landscape of the West End.[74] In particular, the large assembly rooms, an essential prerequisite for a ball until the very late stages of the nineteenth century, were constructed entirely for the benefit of participants of the Season.[75] These socially exclusive spaces were built on public streets in the West End, to be utilized by a small fraction of Londoners. Rooms, such as those on King Street in St. James’s, ensured that this area of London became the most fashionable of the period, providing specific points for networking and congregation of the elite.[76] Those who were participating in the Season were also those who had the power and resources to determine the uses of space during the period.

The importance of ballrooms in the Season was not restricted to just the construction of assembly rooms; house plans from the period show the inclusion of ballrooms in many houses in the West End. Building houses that could comfortably accommodate a ballroom was one reason for their large size and another example of the reconstitution of space for the Season.[77] In this way, landlords who provided houses with ballrooms acted as social facilitators. Houses with this feature were able to host large entertainments, prime networking opportunities during the Season.[78] The house plans of 16 Grosvenor Street reveal that this terraced house included a large drawing room suitable for holding entertainments, mews, servants’ quarters, a dining room, and two dressing rooms, not to mention a “great-bedchamber.” A front elevation of the property reveals the size of house required to accommodate all these rooms, with servants quarters built out of sight of the family and any potential guests, mirroring the social rules of the time.[79] At the centre of the house and in prime position were the entertainment spaces of the dining room and drawing room. The central positioning of these rooms in the house made, according to Girouard, the house less congenial for living, yet more suitable for entertaining, clearly reflecting the prioritization of socializing in the house building of the period.[80]

The precedence for entertainment spaces can be explained in part by the work of McCarthy, who concluded that substantial ballrooms were required by those participating in the Season with a first-time debutante, as the “coming out” ball was traditionally held at home.[81] Researching the residents of Grosvenor Square depicted in table 1 reveals that six out of the ten houses shown were occupied by families containing at least one unmarried girl of debutante age. No doubt the large ballrooms in the houses on Grosvenor Square were an attractive option to those needing to host a “coming out ball.” To rent a property with a small ballroom would be to limit the number of attendees at this and other social occasions, limiting the number of connections forged, as well as revealing a lack of wealth and status. Large ballrooms can, therefore, be seen as a status symbol, explaining their significance in the houses of the West End. Julia Cartwright recalled on 12 June 1874 that her grandmother had hosted a party at her home in Eaton Place, inviting over one thousand guests, with 250 people in the room at any one time.[82] This large number of people reveals once again the extent to which the houses of the West End required large ballrooms and as a result acted as sites of social significance during the Season. As the Season progressed throughout the nineteenth century, social trends shifted and new requirements were placed upon these spaces. Towards the latter half of the century, dances such as the polka and waltz, which required a large dance floor, became more fashionable.[83] Ballrooms were altered accordingly to accommodate the extra space required; the houses of the West End thus reflected the changing narrative of the Season as performance practices during the nineteenth century evolved.[84] These micro-scale spaces of the Season were in a continual state of modification and were subject to the desire to maintain credibility in the social elite.

External modifications were also requested by tenants and leaseholders in a quest to adhere to the demands of fashion. The Grosvenor estate office was required to approve any remodelling work desired, ultimately controlling the space and maintaining a uniform style. Viscount Goschen’s attempt to build a conservatory on the side of his house on the corner of Mount Street was rejected. However, Lady Bouch’s veranda overlooking Hyde Park was granted permission. Wholesale modifications of houses were also common during the period. Thomas Cundy was commissioned to design a new look for the houses in streets off Grosvenor Square, plain frontages were converted to stucco, and Doric porches were added.[85] As the century progressed and the fashions of the Season changed, it is clear from these examples that the spaces inhabited by the Season were subject to modification, altered to suit the new demands of this powerful and wealthy societal group.


The examples above, taken from a variety of scales, illustrate the role played by elites during the Season in characterizing, monopolizing, and altering the West End of London in the nineteenth century. This was made possible through the systems of landownership, by which elite families controlled space, ultimately allowing the Season to occur.

This article moves beyond assumptions that the Season was located simply in the West End and instead explores the way in which the Season affected these spaces. These impacts occurred in a number of different forms, from the temporal nature of elite engagement with London, to the strict adherence to fashionable trends that led to the popularity of some areas over others. Landownership allowed for the enclaving of space in the West End, privatizing public space for the use of elite members of society. Furthermore, landownership also enabled the clustering of the elite in “core streets,” perpetuating fashionable areas in which elite presence was a stable and dominating force. At the smaller scale, elites modified individual houses to adhere to changes in architectural style, as well as transforming entertainment spaces in accordance with the changing activities of the Season during the century. These changes were made possible through the existence of landed estates, and they further demonstrate the monopolization of space by elites to aid successful participation in the Season.

In understanding the way in which the practices and principles of the Season shaped the West End, however, it is also possible to argue that space played an active role in influencing the Season. Through spatial associations, elites were able to display status and wealth. This occurred both through renting large, and therefore expensive, properties and through adherence to the fashionable trends of a particular Season by locating in a popular street, or by modifying a property to reflect changing trends in dance and entertainment. Space was used as a tool to demarcate social stratifications in society in much the same way that titles or an adherence to etiquette were deployed for these means. In so doing, space was used as an active agent during the Season, a powerful device through which elites maintained reputation.

While this article focused on the role of the elites in controlling space in the context of the London Season, the conclusions drawn through an analysis of this example are more widely applicable. The growth of the American debutante tradition during the mid-late nineteenth century resulted in similar elite control of space in New York.[86] The nineteenth century is by no means the only period in which enclaving and physical control of space by elites occurred. While the latter decades of the nineteenth century saw the rapid dismantling of the barriers protecting estates in London, in other contexts this elite control of space existed well into the twentieth century and indeed continues today.[87] For example, Sheinbaum has charted the different historical expressions of physical segregation in Mexico City, while Blakely and Snyder have explored the more contemporary rise in private gated residential developments in North America.[88] While focusing on the London Season, this article argues more generally for an appreciation of the way in which scholars approach researching this elite dominance over space. An examination of the London Season uncovered the far from homogenous nature of the “elite space” of the West End. Such residents lived alongside a wide range of society, from servants and housekeepers, to retailers and those who found fortune from industrial wealth. Yet despite the existence of a heterogeneous community in this pocket of London throughout the period of the Season, it is the elite activities within these spaces that dominated. What is important to remember, therefore, is that alongside an evaluation of the spatial implications of the elite, it is equally important to accompany such study with an appreciation for the many non-elite residents who were directly affected and in many cases enabled this spatial dominance to occur.