Friday, 22 September 2017

Mews Stories #1: William Mews, Knightsbridge, London

This is the first of several blog posts I’m going to publish about mews (mewses?) in the coming months. I love these little backstreets. They tend to be right in the middle of a busy urban area, but tucked away from main thoroughfares and considerably quieter. The mews I’ll be profiling draw on my research, past and present, and also on explorations of my local area in and around Brighton. My interest is historical (what was it like to live in these streets and homes in the past? who lived in them and what did they do there every day?), but also geographical and vaguely architectural. I’m interested in how these streets have changed and developed over the decades, what remains of their past features, character and atmosphere, and who lives in them now, and how. As an Historian of crime I’m particularly interested to know if the uniquely private places of mews made them ideal locations for illegal activities.

Once upon a time, mews would have housed horses, coaches, and the staff who drove and cared for them. They tended to be built behind terraces of big houses, or at least very near to them, in the 18th and 19th centuries. When the horse and coach was slowly replaced by the motor-car in the early 20th century, chauffeurs and their families could be found living upstairs in mews houses, with cars and workshops to maintain them accommodated beneath. This page from the 1901 census for Belgrave Mews North, Knightsbridge, shows the occupations of the residents, most of whom are Coachmen and Stable Helpers:

1901 census page for Belgrave Mews North, Knightsbridge

Today many mews are a mixture of residential homes, garages, workshops and small businesses. The best of them (in my opinion) retain their folding doors over the garage openings and cobbled paving in the street. I became interested in mews when I was researching the case of Elvira Barney who lived in William Mews, Knightsbridge, in 1932.

Map showing location of William Mews (marker) and Belgrave Mews North (roughly centre) in 1916 from

I found that the unique opportunity provided by mews-living (that they tend to be in the centre of things, providing easy access to city-life, but offering a more quiet and private lifestyle), meant mews attracted certain ‘bohemian’ types in the past. For example, Elvira enjoyed the kind of parties and active sex-life that were publicly frowned upon in the 1930s in her little house in William Mews. For a fuller account of the case of Elvira Barney and what it can tell us about her and her life in a mews in 1932, see my chapter 'Murder at the "Love Hut": At Home with Elvira Barney' in the edited volume Beyond the Boundariesof Home: Interdisciplinary Approaches. It’s free and Open Access. It features this image from the case file, one of several crime scene photographs that gave context to events for court and jury who couldn’t actually go to the mews to see it.

1932 photograph of William Mews (looking North) published in A. Neale, 'Murder at the "Love Hut": At Home with Elvira Barney' in M. Barrios Aquino, E. Campillo-Funollet, N. Daw, K. Jha, M.L. Miller, A. Neale and T. Ottway, (eds), Beyond the Boundaries of Home: Interdisciplinary Approaches (Brighton: University of Sussex, 2017), p. 17.

Since the 1930s when Elvira and her neighbours called William Mews home, other famous people who preferred to remain anonymous at home lived in the same mews. Celebrity former-residents include Brian Epstein and members of The Beatles, and Steve Marriott of The Small Faces (according to band-mate Ian McLagan’s memoir All the Rage).

Today very little, if anything, remains of the original William Mews, and Elvira’s ‘Love Hut’ at number 21 has been completely replaced (though The Beatles’ former flats at Whaddon House are still there). The website ‘Everchanging Mews’ has some useful information and much better images than mine of modern William Mews. (It can’t be seen on Google Streetview, unfortunately.)

William Mews looking out, 2013 (Alexa Neale).

William Mews looking South, 2013 (Alexa Neale).

No comments:

Post a Comment