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Peace in Piccadilly

Review By Cheryl Bolen

Peace in Piccadilly
Sheila Birkenhead
Reynal & Company, New York, 1958
250 pages

The dust jacket touts this book as "The fascinating story of life in London during the last 150 years as it centered around the fabulous Albany."

Lady Birkenhead has done a first-rate job of researching the history of Londonís most famous apartments. Exclusively bachelorsí quarters until the 1890s, Albany was the residence of men of rank and fame. Lord Byron lived at Albany during the Regency. Albany has also served as home for many authors (Macauly, Monk Lewis, Edward Bulwer) and two prime ministers.

This is not just a chronology of one of Londonís most noted addresses (just steps away from the present Piccadilly Circus); Lady Birkhead delves into the lives of those who lived at Albany, making the claim "fascinating" no idle boast.

Nearly 30 years before the grand house became Albany in 1802, it was built by Lord and Lady Melbourne on Piccadilly next to Burlington House. Originally, Melbourne House had a garden, stables, and several out buildings and was surrounded by a brick wall.

The Melbournes had bought the land for £16,000 from Lord Holland, who had moved to Kensington. They then demolished Holland House and, over the next four years, constructed what was to become one of the grandest houses in London at the estimated cost of a staggering £100,000.

Lady Melbourne was the toast of the ton when the house opened in 1775. After presenting her husband with his heir, she embarked on famed affairs with the Prince of Wales (later to be Prince Regent) and Lord Egremont, both of whom were said to father her children. Her son with Lord Egremont, William, would become Queen Victoriaís first prime minister. (Williamís wife was the erratic Lady Caroline Lamb.)

Always one to please the Royal Family, Lady Melbourne agreed some 16 years after moving into the townhouse to exchange residences with the Prince of Walesí brother, the Duke of York and Albany. The Duke of York paid Melbourne £23,000 plus the deed to York House in Whitehall.

A decade later, suffering financial difficulties, the dukeís banker hit on the idea that developing the house into upper-class apartments was the best way of getting his money back from the heavily mortgaged property. The duke sold the house to a builder for £37,000, and the contract specified the building would be called Albany. (It is not referred to as The Albany.)

The house was divided into 12 apartments. The Piccadilly wall, gateways and the porterís lodge were torn down and replaced with four houses that served as shops. One of these would be occupied by Angelo, the fencing master, and another by Jane Austenís brother Henry, who had his financial establishment there. It is thought Jacksonís salons were once located in the street-facing shops, but there is no record of it.

A couple of dozen illustrations ó many of them from the Regency era ó enhance this volume.

Much of the book is taken up with interesting accounts of Albanyís noted residents in the Victorian era, including Gladstone, who served as prime minister.

One omission in the book: Lady Birkenhead neglects to point out that wildly popular "romance" writer Georgette Heyer lived at the Albany. Then, as now, the genre was ignored by the more high-brow writers.

This article was first published in The Quizzing Glass in May 2010.

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