For many the name Mayfair is instantly recognisable as the most expensive property on a UK monopoly board and, to a large extent as a result of that association, it is considered one of, if not the, most prestigious areas of London. In reality, it does a good job of living up to that billing and is home to some of the wealthiest commercial and private inhabitants in London, but how did it all come about.
The May Fair
The area of London that we now know as Mayfair, was until the late 16th century farmland on the banks of the old River Tyburn, on the fringes of the city. As may seem obvious, the name of the area was derived from a fair that was held on the site every May and which ran for almost a hundred years from the late 17th century onwards. The fortnightly fair began life in Shepherd Market as a livestock market but later evolved into a broader proposition with a variety of trade stalls and entertainments such as jugglers and theatre.
However, as it grew it attracted more and more ‘undesirables’ whilst, at the same time, the area surrounding the fair was increasingly being built upon and gentrified as a result of its position on the outskirts of the city as well as its proximity to the royal estates. The fair and the area’s new Georgian residents therefore made uneasy bedfellows and in 1764 the fair was moved to Fair Fields in Bow following complaints from the locals.
The Urbanisation of Mayfair
Consequently, the transition of Mayfair from a rural area to an urban district coincided with the decline in fortunes for the fair. From the mid 17th to 18th centuries the streets replaced the fields with the names of many still harking back their original uses - the most obvious example being Shepherd Market where it all began. The urbanisation was driven by local and wealthy land owners such as the Grosvenor family (later to become the Dukes of Westminster) as well as the Royal family (indeed much of the area has in fact remained in crown possession to this day) and so the new streets were filled with sumptuous Georgian mansions and townhouses which were sought after by London’s elite.
Mayfair’s streets spread to fill some of London’s prime real estate; leading off the grand Regents Street to the east and filling the space between the royal parks and estates of Hyde Park to the west and Green and St James parks to the south with their royal palaces. The area became part of the traditional parish of St Martin-in-the-Fields - a parish of central and west London, encompassing the city of Westminster - and with that location, combined with the its fashionable buildings and architecture, its allure was guaranteed to the present day.
Mayfair is now synonymous with elite London, home to the rich and the powerful and it has gained this reputation for good reason - not just due to its prime location on a monopoly board! Situated within the city of Westminster and surrounded by the royal estates to the south and west, it is also bordered by the up-market Marylebone to the north and the commercial and entertainment hearts of London, Oxford Street, the west end and Soho just to the east, making it an incredibly convenient as well as prestigious place within the capital to live.
However, most of the area is actually non-residential. It is home to a good proportion of London’s high-end commercial premises with some of the most exclusive shopping in the world. Savile Row, the world famous street of bespoke tailors is found to the east of Mayfair as is the most definitive street of high-end fashion shops (clothing, jewellery and art etc) in the country, Bond Street, with its unrivalled portfolio of designer brands.
In addition, Mayfair is the location of high profile foreign embassy offices, with the most obvious example being the US embassy in Grosvenor Square, as well as cultural hots spots such as the Royal Academy of Arts. Due perhaps to its location, architecture, fashion and cultural offerings and prestige the area also contains most of the top hotels in the capital with names such as the Dorchester and Claridges.
With all these delights on offer, the brand of Mayfair has never been stronger and it continues to be known all over the world. From humble beginnings it is now one of most desirable places to live not just in the UK, but Europe and beyond.