Today, Mayfair is renowned throughout the world as one of the most exclusive and coveted areas in Prime Central London. This neighbourhood, which is roughly defined as the area existing between the boundary lines formed by Bond Street, Regent Street, Oxford Street, Park Lane and Piccadilly, boasts luxurious shops, influential offices, world-class museums and some of the most sophisticated residential real estate in London. This combination of stellar factors means that properties for sale and to let in Mayfair are always extraordinarily in demand. Indeed, they are so sought-after that this area is well known as one of the most expensive addresses on the planet.
How exactly did Mayfair come to hold such an exalted perch? How did it arrive at its current iconic status? A brief look at Mayfair’s history uncovers a story, beginning in the mid-17th century, that was shaped by illustrious landowners, developers and residents. The influence of these three groups, and those that have followed in their footsteps, can still be profoundly felt in Mayfair today.
However, according to recently discovered evidence, Mayfair’s historical roots may go back quite a bit further than was previously suspected – even to ancient times.
Historians have recently begun to suggest with some degree of certainty that Mayfair might have been the location of a Roman settlement that predated the establishment of the colony known as Londinium, or London. This theory rests on the discovery of a convergence of two Roman roads at the juncture of what would be today North Audley Street, Upper Grosvenor Street and Park Lane. Some even speculate that a fort was set up in this vicinity as early as 43 AD, during the conquest of Britain.
While exact details about Mayfair’s Roman beginnings are still somewhat ambiguous, there is definitely mention of the area in several medieval chronicles. One of the most persistent facts recorded about the region concerned its association with the holding of an annual fair in the month of May. This practice began during the reign of Edward I, who ruled England from 1239 to 1307. At that time, and for centuries afterwards, this event which took place each year (except for a brief suspension in 1603 due to the plague), was referred to as Saint James’ Fair. However, it was to get a new name in the latter half of the 17th century.
In 1686, the first official reference to the “May Fair”, from which Mayfair derives its name, appears in the records. This fortnightly feast took place annually between the 1st and 14th of May and was held on the site of what is now Mayfair’s charming Shepherd Market.
Yet, before long, the behaviour of the fairgoers had grown too raucous and rowdy for the increasingly well-to-do populace of Mayfair. So, starting in 1709, efforts were made to suppress the fair. And, in 1764, it was abolished altogether. Nevertheless, while the event disappeared, it left behind a name which would become synonymous with a stylish and luxurious lifestyle, Mayfair.
By the early 18th century, Mayfair had outgrown the fair that brought with it an influx of noise, disruption and unruly crowds. The area began to transform, beginning in the late 17th century and accelerating in the 18th century, from a largely rural place into a residential area characterised by groupings of exceedingly elegant homes, arranged around a series of green squares.
This transformation occurred largely as a consequence of a few affluent and prestigious families undertaking to develop the land in their possession. This process began in the 1720s when the Grosvenor family, later known as the Dukes of Westminster, started building on their property, the Grosvenor Estate, which now encompasses the northern section of Mayfair, highlighted by Grosvenor Square.
Around the same timeframe, the Berkeley family, and subsequently the Cavendish family, also known as the Dukes of Devonshire, were putting up residences on the southern reaches of Mayfair, creating landmarks, such as Berkeley Square. Branching off of Berkeley Square is Chesterfield Street, which retains well-preserved 18th-century properties that give a sense of what Mayfair must have been like in that era. Continuing in the tradition of real estate ownership and development by eminent families, the Rothschild dynasty also had a significant presence in Mayfair property ownership in the 19th century.
During the Second World War, when the bombs of the Blitz forced many businesses to flee the City, a substantial proportion of them relocated to Mayfair. This temporarily recalibrated the property focus of the area away from being almost entirely residential.
Yet, in more recent times, as the 21st century has reached its adolescence, Mayfair’s reputation as an elite residential neighbourhood has undergone a resurgence. More and more opulent properties for sale and let have been built or refurbished in Mayfair. As a result, this storied neighbourhood has not only recaptured its crown as the premier place to live in Prime Central London, it has also laid claim to the mantle of being one of the most exclusive residential areas in the entire world.