How Cubitt moved the East End to the West End

The Cubitts were the family of master builders who reconstructed much of London in the first half of the 18th century.

Eldest brother Thomas built part of Buckingham Palace, large chunks of Belgravia, Bloomsbury and Camden Town. He eventually became so rich and powerful that he even helped underwrite Prince Albert’s pet project of the Great Exhibition in 1851 and personally funded the building of a kilometre of the Thames Embankment.

Middle brother William, who eventually became Lord Mayor and a Tory MP, built and gave his name to Cubitt Town on the Isle of Dogs, while youngest brother Lewis built Kings Cross Station, parts of Euston and many of the bridges that carried the railways around Britain.

But perhaps the family’s most remarkable achievement was transplanting a large chunk of the East End to the West End – and building a new suburb in the process.

Thomas was one of London’s first master builders and revolutionary in his method of gathering all the trades together under the umbrella of his firm. He had a humble birth, in 1788, the son of a Norfolk carpenter. He followed his father into the trade but had much grander ideas. There was good money to be made as a ship’s carpenter travelling the trade routes to and from India, and by his early twenties he had salted away enough cash to realise his dream of starting his own firm in London.

The capital was enjoying a huge building boom in the early years of the 19th century. London had never truly recovered from the devastation of the Plague and Great Fire, London had struggled through more than a century of economic stagnation and low population growth, and that only maintained by immigration from overseas and the home counties. But by the turn of the 1800s, London was growing again, and quickly.

Trade with the Empire was mushrooming, and had to be supported by a huge development of the docks of the East End, creating thousands of new jobs. To fill them, thousands of men and women poured in to London each year from Ireland and the shires of England. The canals were snaking out from London to take goods around England, and within a few years a massive investment in railways would transform the economy and infrastructure of the land.

As well as the huge ‘capital projects’ as they would be called today, homes were needed for the builders. The supremely organised and dynamic Thomas, running his own building firm from the Grays Inn Road in his early twenties, was perfectly positioned. His first big job was the London Institution at Finsbury Circus. Then he set to work making the homes for the new Londoners who were building the docks, railways, canals and houses of the growing city. The villages of Camden Town, Highbury and Stoke Newington became London suburbs, their fields and market gardens buried beneath cobbles and brick.

Meanwhile, over in Westminster, landowner Lord Grosvenor was about to see his real estate rocket in value. The Grosvenor estate had begun with the marriage of Sir Thomas Grosvenor to Mary Davies in 1677. Mary brought with her the unpromising dowry of 500 acres of land north of the Thames and west of the City. Marshy and sparsely populated, the land languished for half a century, before the slow repopulation of London made it worthwhile for the family to develop first Mayfair and next Belgravia. Now Lord Grosvenor was eyeing an inhospitable patch of marshland south of Buckingham Palace: the location was ideal, but the land unusable according to many he consulted. In 1824, he turned to the new master builder of London in search of an answer.

Cubitt, creative as ever, had the perfect solution. Over in the East End, the medieval hospital of St Katharine, along with 1250 houses crammed alongside, had been marked for redevelopment by an 1825 Act of Parliament. 23 acres would be demolished and dug out as the new St Katharine Dock. The slum-dwelling inhabitants, mostly dock workers themselves, would be made homeless (probably having to move into even more crowded slums); only the landowners would be compensated.

But if the developers were indifferent about where the former residents went, they did have the problem of what to do with the thousands of tons of earth dug out of the banks of the Thames. Step forward Thomas Cubitt, with a fleet of barges which for months steamed up and down the river – dumping acres of East End soil into the Pimlico bog. Within a few years, elegant new terraces of white stucco would rise from the mud of Wapping-in-the-West, and Thomas Cubitt would become a rich man. The Grosvenors became, and remain to this day, far richer still.

The precocious Thomas, still in his thirties, now handed the business over to younger brother William. He would go on to develop Cubitt Town on the Isle of Dogs and – with brother Lewis – make a fortune from the railway boom. Thomas was now rich enough to pursue his own projects. He died in 1855 and Queen Victoria (for whom he built Osborne House as well as helping out Albert with his Great Exhibition) described him as “a real national loss. A better, kindhearted or more simple, unassuming man never breathed”.

About John Rennie

Writing about East London history. Sub at Daily Express. Teaching journalism at City University London. One presented a TV show called the Unsellables and the BT Walletwatcher blog. West Ham fan. Native of Basildon
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