Rich men’s basements

Recently I was taking a couple home after they had been to the theatre.

They were the quiet, courteous generation that grew up in the 1930s and 40s, expensively well dressed in a subdued way rather than the vulgar and scruffy apparel favoured by the rich today.

After a short conversation about their theatre visit, I was directed to their home in Belgravia.

[T]ravelling down Chester Row my customers directed me to stop just before a house shrouded in builder’s hoardings and with a large skip outside in the road. “I see your neighbour is having some work done”, I remarked when we had stopped.

While his wife said goodbye and thanking me as she walked towards her front door, her husband approached my driver’s window to pay, upon which he metamorphosised from a genial gentleman to Victor Meldrew. “These houses weren’t built with deep foundations, they are digging under the house and we can hear their work all day, the noise is driving my wife made and I’m just waiting for my house to subside, cracks have already appeared in our walls”

A sad fact is that a new generation is moving to Belgravia nowadays and many are doubling the size and value of their houses by burrowing underground.

Now my customer’s predictions would seem prophetic, for while adding an underground cinema and a gym to a perfectly respectable late Georgian house in Chester Row a skip has fallen into a hole in the road outside the house, spewing water out of the hole and flooding the neighbouring properties in the process.

Why would you spend the sum of a respectable semi, to live underground if not for a vast profit? Who would want to live underground we’re not moles. Already predictably there is the threat of legal action as the conversion was originally opposed by most of the road’s residents.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing but a little research of Belgravia’s history might have given the developers cause for concern.

The land owned by Lord Grosvenor was originally marshy land with the River Westbourne running through it. In the 1820s Thomas Cubitt was granted the right to develop the houses that we see today. The nomenclature ‘Speculative Builder’ given to the developer should tell you everything you need to know about Cubitt’s Belgravia. Built for a quick profit, much like today’s developers, they would not have been expected to last nearly 200 years. The lax building regulations of the day almost certainly precluded the insistence of adequate foundations, load bearing joists and cavity walls.

When building a single story kitchen extension my borough planners wanted me to dig three metre footings, enough to support St. Pauls Cathedral, so why cannot the same be applied in conservation areas?

A neighbour commenting summed it up perfectly:

This entire fiasco represents a massive collective failure for all involved in designing, approving and attempting to build overly ambitious, vulgar additions to listed buildings in a conservation area.

How much misery do residents have to endure before we learn to properly balance long term interest against reckless pursuit of short-term profit?


4 thoughts on “Rich men’s basements”

  1. I suppose that, in theory, if you have a beautiful and historic stand of houses and one of the householders wishes to add to his property something as ambitious as a gymnasium or cinema, then placing this out of sight underground is a good idea. That, surely, would be preferable to the ugly excrescences that we see added to houses in some areas.
    Of course, such plans must first be checked for practicality, a process which seems not to have been carried out in this case. Either the Council’s planning department was remiss or the householder failed to get planning permission in the first place.
    There is a certain irony in the fact that “jerry building” is neither a modern phenomenon nor confined to the dwellings of the lower incomer groups. Of course, I have sympathy for any householder who finds his home put in jeopardy by others even when it means the misery has for once to be shared by the wealthy.


    1. There have been a number of properties, this one included, that have been bought by a speculative builder, and some residents claim that the company has an unfair influence over planning permission by the local authority


  2. Cubitt might have been a speculative developer – but what a scale he worked on. Belgravia, Pimlico, Bloomsbury and other developments far and wide.

    Your point about the land Belgravia was build on is a really good one.

    In 1800 it was a bit marshy in places.

    As a centre of horticulture the land was also covered with an unreal amount of **it – carted back out from London by the market gardeners.

    So much human waste was spread on the land that eventually some Georgian toffs wouldn’t eat West London asparagus because it tasted funny.

    Now it seems the rich are digging their way deep into the same smelly stuff to build their swimming pools and personal gyms.


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