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Thomas Cubitt: London’s Master Builder

It is almost impossible to conceive an image of London without the work of Thomas Cubitt. As one of the most prolific master builders during the 19th century, Cubitt was responsible for creating huge swathes of our city. From the stuccoed garden squares of Belgravia and Pimlico to the literati populated corner of Bloomsbury, Cubitt’s legacy can be seen throughout London. Even today his terraces and garden squares are among the most coveted residences in the world.

Born in 1788, Cubitt’s early years were spent as a ship’s carpenter and after undertaking a long voyage to India, he returned to England with enough money to establish a building firm in 1810. Based in Grays Inn, Cubitt’s company swiftly gained an exceptional reputation that culminated in his first significant commission in 1815, The London Institution in Finsbury Circus. Amongst his peers, his methods were considered unorthodox for the time. Ignoring traditional building practice, Cubitt pioneered a fully comprehensive management style that employed an in-house team of builders, roofers, civil engineers and specialist artisans. At its peak, Cubitt’s workforce numbered in excess of over a thousand with almost 11 acres of workshops in Pimlico.

Following the success of The London Institution, Cubitt turned his focus to the residential market. Concentrating on the areas surrounding his workshop, he began to develop his now highly regarded stucco style of housing. Some of the best examples of his early work remain on the Albion Road in Stoke Newington.

In 1824, Cubitt received what was to be his most significant commission: the development of Five Fields, an area of London owned by the Duke of Westminster. Located between London and Knightsbridge village, this region had become a rural swampland with high levels of crime and banditry. Working alongside Grosvenor’s Estate Surveyor, Thomas Cundy, Cubitt’s vision was both ambitious and unprecedented earning him the nickname “Cubittopolis” by prominent novelist, Lady Margret. 

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The centrepiece was to be Belgrave Square The original scheme consisted of four terraces, each made up of eleven white stucco houses, with the exception of the east terrace, which consisted of twelve. Detached mansions were initially built in three corners of the square, with a large private garden in the centre. Intending Belgravia to be a prime residential area above all else, Cubitt restricted building to exclusive private houses only. Shops and public houses were confined to the mewses and smaller streets located on the outskirts. This still holds true with many remaining to this day on Motcomb Street, Elizabeth Street and Wilton Row.

In 1843, his name and fortune now secured, Cubitt turned his gaze towards Pimlico – or what he termed as ‘South Belgravia’. This area had previously been purchased by Cubitt in 1823, but due to complications with the land two decades of farming were required before development of the land was feasible.

Belgravia’s northwestern and south eastern axis were extended across the canal to form Belgrave Road and St Georges Drive. The finest addresses, Eccleston Square and Warwick Square, lie in-between. Cubitt continued with his Italianate Stucco terraces but refined the design further, creating what became known as the Pimlico Porch: a Doric Portico with the addition of a balcony atop. A renowned stickler for consistency, Cubitt’s unfailing attention to detail has resulted in Pimlico boasting one of London’s most architecturally consistent areas to date.

Belgravia and Pimlico, whilst remarkable in scale and scope were by no means Cubitt’s only achievements. Even during his embarkment upon Belgravia in 1824, by the mid-twenties, Cubitt was already ‘in almost every other expanding metropolitan district’ (White, 75). In addition and as a result of his collaboration with Prince Albert, he had become a close confidant to the Royal Family. Together they built Osborne House, which became the Royal retreat on the Isle of White. This lead to further commissions principally the eastern facade of Buckingham Palace and the remodelling of John Nash’s Marble Arch. In appreciation for his work, Queen Victoria offered Cubitt a title. However, the notably humble man refused this generosity.

In fact, not only did he refuse this opportunity but he also referred to himself throughout his long and illustrious career as a ‘builder’ rather than the more socially acceptable ‘architect’ or ‘land surveyor’.

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When he died in 1855, Cubitt had achieved more than any man before and arguably, any man since. From celebrated designs on Battersea Park, Pimlico and Belgravia; he was also responsible for personally funding 1km of Embankment. This is all of course in addition to his early projects in Bloomsbury (Gordon and Tavistock Squares) and Stoke Newington. Upon his passing the impact he had upon London was perfectly encapsulated in the words from Queen Victoria, who remarked, “…in his sphere of life, with the immense business he had in hand, he is a real national loss. A better, kindhearted or more simple, unassuming man never breathed.”

Today with London undergoing such momentous regeneration, it is apt that we should remember his enduring influence on our city. If there was ever a mantra that perfectly encapsulates his legacy Massimo Vignelli’s famous quote seems remarkably astute, “If you do it right, it will last forever.”