By Elizabeth Greatrex
“It was here in Mayfair, that adjectives such as gracious elegant sophisticated and sublime trip off the tongue like coins into a parking meter” were the words once written by author Tyne O’Connell in her 1996 book, Sex, Lies and Litigation.
Nowadays, one would completely agree with O’Connell. Everyone knows that there is nowhere quite like Mayfair. Mayfair doesn’t have to try, it effortlessly attracts an endless supply of loyal visitors who are guaranteed to feel like a million dollars simply by walking through the streets of this luxurious part of central London. As one of the most well known, exclusive locations in the world, it’s no wonder that people from far and wide have been flocking for centuries to experience what it has to offer. It is famously home to five-star hotels such as Grosvenor Square, Claridges, The Connaught and The Dorchester. It has world-class art museums such as The Royal Academy of Arts, beautiful churches such as George’s Hanover Square, and a vibrant hub of shops, restaurants and clubs to indulge in. However, when one looks into the past of Mayfair, it will become clear that this area is so much more than that. If you can look beyond the glitz, glamour and hefty prices, you’ll realise that Mayfair has more to give than a promise of prestige and grandeur. This fashionable area has it’s own fascinating hidden gems, historic fun facts and cool secrets that the average Londoner wouldn’t necessarily know about. Believe it or not, Mayfair wasn’t always primarily known just for being the “elegant, sophisticated and sublime” aristocrat we know it to be today. Just like all other London districts, it has its own juicy stories to tell.
Here are five things you probably didn’t know about Mayfair.
1. It is home to one of the most haunted houses in London.
“Berkeley Square is supernaturally fatal to body and mind” – Lord George Lyttleton
50 Berkeley Square is a four-storey building in Mayfair, London that was built in 1740 by architect William Kent. Once the home of former Prime Minister George Canning, it became known in the 19th century as one of the most haunted houses in London. Legend has it that the spirit of a young woman who was victim to abuse from her uncle, threw herself from the top-floor window. Her spirit is said to have appeared both in the forms of a brown mist, and a white figure. Another story is that a man called Thomas Myers lived in the house, and went mad after being rejected by his fiancée. Mr Myers apparently slept all day, and became active at night, regularly making strange noises and terrifying neighbours. The ghost of Mr Myers has reportedly been seen several times by different visitors to the house. Visit at your own peril.
2. More than one pop star has died in the same Mayfair hotel room.
9 Curzon Place in Mayfair has twice been the location of two similar misfortunes. In 1974, Ellen Naomi Cohen, better known as ‘Mama Cass’, the front woman of the pop group the Mamas & Papas, died in her sleep aged 32. Hearsay claimed that the cause of death was choking on a ham sandwich, but an examination later confirmed that it was in fact a heart attack from obesity. Four years on, another high profile pop star would meet a similar fate. Keith Moon, the drummer from the group The Who, died after taking a large quantity of Heminevrin tablets, a medication to help with the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. The same Professor Keith Simpson examined both cases, and confirmed both causes of death. The flat was also owned by Harry Nilsson, who also died on Curzon Street. Who would have thought that one of London’s most morbid coincidences took place in Mayfair.
3. Mayfair came from humble beginnings.
Surprisingly, this ultra-luxe location has built up its current, elite reputation from more humble beginnings. In 1735, the area had become known for the annual “May Fair” that took place in what is now known as Shepherd Market, during the reign of Edward I from 1686 to 1764. Common fairground attractions at the fair included women’s foot racing and bare-knuckle fighting. Over the years, the fair gained a reputation for being a bit of a nuisance to the general public, and was generally looked down upon. Eventually, it even went as far as becoming a public scandal, with the 6th Earl of Coventry, who lived in Piccadilly, initiating a campaign against it. It was only in the 18th century that the well-regarded Grosvenor family took it upon themselves to develop the area, after realising its potential for a much more exclusive, well-respected reputation.
4. Sotheby’s in Mayfair is the location of the oldest man-made object in London.
Sotheby’s is a prestigious art dealer located on 124 New Bond Street, Mayfair. Sotheby's auctions offer many diverse, extraordinary pieces of art such as Old Master Paintings, 19th Century European Art and Islamic Art, Impressionist and Modern Art, Decorative Art such as Porcelain and Silver and French and English Furniture. This world-famous location is legendary in its own right, but those who visit may not know a fascinating fact about Sotheby’s: The Egyptian sculpture carved from igneous rock that is situated above the door of Sotheby’s is the oldest man-made object in the capital, dating back to before 1600 BC. There are those that believe it dates back over 5000 years. This incredible hidden gem is just one example of why you should follow the advice to “never forget to look up in London”.
5. Mayfair is a maze of secret passages and paths.
Within parts of Mayfair, there are some buildings that are interlinked in fascinating ways, and some that even have shared facilities, with cellars crossing from one side of the street to another. For example, with Penhaligon the perfume company and the prestigious wine merchants Berry Brothers and Rudd there are exit and entry points for tunnels which head in all sorts of directions. The 18th century old shop of Berry Brothers and Rudd has in particular piqued the interest of many for its grand chamber of extremely old wines and series of twisting passages, including one that supposedly leads to a room in St James’s Palace. Rumours have flown around that these sorts of passages helped royals gain access to the services of prostitutes. Scandalous.