To Wren the plaudits. His restoration of London’s churches and monuments along with able input of Hawksmoor, Hooke, Gibbons and others are remembered in all the history books and guides. But what of the more mundane? The shops, houses, factories? They didn’t build themselves. Less glamorous these projects may be, but some of their begetters were far from dull. No less energetic than Wren himself, these men were wheeler-dealers par excellence, with fascinating stories. Two exemplars who stand out are Nicholas Barbon and Thomas Neale. These men were what was then called “Projectors”, ie men who undertook projects. The closest modern equivalent would be Entrepreneur.
Nicholas Barbon (c1640 – c1699)
Nicholas Barbon was variously an insurance magnate, MP, property developer, gangmaster, banker and noted economic theorist. The son of a pious non-conformist, one Praisegod Barebones (of Barebones Parliament fame), Nicholas initially studied medicine at Leiden and Utrecht and was admitted to the College of Physicians. But he abandoned the Physick to pursue a career in business and the business he pursued was insurance. In the wake of the Great Fire of London, the fledgling insurance industry was booming, as was construction, it goes without saying. Barbon immersed himself fully in both.
Despite the Fire, England, and London in particular, was booming economically. Having gained superiority over her rivals on the high seas for almost a century, colonisation and trade provided plenty of opportunities for bold men with an eye on the main chance. The hub of all this activity was London. London needed more than rebuilding: it needed expanding too.
But there were problems. The Statute books carried much legislation against new building and in addition there was plenty of nimbyism locally among Londoners themselves.
Barbon simply ignored these impediments. He and his gangs of workers simply moved into areas and got building. Where necessary they demolished old buildings without permission. When opposed, they literally beat objectors into submission. Some of their buildings were jerry-built and collapsed. Most did not, and many examples survive on our streets today.
Barbon’s most notable developments were between the City and Westminster: the Temple area and nearby Essex House; Fleet Street. He also built near Cannon Street; Fetter Lane; Red Lion Square; Mincing Lane.
For obvious reasons, Barbon was not popular; not just for his strong-arm methods, but also because his projects were often underfinanced and unsecured; he owed money all around town, defaulted on payments, borrowed from Peter to pay Paul, defrauded his partners. He used his position as an MP to shield himself from the courts. Yet he lived in a fancy house on Fleet Street and always dressed snappily: to look the part in order to play the part. In many ways he was a thoroughly modern man whom we would readily recognise today.
Barbon didn’t care a fig for what people thought of him, brickbats simply bounced off his rhino-like hide. Despite his own dubious business practices, he fancied himself as an economic theorist, writing tracts such as Discourse on Trade (1690), propounding the idea that money has no intrinsic value. To Barbon, money was no less a tool than the chisels, hammers and saws used by his workmen.
But unlike a good workman, Barbon didn’t really look after his tools, being heavily in debt when he died.
Thomas Neale (1641 – 1699)
Neal Street and Neal’s Yard in Covent Garden are named after another property developer who was the exact contemporary of Barbon and who was responsible for creating Seven Dials. Thomas Neale had a vision for the area to rival the recently constructed Covent Garden and fortunately for him he did not live to see the locality become one of London’s most notorious slums. He would perhaps be more happy today that a stroll up Neal Street is part and parcel of most trendy shoppers’ Covent Garden experience.
Thomas Neale’s family came from Hampshire. He served the county in various capacities – commissioner here, JP there – in towns throughout the area, but the best platform from which to build one’s network of influence was as an MP. Neale’s parliamentary career began in 1668.
Neale was obsessed with money and making money. Literally. Of the dozens of ventures with which he was directly involved, in 1686 he wangled himself the job of running the Royal Mint.
Like Barbon, Neale’s modus operandi was to stick his fingers in as many pies as possible and if they produced cash directly, all the better. Chief among these was his own marriage. In 1683 he married a rich widow, Elizabeth Gould, whose fortune was estimated to be £80,000, a massive windfall at that time. Neale served on sixty committees in the Cavalier parliament, reports of which he passed on to his business associates. He variously speculated in ventures such as The East India Company and Royal Adventures into Africa.
One of his plum appointments was groom-porter to the King, a position he held for life at £600 per annum. This job involved ensuring that all the paraphernalia of Royal gaming were supplied and up-to-scratch: dice, cards, gaming tables etc. The post also put him in charge of adminstrating gaming licences throughout the kingdom, with all the opportunity for abusive self-enrichment deriving: he granted himself a monopolistic licence for dice manufacture for some 14 years.
Then there was the Royal Mint. Neale landed himself a post on the commission to investigate irregularities at the mint. At the end of the process, no surprise, Neale was put in charge of the Mint, at £500 per annum.
Neale’s career as a property magnate involved urban development in the Shadwell area but he is better known for the re-development of the Seven Dials area, which with typical Neale brio, he maximised the profit potential. Rather than create a boring cross-roads configuration, he realised he could maximise the potential of shop rentals by creating a junction of seven roads.
Brevity prevents us from exploring all of Neale’s capers. In 1693 he ran a £25,000 lottery; he received a grant to search for mines in the American colonies; with Nicholas Barbon (above) and others, he was a subscriber to the National Land Bank (which financed Seven Dials, lovely); he was granted a patent for wire screens used in flour manufacture; he set up the American postal service; and on and on.
How could Neale possibly have enjoyed more careers than half a dozen lesser men would in a lifetime? The simple answer is that he didn’t. In most cases, he landed himself the job and then immediately appointed a deputy to do the work, examples being the nascent American postal service and the Royal Mint.
Wikipedia for the basics
Dictionary of National Biography:
Nicholas Barbon by RD Sheldon
Thomas Neale by CE Challis
for a list of Barbon’s surviving buildings, see Historic London by Stephen Inwood, pp 79-81.