Today you have companies like Balfour Beatty and the Kear Group who predominately do most of the construction work in the UK, but back in the early 19th century there were no massive firms that undertook building projects, that was until Thomas Cubitt came along.
During the early 19th century parts of London were going through immense change, as the landed gentry realised there was money to be made from selling their land that sat on the boundaries of the City for housing developments. There was a lot of new money around as merchants and industrialists became increasingly richer and wanted to find a way of showing the world that they had wealth and power, what better way to do so, than ti build a grand house. In the beginning of this property boom it usually fell to an enterprising jobbing builder to develop several houses, or possibly even a whole street, so the early development of much of what is now known as the West End was piecemeal. Not only did Thomas Cubitt take this development to a different level, he revolutionised the way the building trade worked.
Cubitt was born in 1788 the son of a Norfolk carpenter, and was taught the trade by his Father. Around the age of 19 he journeyed to India as ship’s carpenter from which he earned sufficient funds to start his own building firm in 1810. That was the start of a steady rise, facilitated by family partnerships with two of his younger brothers, William and Lewis (the latter designed King’s Cross Station). Thomas was renowned for his extraordinary amounts of energy, organisational skill, loyalty to his workforce, and high moral principles. His reputation for integrity and dependability was impeccable, which enamoured him to the titled people that became his customer base.
His first major building commision was the London Institution in Finsbury Circus, built in 1815 it was demolished in 1936. After this he started a program of buying land and filling it with houses in Camden, Islington and Stoke Newington until in 1820 he received a commission from the Duke of Bedford to develop Bloomsbury which he duly did including Tavistock Square. Four years later he was commissioned by the 2nd Marquess of Westminster, Richard Grosvenor to develop Belgravia into a high class residential area and following that the adjoining, but slightly less grand Pimlico. It was while researching a guided audio tour of the Pimlico area called Pimlico, Fairer Than Florence that I learnt about Thomas Cubitt. Once you know of his work his style is easy to recognise. Wide streets lined with stately white stuccoed houses with even the lower priced ones looking elegant all coupled with spacious garden squares, at the time built for residents only.
Not only did Cubitt transform the areas to the west of the City of London, he also transformed the way that builders operated. Prior to Cubitt, builders had hired in the necessary trades as required. Today most people have probably struggled to obtain the services of a reputable roofer or carpenter and it looks as if back in the early 19th century things were even more difficult due to a combination of a smaller localised workforce and trades people staying in their home areas rather than migrating to the capital. Cubitt’s method was to employ every trade needed for the development on a full time basis. With such a large workforce, Cubitt needed a large workshop to house all the trades. In the case of Pimlico he built large premises close to the river Thames, where he also bought land to convert into wharfs to ensure to easy supply of building materials. By January 1845 the works occupied an eleven acre site, however, in August 1854 a fire destroyed large parts of the workshops. With this new way of working Cubitt had responsibility for a large workforce. We tend to think of these times, quite rightly for it’s exploitation of the working classes by employers. Cubitt however appears to have taken a different view. After the fire he gathered the entire workforce and pledged that they would have new premises and work within the month, he also pledged to continue to pay them fully for their time. In addition to this Cubitt paid £600 out of his own pocket to replace the tools of every employee lost in the fire. Today a statue stands close to the site of original workshops to commemorate Cubitt’s influence on the area.
Cubitt was also responsible for the east front of Buckingham Palace. He also built and personally funded nearly a kilometre of the Thames Embankment. He died in 1855 prompting Queen Victoria to say of him “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.”