'Build, build, build'
Jeremy Melvin, 20 July 2020
When Boris Johnson announced in a speech on June 30 that a strategy for ‘build, build, build’ would be a cornerstone of the UK recovery from the corona recession, he received few plaudits from the architectural profession – though it had drooled over far smaller spending plans trumpeted under the regime of Tony Blair and his chancellor Gordon Brown.
In neither case was this because of an understanding of the origins of economic theory, specifically in relation to the 17th century developer, speculator, pioneer of fire insurance and general trouble-maker Nicholas Barbon (c1637-1698). He was the first authority on economics to be cited in Marx’s Kapital – on the first page of chapter one. Architects’ general ignorance of the origins of economic thought may explain their inability to turn it to advantage, even where it advocates, basically, chucking money in their direction.
In 1685 Barbon published a tract, An Apology for the Builder, which essentially prescribes ‘build, build, build’ as a way of solving the ills of London and the wider economy. Both were then on a recovery trajectory after the English Civil War, the Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of a year later. Meanwhile the brilliant chancer Sir William Petty was laying much of the groundwork for what the 20th century academic William Letwin (father of former Tory minister Oliver) would call ‘scientific economics’. But still locked in episodic wars with the Dutch, London’s commercial hegemony over Amsterdam was by no means achieved or even assured in 1685. That would only come in the following century.
Perhaps anticipating architects’ collective underestimation of his thinking, Barbon was similarly dismissive of their skills. As the opening of his Apology makes clear, he saw a distinction between building and architecture, which owes little to Nikaus Pevsner and his thoughts on the difference between bicycle sheds and Lincoln Cathedral. ‘To write of Architecture and its several parts, of Situation, Platforms of Building, and the quality of Materials, with their Dimensions and Ornaments… were to transcribe a Folio from Vitruvius…’, and so be superfluous. What interested him were the consequences and advantages of building per se, more or less whatever the design, and its potential contribution to the economy and society.
Barbon’s argument is simple, but couched in terms set to appeal to the late 17th century mind, addressing the concerns of the time. ‘The Cause of the increase of Building’, he states in proto-Malthusian terms, ‘is from the [divinely ordained] natural increase of mankind’. But unlike Malthus, who saw population growth as the forerunner to disaster, Barbon saw it as a blessing. Food, clothes and a house are necessary for everyone, so more people means more building, as well as more work for ‘Bricklayers, Carpenters, Playsterers, and many more traders…’.
Activities like husbandry and by implication architecture allow the advantages of population growth to accrue to the people and their rulers. ‘Without Arts [as Barbon calls human artifice], a great number of people cannot live together… And neither can there be any great Cities…’. Moreover, larger cities ‘raise the rents of the old houses’, and this increase in value ripples outwards from the centre as they expand.
The rippling effect also reaches the country, since it supplies ‘Stones, Bricks, Lime, Iron, Lead, Timber, &c’, as well as providing living and working opportunities for ‘younger sons of Gentry, the Children of Yeomen and Peasants’. In a nod to the landed party he argues that growing cities increase rather than decrease the value of rural land, precisely because of its role in supplying urban populations.
He concludes by outlining the imminent advantages of London’s growth. ‘The City of London hath made such a Progress within this five and twenty years, as to have grown one third bigger, and become already the Metropolis of Europe, notwithstanding the Popular Error the Nation have been infected with, and the ill censures and discouragements the Builders have met with; had they been for this last hundred years been encouraged by the Government, the City of London might probably have easily grown three times bigger than now it is’.
Boris Johnson might enjoy the next comments, ‘And if we consider what the natural effects of so great a City must have been; To be furnished with such large Provisions for War suitable to its greatness; Such a vast number of Ships; being situate on an Island and Navigable River… it would long before this time have been a Terror to all Europe; and… to be made the Metropolis of the World’. And all down to the efforts of building!
In the years after the Great Fire, Barbon and his better-known contemporaries, John Evelyn (1620-1706), Robert Hooke (1635-1703), John Locke (1632-1704) and most obviously of all Christopher Wren (1632-1723), were busily laying the grounds for London’s physical and metaphorical rise. They were from different backgrounds but shared common purpose from a combination of greed, ambition, altruism and a penchant for experimentation: Hooke, Evelyn and especially Wren, were from Royalist families; Locke and especially Barbon, whose father PraiseGod was a firebrand preacher who gave his name to the shortlived ‘Barebones Parliament’ which sat briefly during the Commonwealth (the non-Royalist parliament established after the civil war), were of Puritan background.
The Great Fire of London
Hooke, Locke and Wren all more or less overlapped as pupils at the Royalist bastion of Westminster School, went on to Oxford and were associated with the Royal Society, founded in 1662. Locke and Barbon (who studied at the impeccably Puritan Leiden University) were physicians, though neither is principally known for their contributions to medicine. Wren also more than dabbled in ‘physick’, while Locke and Barbon had a row about economics.
Underlying this curious amalgam of similarities and differences was a shared commitment to new discoveries, new ideas and new ways of doing things -- whether praising God, or conducting business and government, to which all in different ways contributed. Behind them were two titans, Francis Bacon and William Harvey. The former sought a new way of conceiving scientific enquiry to overthrow the millennia-old influence of Aristotle: his advocacy of the ‘inductive method’ of reasoning which proposes reasoning only from empirical facts, surely lies behind the line towards the beginning of Locke’s most famous work An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ‘Men, barely by the use of their natural Faculties, may attain to all the Knowledge they have…’.
Harvey analysed and described the circulation of the blood throughout the body thanks to the heart, taking advantage of the new scientific method and massively advancing medicine. It can hardly be a coincidence that in his searching analysis of governance, Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes, whose extraordinarily long life (1588-1679) led him to overlap with ‘our’ generation, warned in physiological terms that echo Harvey about the dangers of London outgrowing the rest of England as the head becoming too big for its body.
This warning, itself harking back to the Elizabethan strategy of limiting London’s growth, sorely troubled Barbon: ‘If those Gentlemen that fancy the City to be the Head of the Nation, [a direct challenge to Hobbes] would but fancy it like the heart, they would never be afraid of its growing too big; For I have never read of such a disease, that the Heart was too big for the Body’. That’s the physician in him, a status he enjoyed and employed to browbeat opponents, even though there is no record of him practising.
Having set the scene for his argument with similarly biological points – there is something about rabbits just expanding their warrens when needing more space – he continues to his main claim: ‘It is in the interest of the Government, to incourage the Builders; not only because they preserve and increase the Subjects but they provide an imploy for them, by which they are fed and get their livelihood.’ In other words, more building increases the overall power of a country, ‘…numbers of Subjects is the strength of a Prince’, he asserts.
It also makes those subjects self- sufficient – and gives opportunities to levy taxes like ‘Chimney-Money’. He refers to ‘Oliver [Cromwell] the Usurper glad of any pretence to raise a Tax, made use of this clamor’ for a tax on new building, which speculative developer Barbon dislikes: ‘it was a heavy and unjust Tax upon the Builders’. In rather a stretch to the imagination, he suggests the tax chased people out of London to found ‘that great and flourishing Plantation of Jamaica’. Such arguments of the consequences of tax, cast as warnings, have been made many times since.
At one point, Barbon was estimated to have about £200,000 worth of development in a construction pipeline. That was about the total net worth, according to William Letwin, of Sir Josiah Child, one of the richest of merchants in late 17th century London, giving an indication of Barbon’s importance to the rebirth and growth of London after the Great Fire. Although he had competitors such as Thomas Neale (Neale’s Yard in Covent Garden,) he was the only developer operating on such a scale at the time.
As with so many of his successors in property, Barbon’s career as a speculative developer began slowly and humbly. After the Great Fire, all property was surveyed to establish rights of ownership and occupancy – a task with which Robert Hooke, then based at Gresham College in the City, was closely involved – taking account of leases as well as freeholds. One of the properties surveyed ‘in fleet street near fetter lane’ was owned by Barbon on a lease: it had been his father’s workshop. Once his right to it was established, he began to redevelop it into a house for himself which he used as a showcase to convince others of his status, with additional accommodation to provide an income.
This allowed him to raise a mortgage to purchase other properties, starting with two in Newgate Market and one on Cheapside. His work expanded to the Temple, where he helped with rebuilding following a fire, which brought him into contact with the aristocratic lawyer and amateur architect, Roger North, one of whose brothers was the early economic thinker Sir Dudley North, and from whose autobiography comes much of our knowledge of Barbon’s character and methods.
Much of Barbon’s work was in what is now called Midtown, then the western fringe of the re-emerging City, including Red Lion Square – scene of a more or less pitched battle between his supporters and opponents – and several streets to the north. He also played a part in the developing the eastern side of London, along the Radcliffe Highway towards Wapping.
Red Lion Square, London
It may have been his university-framed formation, or just an awareness of the spirit of enquiry that shaped so many of his contemporaries’ sensibilities, but Barbon quickly saw building as more than ‘mere building’ understood as physical objects produced by craftwork. When Roger North asked him about the scale of his operations, he replied contemptuously, ‘It [is] not worth [my] while to build little; That a bricklayer could do’. We can see the consequences of this perception in two ways: how he took advantage of the Fire Courts which were set up to adjudicate disputes arising from the Great Fire’s destruction and subsequent survey, and in another important commercial innovation, fire insurance.
North describes his first and most important commercial innovation. ‘He was the inventor of this new method of building by casting the ground into streets and small houses, and to augment their number with as little front as possible, and selling the ground to workmen by so much per foot front, and what he could not sell build himself. This has made ground rents high for the sake of mortgaging, and others following his steps have refined and improved upon it, and made a superfaction [sic] of houses about London’.
This is of course the motor of the development in the subsequent century of London’s great West End estates. No-one ‘refined and improved upon’ his method better than the Grosvenor family. It was perfectly attuned to the economic conditions of the time, when London needed to expand but the capital markets were undeveloped; the device of selling small runs of individual plots allowed craftsmen to supply ‘sweat equity’. The landowners knew that if their contracts insisted on high- quality buildings and the ground rents were sufficient to maintain roads, when their leases fell in they would reap a massive windfall. And they have the confidence to defer the profits to their great-grandchildren because of the political settlement which followed the 1689 ‘Glorious Revolution’ (no blood spilled, where William of Orange was invited to become British monarch) and in part thanks to Locke’s theorisation of Liberalism, which respected property rights. So Barbon – with some help from Locke as well as Hooke and the other surveyors of London – set the pattern for some of the UK’s largest fortunes and the urban fabric of London.
At Fleet Street, he realised that as a leaseholder the cost of redevelopment fell to him, but he also realised that the Fire Courts could be used as a tool to renegotiate lease terms, in effect to extend the term and decrease the ground rent. He succeeded in having the Fleet Street lease extended by 40 years and its ground rent reduced to £15 pa. That was relatively uncontentious, but over the course of his career as a developer he acquired a reputation as a vicious, serial litigant; as many of his successors have done, he turned to law to boost his balance sheet and avoid payment to contractors. But the real point, witnessed in his writings, is that he understood that building is far more than an artisanal activity, having cultural, economic and social corollaries.
Fire insurance was a natural consequence of recovery from the Great Fire, as it helped to rebuild confidence in city-centre living and property ownership. Barbon charged premiums as a percentage of rent, recognising the different risk of stone building (2.5% of annual ground rent) to timber – 5%. So good was Barbon’s idea that it spawned imitators, which Barbon countered by setting up a fire brigade which, characteristically, would only help his clients. Why, he might have reasoned, would he fund the saving of buildings from which he would not profit? So we might also attribute at least in part London’s pre-eminence in insurance to Barbon.
Barbon may well appeal to Johnson. He advocated building as a way out of a recession resulting from a natural disaster and in the wake of a pandemic. He was part of a remarkable generation of thinkers and doers who rose to the opportunity and the challenge, and laid the physical, commercial and political foundations for London to become, in his words, ‘The Metropolis of the World’.