Brief history of Pimlico

Pimlico is a residential neighbourhood in central London in the City of Westminster. Just like Belgravia, to which it was built as a southern extension, Pimlico is known for its grand garden squares and impressive Regency architecture.

The area is separated from Belgravia to the north by Victoria Railway Station, and bounded by the River Thames to the south, Vauxhall Bridge Road to the east and the former Grosvenor Canal to the west.

At Pimlico’s heart is a highly disciplined grid of residential streets – known as Pimlico Grid – designed by the architect Thomas Cubitt in the 1820s and now protected as the “Pimlico Conservation Area”.

Underrated and often overlooked, Pimlico augments its refined culture with casual conveniences like farmer’s markets, easy access to high-class institutions like the Tate Britain museum and lots of fun places to enjoy a coffee, drink, dinner or Sunday Roast with friends.

Pimlico is also home to the pre-World War II Dolphin Square development, Churchill Gardens and Lillington and Longmoore Gardens estates, now designated conservation areas in their own right. The area has over 350 Grade II listed buildings and several Grade II listed Churches.

Notable residents have included politician Winston Churchill, designer Laura Ashley, philosopher Swami Vivekananda, actor Laurence Olivier, illustrator and author Aubrey Beardsley, Kenyan politician Jomo Kenyatta and inventor of lawn tennis Major Walter Wingfield.

Greenwood's 1827 map showing parts of Pimlico and Millbank prior to development
Greenwood’s 1827 map showing parts of Pimlico and Millbank prior to development

Early history and origin of name

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Manor of Ebury was divided up and leased by the Crown to servants or favourites. In 1623, James I sold the freehold of Ebury for £1,151 and 15 shillings. The land was sold on several times, until it came into the hands of Mary Davies in 1666.

Mary’s dowry not only included “The Five Fields” of modern-day Pimlico and Belgravia, but also most of what is now known as Mayfair and Knightsbridge. Understandably, she was much pursued but in 1677, at the age of twelve, married Sir Thomas Grosvenor. The Grosvenors were a family of Norman descent long seated at Eaton Hall in Cheshire. Through the development and good management of the land the Grosvenors acquired enormous wealth.

At some point in the late 17th or early 18th century, the area ceased to be known as Ebury or “The Five Fields” and gained the name by which it is now known: Pimlico. While its origins are disputed, it is “clearly of foreign derivation…. Gifford, in a note in his edition of Ben Jonson, tells us that Pimlico is sometimes spoken of as a person, and may not improbably have been the master of a house once famous for ale of a particular description.” Supporting this etymology, Rev. Brewer describes the area as “a district of public gardens much frequented on holidays. According to tradition, it received its name from Ben Pimlico, famous for his nut-brown ale. His tea- gardens, however, were near Hoxton, and the road to them was termed Pimlico Path, so that what is now called Pimlico was so named from the popularity of the Hoxton resort”.

Belgravia and Pimlico in 1903

By the 19th century, and as a result of an increase in demand for property in the previously unfashionable West End of London and following the Great Plague and the Great Fire, Pimlico had become ripe for development. In 1825, Thomas Cubitt was contracted by Lord Grosvenor to develop Pimlico. The land up to this time had been marshy, but was reclaimed using soil excavated during the construction of St Katharine Docks.

Cubitt developed Pimlico as a grid of handsome white stucco terraces. The largest and most opulent houses were built along St George’s Drive and Belgrave Road, the two principal streets, and Eccleston, Warwick and St George’s Squares. Lupus Street contained similarly grand houses, as well as shops and, until the early 20th century, a hospital for women and children.

Smaller-scale properties, typically of three storeys, line the side streets. An 1877 newspaper article described Pimlico as “genteel, sacred to professional men… not rich enough to luxuriate in Belgravia proper, but rich enough to live in private houses.” Its inhabitants were “more lively than in Kensington… and yet a cut above Chelsea, which is only commercial.”

Although the area was dominated by the well-to-do middle and upper-middle classes as late as Booth’s 1889 Map of London Poverty, parts of Pimlico are said to have declined significantly by the 1890s. When Rev Gerald Olivier moved to the neighbourhood in 1912 with his family, including the young Laurence Olivier, to minister to the parishioners of St Saviour, it was part of a venture to the west London “slums” that had previously taken the family to the depths of Notting Hill.

Through the late 19th century, Pimlico saw the construction of several Peabody Estates, charitable housing projects designed to provide affordable, quality homes.

20th Century resurgence

Proximity to the Houses of Parliament made Pimlico a centre of political activity. Prior to 1928, the Labour Party and Trades Union Congress shared offices on Eccleston Square, and it was here in 1926 that the general strike was organised.

In the mid-1930s Pimlico saw a second wave of development with the construction of Dolphin Square, a self-contained “city” of 1250 up-market flats built on the site formerly occupied by Cubitt’s building factory. Completed in 1937, it quickly became popular with MPs and public servants. It was home to fascist Oswald Mosley until his arrest in 1940, and the headquarters of the Free French for much of WWII.

Pimlico survived the war with its essential character intact, although parts sustained significant bomb damage. Through the 1950s these areas were the focus of large-scale redevelopment as the Churchill Gardens and Lillington and Longmoore Gardens estates, and many of the larger Victorian houses were converted to hotels and other uses.

To provide affordable and efficient heating to the residents of the new post- war developments, Pimlico became one of the few places in the UK to have a district heating system installed. District heating became popular after World War II to heat the large residential estates that replaced areas devastated by the Blitz. The Pimlico District Heating Undertaking (PDHU) is just north of the River Thames. The PDHU first became operational in 1950 and continues to expand to this day. The PDHU once relied on waste heat from the now-disused Battersea Power Station on the South side of the River Thames. It is still in operation, the water now being heated locally by a new energy centre.

In 1953, the 2nd Duke of Westminster sold the part of the Grosvenor estate on which Pimlico is built. Pimlico was connected to the underground in 1972 as a late addition to the Victoria line. Following the designation of a conservation area in 1968 (extended in 1973 and again in 1990), the area has seen extensive regeneration. Successive waves of development have given Pimlico an interesting social mix, combining exclusive restaurants and residences with Westminster City Council run facilities.

2 Comments

  1. Gabby Briggs says:

    Hi,
    I’m currently writing a thesis on the development of the West End in the mid 19th century and I wanted to know if you had the citation for this quote in your article:
    “genteel, sacred to professional men… not rich enough to luxuriate in Belgravia proper, but rich enough to live in private houses.” Its inhabitants were “more lively than in Kensington… and yet a cut above Chelsea, which is only commercial.”
    It would be extremely helpful for my research!
    Thank you

  2. Bob Bennett says:

    I’m really sad that another historic building that in historical terms was arguably far more important than the Gas Works that also occupied the site of the Tachbrook Estate in Pimlico has been completely forgotten.  It was one of the larger buildings directly behind Bessborough Place that was erected in 1840 by Thomas Cubitt. It was owned by the British Government, and housed castings for use by the famous architect, Charles Barry, in the construction of the then new Palace of Westminster. 

    Samuel Colt had had a great success exhibiting his fine revolving pistols at the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in 1851 and the orders had come flooding in. Together he and the British Secretary of the Institution of Civil Engineers,  Charles Manby, f.r.s. toured London seeking a suitable site upon which to build a factory. After much fruitless searching they eventually found what they had been looking for in Bessborough Place, Vauxhall Bridge, Pimlico, London City centre. It was a three story red brick building over three hundred feet long and adjacent to the gasworks.  It was early 1854 before the London factory was up and running properly; making complete pistols from raw materials to the finished product. The steel and iron for the guns was supplied from a firm in Sheffield, England called, Thomas Firth & Sons. the orders came thick and fast in 1854 from the British Government; for they had just declared war, along with France, on Russia. It was the start of the Crimean War.In March of that year, Colt received an order for 4000 Navy revolvers at a cost of £2.10.0 each (silver plated back strap versions cost an extra five shillings – about 25p or 65 cents). On August 2nd. 1855, Colt received his biggest single order yet from the British Government. 9,000 navy pistols. 

    After the war, as is so often the case, the Colt factory found it nigh on impossible to get many orders. The night shift was dropped and so was the over-time. Economic change and loyalty to one’s own country crept in to the scene too as more and more British Government officials and M.P.’s (Members of Parliament) were persuaded to ‘fly the flag’ and buy British. Indeed the British gun maker and designer, Robert Adams, took full advantage of this and got orders from the Government that, maybe – given the unreliability of the Adams revolver – should of gone to Colt.  Things were quiet in America too and so, Colt decided that he could not continue production in Great Britain. He pulled in his bridges and closed the London Factory in December 1856.

    Following the debacle of the Crimean War the government embarked on wholesale reform of army administration and one aspect was the creation of a Corps of Armourer Sergeants.  In 1858 the former Colt factory, now denuded of its machinery, was appropriated by the War Office as a ‘Small Arms Repairing Manufactory’ and depot and training school for the new corps.  The building remained in this guise until 1870, when defence rationalisation and changes in arms manufacture led to its closure, although it remained on London maps under its military description until 1872, whence it became instead a dress and mantle manufactory.  The Corps of Armourer Sergeants moved to Birmingham and were eventually absorbed by the Army Ordnance Corps in 1896, and then the Royal Mechanical and Electrical Engineers in 1941.  Thus the building behind Bessborough Place had played an important part in training the men who repaired the rifles and other small arms that underpinned Britain’s military efforts across the world.

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