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.

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