Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Osterley Addendum

In my last entry I ran out of energy before retailing another fact about Osterley House, which is that it passed to the Child family in satisfaction of a loan made to one Nicholas Barbon, who died there in about 1698. Barbon is a fascinating and colourful figure, not least because he was the son of “Praise-God” Barebone (or Barbon), a fiery preacher and leatherseller as well as a Parliamentarian, who saw fit to christen him Nicholas If-Jesus-Christ-Had-Not-Died-For-Thee-Thou-Hadst-Been-Damned, a particularly florid example of the sort of “hortatory name” devout Puritans were accustomed to inflict on their offspring.

Nicholas however reinvented himself pretty comprehensively in later life as a man of the world, qualifying first in medicine but swiftly turning to the glittery world of property speculation. He spotted the opportunities for constructing both buildings and fortunes that arrived with particular force after the Great Fire of London (in which his own father’s property was one of the most westerly to be destroyed). He built, often without due permission and frequently getting into legal disputes, mainly in the areas now known as The Strand, Fleet Street and Bloomsbury and was one of those who, in doing so, made a physical bridge between the centre of government in Westminster and the City, which was the heart of trade, banking and commerce. He was a pioneer of the businesses that grew up alongside property speculation, namely insurance and mortgage finance. He wrote treatises that are early examples of classic economic theory and it will not surprise you to know that he was an enthusiast for free trade.

While some of his buildings survive (the jerry-built ones having long ago disappeared) and he must receive much of the credit for the creation of the classic London terraces that give stretches of the West End the appearance that we now generally view with affection, there is a real whiff of brimstone about Nicholas Barbon. He “got things done” but in the process dishonoured numerous debts and defrauded his associates, using his position as an MP to avoid the legal consequences of his financial and other rogueries.

In his will he directed that his debts should not be paid. It sounds like the Child family had the last laugh there.

The earliest Barbon building still standing, Crane Court (off Fleet Street).
For the photo I am indebted to this blog, where you can read more about Nicholas Barbon.

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