Pillar of society Bravery, bold plans and a good head for numbers helped Thomas Cubitt shape much of London, but he also aided schools, churches and charities, finds Carla Passino
TWO olive trees guard the door of the Thomas Cubitt pub in Belgravia, their sharp, narrow leaves silvery against the pretty sage-green front. Inside, waiters balance velvety chocolate cakes and trembling panna cottas as they weave their way among the tables and the barman plucks a bottle from a laden cabinet to work his alchemy into a cocktail. Taking in the scene from the panelled walls are two portraits of a long-whiskered gentleman clad in a fashion-able black coat. He is Thomas Cubitt, the man who gave the pub its name—and much of central London its meringue-white buildings. That he managed to do any of it is almost a miracle. Cubitt didn’t have an easy start in life. He was only 19, a journeyman for a Norfolk carpenter, when his father died, leaving the family in straitened financial circumstances. Determined to improve his lot in life, he set sail for India as a captain’s joiner and managed to save enough money to open his own carpenter’s business in London in 1810, bringing two of his brothers—William, later an MP, and Lewis, who would go on to design London Bridge station—into the fold.
Fortune smiled upon Cubitt in 1815, when he won a contract to build the London Institution in Finsbury Circus (long since demolished). The work proved challenging—the ground was bad, the architect had not prepared the drawings in time and the workmen were not available when needed—but it gave him a new perspective on how to run his business. Unusually for the time, he decided to bring the many trades of the building industry—from brick-layers to plumbers and decorators—under his employment. ‘This bold and hazardous plan was a novelty in London, and consequently astonished the old architects,’ Gentleman’s Magazine wrote in Cubitt’s obituary in January 1856, noting that he had at times employed more than 2,000 men. The risk paid off, as Cubitt scholar the late Hermione Hobhouse explained in COUNTRY LIFE on May 22, 1969: ‘The firm rapidly established a high reputation for sound construction and conscientious workmanship, which it retained when Cubitt went into development.’
Westminster, from £1.75 million Although no single developer can claim the mantle of novel Cubitt, Northacre’s schemes echo his sense of opulence. One of its latest is The Broadway at Orchard Place—258 exquisitely designed one- to five-bedroom apartments, plus penthouses. Northacre (020–7349 8000; https://orchardplace.london)