A Man of Property: How Thomas Cromwell became London's first property developer - Boodle Hatfield

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15 Mar 2017

A Man of Property: How Thomas Cromwell became London’s first property developer

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"Thomas Cromwell was a man of property." So says Hilary Mantel, author and passionate advocate of the man in question.

A self-educated lawyer, banker, and trader who, following his untimely death in 1540 had no less than eight houses across the capital and countless others outside of the M25. The first of his kind; Thomas Cromwell used his influence and implacable pursuit of wealth and power to become London’s original property developer.

Location, Location, Location

One of the most important considerations for a property developer, and the purchasers who follow, remains location. The right location can make or break a project. Growing up in a smithy cottage in the lawless village of Putney, Cromwell had a unique perspective on living in an “up and coming area yet to arrive” and was keen to avoid investing in areas too far off the beaten track. Cromwell had the same location requirements as his modern-day equivalents: properties close to leafy green parks (Great Place), within easy commuting distance of the City of London (Austin Friars), and close to of the most important routes in and out of London (Canonbury Tower).

Structuring the deal

Once the relevant site has been identified, a well organised property developer will consider how to structure and fund the proposed development.

For Thomas who had spent his teenage years living with a merchant banker in Italy, the minutiae of lending requirements caused little difficulty. He did, however, encounter constraints on his ability to structure deals effectively. Pre-dissolution, it was estimated that one-third of England’s land was owned by the Church, a fact the reformist Cromwell found difficult to swallow. From 1538, Cromwell set about dissolving English monasteries and transferring lands to the monarchy, leading to a clear increase in property opportunities to those in the king’s favour. Cromwell took large swathes of land in Lewes, which he sublet to local farmers to cultivate, retaining the large manor house for his son, Gregory.

That’s when good neighbours

An Englishman’s home is his castle and Cromwell wanted to ensure that Austin Friars was no exception.

In 1532, at the height of his wealth and power, Cromwell undertook a four-year expansion programme on his principal home, Austin Friars, to create one of the largest private properties in London. Rather problematically, Cromwell did not own the neighbouring land he wished to extend into. The initial stages of the proposed development did, however, run smoothly, albeit with a brief hiatus whilst his 80 man workforce went up north to suppress the Pilgrimage of Grace. Cromwell acquired an additional 99-year lease over his current house together with a neighbouring property and warehouse. A couple of years later, Cromwell enlarged his property further by acquiring the leasehold interest of his neighbour, Vivaldi, this time by not only buying out Vivaldi’s lease but also the remainder of Vivaldi’s lessee’s interest.

Cromwell’s good luck was not to last, however. Thomas Stow, an elderly gentleman whose son was to go on to author the Survey of London, lived in a property located in the centre of Cromwell’s proposed renovation project.  He refused to budge. No money was enough, no threats were sufficient and so, Cromwell employed a tactic unavailable to his present-day counterparts: he instructed his builders to lift poor Stow’s property on rollers and wheel it out the way. Problem solved.

Off with his head-lease

At his death, Cromwell held an extensive property empire spanning the country as far north as Lincoln and as far west as Cornwell. To say it was unusual in this period for the son of a blacksmith to own such a considerable amount of land would be an understatement. In a time of great polarity, however, it was not to last. In 1540, Cromwell was condemned to treason and his burgeoning career as a property developer and landlord was brought to an end by the executioner’s axe.

Cromwell left a significant legacy; his ward, Ralph Sadler, took over his master’s business interests, rising to serve as Privy Councillor to Elizabeth I. Unlike Cromwell, Sadler died comfortably in his bed, having become the “richest commoner in England”. His main London property, Sutton House, still stands today.

London’s second property developer, perhaps?

This article first appeared in PrimeResi in March 2015.

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