Albany, Piccadilly: The oldest continuing co-owned housing complex in the world?

Albany in London is the longest continuously co-owned apartment building in the world. David Thompson finds out more...

People have been living co-operatively (one member, one vote) at Albany in London, since 1804, making it the longest continuously co-owned apartment building in the world. That’s longer than British monarchs have been living at Buckingham Palace (Queen Victoria moved there in June 1838).

Albany, a set of iconic Georgian buildings just off Piccadilly in central London, has been co-owned by its members (known as ‘Proprietors’) for 213 years, and has been home to some of Britain’s most famous people.

Women were only allowed to officially visit from the 1880s and were not allowed to become owners (or ‘lessees’) until later. In the official founding documents, the buildings were specifically and legally called “Albany” but in recent years some have begun calling it “The Albany”.

Albany was built in 1774 as a palatial three-story, London mansion in the Georgian style for the First Viscount Melbourne. The mansion was sold to Prince Frederick, the son of King George III, who in turn sold it to Alexander Copeland in 1802. Copeland hired architect Henry Holland to subdivide the mansion, add other buildings and convert the entire site into 69 different living “sets” (more on this word later). At that point, Albany was to be co-owned only by wealthy bachelors.

J B Priestley is among the illustrious names to have lived at the Albany

Since then, Albany has been a gathering place for the Who’s Who of British life. Among its early famous members were Lord Byron, William Ewart Gladstone (PM) and Thomas Babington Macaulay (historian). It the 20th century, Edward Heath (PM), Sir Thomas Beecham (conductor), Graham Greene (novelist), Sir A.M. Carr-Saunders (co-op historian), Aldous Huxley (writer) and JB Priestley (writer and co-founder of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) all called it home. And its 21st century members (now open also to women, but not to any child under 14) have included Terence Stamp (actor), Fleur Cowles (US writer & editor), Sir Simon Jenkins (writer), Anthony Armstrong-Jones, Lord Snowden (society photographer), Margaret Thatcher, for just a few days (PM), and David and Evangeline Bruce (US ambassador to UK).

One element of the expected etiquette of Albany is that existing members should not disclose the names of others who live there (although, clearly, there are too many famous people living there for their presence not to be divulged). Another protocol, in this case followed quite seriously, is that no one should talk to anyone while on the rope walks which connect all the “sets”.

Aldous Huxley is another famous past resident

Owing to its unique prominence in English high society, Albany has also been the well-described literary abode of major fictional characters created by writers such as Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, Georgette Heyer (who lived there), E. W. Hornung, and Oscar Wilde.

In legal documents dating from its founding, apartments at Albany have been described as a “set(s)”. There are few clues in English real estate parlance as to how the Albany apartments got the name “set”;  the layout of the building, which is a series of passageways, scores of doors, many separate entrances and in some cases shared bathrooms, suggest that “set” was derived from “setts,” the English name given to the underground labyrinth occupied by Britain’s beloved badgers. As with Albany, badger “setts” can house one or more different badger families.

One study (T. J. Roper, Journal of Zoology, August 1992) that looked at British badger setts found the largest sett to be almost 1,000 yards long, with 178 entrances, 50 underground chambers and 10 latrines. There can be between 6-15 badgers living in each sett, which is often interconnected. Most of the time badgers sleep alone in a separate chamber in the sett. Given that the original intent for Albany was a series of apartments for bachelors coming to London from their ancestral homes in the countryside in order to have their own individual sleeping chambers, the term “set” might easily have been borrowed from British badger life.

Fleur Cowles also lived at the Albany

The owner of a set is called a Proprietor. The Proprietors elect a board of trustees which governs Albany and vets prospective proprietors prior to completion of the purchase and taking up of residence. William Stone (1857-1958), a long-time Albany resident, purchased 34 of the individual sets, one by one, and bequeathed them upon his death at 101 years of age in 1958 to Peterhouse College, Cambridge. Peterhouse College long-term leases its sets, but those leasing residents still have to be approved to live there by the Board
of Trustees.

Albany Courtyard from Piccadilly, leading to Albany

Thousands of people hurry past the little-known address every day. The entrance is set back at the rear of Albany Courtyard, a small inconspicuous narrow entry leading from Piccadilly only to Albany. The entrance is guarded diligently by foreboding liveried doormen.

Yet when you walk out onto Piccadilly from Albany you enter one of the most famous and busiest pedestrian streets in London. Across Piccadilly from Albany is Fortnum and Mason, Britain’s most prestigious department store for both England’s almost 1,000-year-old aristocracy and London’s nouveau riche. Living at Albany is still one of the most treasured and sought-after addresses in London. In 2017, a two bedroom set at Albany was listed for £7m. None of the “sets” can be found on Airbnb.

The history of co-operative housing has many interesting beginnings and Albany is one of the earliest forms of co-ownership. There are no in-depth studies on how Albany actually operates, but it would be very interesting to map out how the organisational and legal form of this unique co-ownership has worked over its 213 years.

Co-op author and historian David J. Thompson learned of Albany’s existence over a decade ago. Finally, in the summer of 2017, he was able to see Albany in person, but only dared to venture far enough into the Albany Court Yard to take a few photographs, as time and the ominous doormen would not allow more…

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