Dodgy dealer who gave Londoners Leicester Square

How a Victorian bankrupt spent £30 million creating Leicester Square

By Martin Hedges, May 24, 2012
Leicester Square in 1880.  (Left) Financier Albert Grant donated it to the public

Leicester Square in 1880. (Left) Financier Albert Grant donated it to the public

As Londoners and West End tourists are all too aware, Leicester Square has been having a facelift. This week the hoardings will finally come down and the square, unveiled by London mayor Boris Johnson, will take on its new role as "the entertainment gateway to the West End".

But few know that the existence of this London landmark is due to the generosity of a Victorian financier whose dodgy dealings saw him make and lose a multi-million pound fortune three times over.

In 1874 the private gardens that arenow known as Leicester Square were earmarked for the site of a huge department store. The square had been plunging downmarket since the previous century, when the likes of Joshua Reynolds and Isaac Newton took the air around its pretty enclosed garden. Latterly it had become a rubbish dump by day and a trysting place by night for loose ladies working the theatre district. The government had already tried to buy it, but backed off when politicians found out how high the bill would be.

But along came Albert Grant, one of the country's richest men, who some regarded as little more than a swindler. He bought and refurbished the gardens, and donated them to the public, spending £30 million in today's money. Cynics claimed he was motivated by a desire for a knighthood.

Albert Grant had an inauspicious start in life. He was born Abraham Gottheimer in December 1831, in Dublin. His father, Berton - a refugee from Prussian Poland - and his British wife Julia, were so poor that members of the local synagogue had to provide baby Abraham with blankets.

As an adult Abraham Gottheimer changed his name and became a company promoter, being paid eye-wateringly large management fees for orchestrating public share offerings on mines, railways, waterworks and docks around the world. He made and lost millions for himself, and for his investors. If you stayed in a Grant float for too long you lost a fortune. Before marketing tools such as PR and direct selling were invented, his back-office staff kept thousands of hand-written cards with the names and addresses of Britain's new middle-class. He drummed up business through targeted prospectus mailings - an unbelievable 80,000 in one day, claimed a contemporary. Grant was servicing that age-old impulse for speculative greed. He said: "I know hundreds who would rather make £50 on the Stock Exchange than £250 by the exercise of their profession."

Like many others of his generation, Grant converted to Christianity and married out. The casual antisemitism of the day targeted at successful Jews would not let him be, however. The press used coded epithets to describe him, such as "the German" or more directly as "the Hebrew".

The profilic novelist Anthony Trollope was said to have modelled his arch villain, Augustus Melmotte, on him.

Grant was twice a Conservative MP; he was an innovative media owner, buying a Liberal newspaper and relaunching it as a Tory publication.

He was an inveterate art collector, often sending a cheque for the equivalent of £250,000 a month to his art dealers. He was the builder of ever larger houses. Despite his Victorian-sized family of 12 children, the houses he built were always too big. His greatest folly was a 100-room mansion on an 11-acre site in Kensington High Street which he never lived in before financial ruin overtook him. The locals dubbed it "Swindle Villas".

He was never accused of criminal wrongdoing, but when the tide turned against him a year or so after his gift of Leicester Square, he faced a series of civil suits, usually from shareholders who regretted their foolishness and wanted a way to get their money back.

When he called in the receivers in 1879 he was universally written off as a broken man facing penury. But he had quietly parked a huge amount of money in his wife's name and was able to retire to a 33-acre pile near Bognor and continue dabbling in speculation for a further 20 years. He faced nominal bankruptcies twice more before dying of heart disease in 1899 at the age of 68.

Long before that he had became Baron Albert Grant - the title was real enough, though an Italian one; bestowed by the King of Italy for financing the construction of a magnificent shopping arcade in Milan.

Leicester Square was opened in July 1874. Critics claimed that Grant rushed to complete the project because he was about to lose his parliamentary seat over allegations that he had bribed voters, and he was desparate that the fountain of Shakespeare in the middle of the square should bear the legend "donated by Albert Grant MP".

During the opening ceremony someone - probably a disgruntled investor - hired sandwich-board men to parade around the square with a scandalous poem then doing the rounds in the City; their boards proclaiming that "title without honour is a barren grant".

Grant spent a considerable proportion of his vast fortune buying, fencing, lighting and landscaping the square. Just for good measure, he threw in a major portrait of Sir Walter Scott from the Victorians' favourite painter Edwin Landseer, which is now in the National Portrait Gallery.

He still did not get his knighthood.

Martin Hedges is writing the first biography of Baron Albert Grant

    Last updated: 2:36pm, May 24 2012