‘Lost’ birthplace of Queen Elizabeth II set for return to London’s Mayfair with UAE help

Jubilee QR code will be created to take tourists on digital tour of monarch’s birthplace

The Duchess of York leaves 17 Bruton Street, on her way to the christening of her daughter Princess Elizabeth, now Queen Elizabeth II, in May 1926. Getty
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The “lost” birthplace of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II is set to be recreated in digital form as part of plans to mark her 70-year reign.

She was born on April 21, 1926, in a now-demolished town house at 17 Bruton Street in the upmarket district of Mayfair, central London.

The house was knocked down little more than a decade later to make way for the new headquarters of the UK’s air ministry, which opened in 1938. The vast building has since been converted into offices and restaurants.

The current owner of the site – a company controlled by the Abu Dhabi ruling family – plans to mark the queen’s platinum jubilee by bringing the former house back to public prominence and demonstrating how it looked 96 years ago.

The historic significance of the site is currently marked by two plaques on a wall next to an upmarket Chinese restaurant, but the house was a few metres farther down the street.

The front door of what would have been the queen’s home for the first months of her life is currently boarded up during refurbishment work at Berkeley Square House, the 542,000-square-foot office block.

As part of this year’s celebrations, property managers are working with local authorities to install a permanent tribute at the site. Organisers hope to insert a jubilee marker with a QR code into the pavement where the front door of the old house once stood.

Plans are afoot for the code to take visitors to an online gallery or allow mobile phone users to view the house in virtual reality.

Tour guide Caroline Mongan said the location is an underwhelming one for the start for the story of the world’s longest-reigning monarch, especially for the largely US clientele that join her royal walks in London.

“I show my clients a picture of the original building to show them what it was like before it was knocked down. It was absolutely beautiful,” Ms Mongan said.

“The plaques are in the wrong place, so I think something in the pavement in exactly the right spot would be perfect.

“It’s difficult to talk about something when it’s not there and I think the clients are a tiny bit disappointed. When we move back to the royal palaces, they are slightly relieved.”

Despite the loss of the house, the site still tells a story of royal London and the changing nature of property ownership, fashion and society.

The houses opposite 17 Bruton Street – mainly high-end fashion, jewellery and antiques shops, with a smattering of private residences and offices – retain a flavour of 1920s London with its grand multistorey town houses.

Couturier Norman Hartnell, who made the queen’s wedding dress in 1947, lived and worked in a house opposite 17 Bruton Street. Such was the interest in the wedding, he was forced to whitewash the windows of his workroom to keep out prying eyes.

The Hartnell building, which also has a plaque, is protected from alteration by strict planning rules and has mirrors and chandeliers that cannot be removed. The building is now used by a high-end jeweller.

The area used to be dominated by antique shops but cultural change pushed them out in favour of “new cars and clothes”, says one long-term merchant.

Bugatti, Bentley and Ferrari showrooms are now part of the Berkeley Square House complex, which is home to more than 60 businesses.

“We’re a bit old-fashioned and out of synch with Mayfair at the moment,” he said. “Old-fashioned Mayfair – if not quite horses and carriages – was a place of art dealers and furniture.

“All the Americans came here buying into the lifestyle and a piece of old England. This area is the wealth. You don’t get richer than here [in the UK].”

The historical significance of 17 Bruton Street was not appreciated at the time because the queen – third in line to the British throne when she was born – was not expected to become the monarch. One newspaper from the time described the street as a “quiet backwater” away from the hustle and bustle of Piccadilly.

The abdication of her uncle King Edward VIII in 1936 to marry twice-divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson, led to her father unexpectedly being crowned King George VI.

As Duke of York, he had married Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon in 1923. Her parents, the Earl and Countess of Strathmore, owned 17 Bruton Street and the couple moved there shortly before Elizabeth, their eldest daughter, was born.

They were there for only a few months before moving to a larger property in Piccadilly.

In one of the moments they spent at the house, contemporary newspaper reports told of how a nurse held the baby Elizabeth up at the window at 17 Bruton Street as her parents set out on a tour of the British Empire in January 1927.

The house at Bruton Street was bought in 1931 by the Canadian Pacific Railway company to be used as its headquarters and for a proposed hotel. The house was “massively ornate and characteristic of the architecture of the period”, the Western Daily Press reported in April 1934.

“The room on the first floor in which the little princess was born is one of the least ornate of all the rooms, but also one of the sunniest,” said the paper.

One gossip column suggested that the railway company would keep the room where Elizabeth was born as it was and would be “open to reasonable public inspection”.

But by 1936, the hotel project had been abandoned and the family moved from their home in Piccadilly into Buckingham Palace after the abdication.

Their former Bruton Street home was among 20 of the “best known houses in Mayfair” pulled down the next year to make way for the development that would become Berkeley Square House.

A drawing in The Illustrated London News showed some of the houses boarded up and a To Let sign outside one of them.

The new building opened in 1938 as an enormous new headquarters of the Royal Air Force shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War.

Queen Elizabeth II's 70-year reign - in pictures

“They tell me if you tried to visit every room in the building, you would walk 30 miles,” a Pathe news service report of the opening said.

The building is now owned by the royal family of the UAE, part of a £5 billion ($6.5bn) portfolio of properties in the capital, say court documents from 2021.

After decades of refurbishment and repurposing for the dozens of businesses inside the building, there is nothing inside the 11 floors of the building to mark it as the queen’s birthplace, said senior building manager Hayley Nicholls.

Updated: April 19, 2022, 8:52 AM