Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Defining a "Mews"

The concept of a 'mews' is somewhat foreign to Americans and can be a little difficult to articulate. In Rosen and Zuckermann’s The Mews of London[1] the concept of a mews is beautifully described as follows:-

            The mews of London,” wrote Henry Mayhew in 1851, “constitute a world of their own. They are tenanted by one class – coachmen and grooms, with their wives and families – men who are devoted to one pursuit, the care of horses and carriages; who live and associate one among another; whose talk is of horses (with something about masters and mistresses) as if to ride or to drive were the great ends of human existence.
            Today, well over a hundred years later, the mews still constitute “a world of their own”. Although the horses are gone, a vast maze of former stable blocks, rich in history and architectural oddities, remains. There are over six hundred of them left in modern London, most of them having no pedestrian footpath on either side; they are lined with small cottages, mostly Victorian two-storey houses; they were almost all former stables, and many still have their original stable doors and coach-house hardware; many are hidden from the glance of the casual passerby, and are entered through arches or discrete gateways, often set unobtrusively into a building façade. Though mews are to be found occasionally in other cities, their substantial number here makes them one of the factors which distinguishes London from other great cities in the world.

            The term “mews” appears to come from the Royal Mews at Charing Cross, which was built on the site where the king’s hawks were formerly “mewed”. This meant that the birds were kept in a cage or mew at moulting time, the time they shed or changed their feathers.(the word derives from the French muer, to moult which in turn comes from the Latin mutare, to change). The Royal Mews was turned into a stable for horses in the sixteenth century during the reign of Henry VIII, and its new meaning ‘a set of stabling grouped around a yard or alley’ was certainly known in the seventeenth century.”

[1] The Mews of London by Barbara Rosen and Wolfgang Zuckermann,Webb and Bower Limited, page 10