The New Statesman Profile - Albany

Since Byron's days, the great and the wicked have chosen to call this place home

"You know Albany - the haunt of bachelors, or of married men who try to lead bachelors' lives - the dread of suspicious wives, the retreat of superannuated fops, the hospital for incurable oddities, a cluster of solitudes for social hermits, the home of homeless gentlemen, the diner-out and diner-in, the place for the fashionable thrifty, the luxurious lonely, and lovers of mutton-chops."

When Marmion Savage published The Bachelor of Albany in 1848, the Georgian townhouse in Piccadilly was already famous. Converted into sets of independent apartments in 1802, it had become a byword for the celebration of a kind of ostentatious privacy peculiar to the English. One hundred and fifty years on, the mystique of a collegiate life lived in the heart of London's West End remains.

It takes a peculiar kind of English institution to attract the loyalties of Terence Stamp and Gladstone, of Isaiah Berlin and Lord Byron, of Alan Clark and Macaulay, of Roger Scruton and Edward Heath. But Albany was special from the start. It is still a place best suited to the bachelor and those with semi-detached families. Children under 13 and pets are forbidden and, at £750 a week for an average set and some £7,000 a year estate charges, the "fashionable thrifty" need deep pockets these days in order to penetrate the stillness of Albany.

The original building was the ambition of Elisabeth Lamb, Lady Melbourne, who wanted a house where she could entertain the London society of her day. The tolerant and unsentimental mother of the future prime minister was valued for her discretion and good sense: "No man," she opined, "is safe with another's secrets, no woman is safe with her own."

With a rich and complaisant husband, Lady Melbourne's ambitions were realised when the house, designed by William Chambers, was finished in 1775. Melbourne House stood 100 feet back from Piccadilly, behind a high wall with a spacious courtyard where footmen would lounge waiting for their masters.

This was a Whig establishment and Charles James Fox, dressed in the blue and buff colours made fashionable by Washington's army, was an habitue. The views circulated were those of a Voltairean enlightenment. As Lord Egremont, Lady Melbourne's admirer (and probable father of her son), wrote: "Everything in fashionable life, dress, food, amusement, morals and manners, all must be French." Chambers was unpaid for his work nine years after the building's completion. Indebtedness probably dictated Lord Melbourne's agreement to exchange houses with the Duke of York, whose own finances proved to be quite as shaky. "York House" ended up mortgaged to Coutts, the Whigs' favourite bank, for £22,000. The 1802 conversion to "Albany" (by Henry Holland - the Whigs' favoured architect) was a way of recovering the loan.

Holland remodelled the buildings round the courtyard and replaced them with four houses attached to the main house. He demolished the wall on Piccadilly and converted the house into apartments. Behind the house he added two long blocks in cream-painted stucco, three storeys high with a paved and covered walk between them. Chambers 1 and 2 on each staircase were on either side on the ground floor. First and second floor chambers had their kitchens in the attics. In each case, a high-ceilinged hall and living-room with double-doors led to a bedroom with a dressing room behind.

Personalities began to flourish within this bachelor paradise. Henry Angelo established his fencing academy in the courtyard's second house. Next door, Henry Austen, Jane's favourite brother ("He cannot help being amusing"), ran his business as a banker. "Gentleman" Jackson, the prize-fighter, hired a room in order to give lessons. But the most individual of early occupants was surely Mat Lewis - better known to his contemporaries as "Monk" Lewis. Lewis was rich - the son of a slave plantation owner - but also clever. He published The Monk when he was 20. Calls that he be prosecuted for this tale of the macabre and "horrid" inflated the Christ Church undergraduate's sales and he was launched on a short, intense and fluent literary career. The Captive, his monodrama at the Covent Garden Theatre, starred Mrs Litchfield as a madwoman and threw the audience into fits. Two people had hysterics during the first performance and two more succumbed after the curtain dropped.

"He had queer-ish eyes," said Walter Scott, his collaborator on Tales of Wonder. "They projected like those of some insects." Byron, who had uneasy relations with Lewis, thought him "prolix and paradoxical and personal".

The death was as curious as the life. The Monk had advanced views on the treatment of slaves and, after his father's death, Lewis travelled to the West Indies to enforce a new code of law for his possessions. He contracted yellow fever on the boat back from Jamaica and died at sea. The weights escaped from the coffin which then refused to sink beneath the waves. The tarpaulin broke loose and, raised by the wind, became a sail which lifted the coffin above the deep and bore the Monk's body to the distant horizon.

It was Lewis who introduced Byron to Albany and by 1814 the sixth Baron (and his macaw) had moved into A2 at the far left-hand side of the mansion. He saw Henry Angelo for his fencing lessons most days at 12, boxed with Jackson daily and tried to avoid Caroline Lamb. Although a radical, he enjoyed that year of reactionary revelry - 1814. Louis XVIII had been restored and there were state visits by the king of Prussia and the Tsar. "I have been drinking," he wrote of one evening, "from 6 till 4, yea unto 5 in the morning. We clareted and champagned till 2 - then supped, and finished with a kind of regency punch composed of madeira, brandy and green tea."

But the shadows were closing around Byron who, on his marriage, left Albany after only a year's occupation. By 1816 he was an exile - pursued by that implacable and fickle beast, English public opinion. One Albany relic, however, would always remain with him - Tita, the Venetian manservant whom he inherited from the Monk.

The young Gladstone was a more sober presence in Albany from 1832. He stayed there for six years, learning German and reading Plato. The People's William was not yet even a gleam in those falcon's eyes. Rich and high church, he was a vigorous defender of his father's rights as a slave-owner. Wordsworth, bereft of his Muse and declining into Toryism, found Gladstone congenial company and would breakfast with him in Albany - once even joining him for early morning prayers with the manservant.

Macaulay was 41 when he arrived in Albany, rejoicing in an establishment which cost him just 90 guineas a year - "and this in a situation which no younger son of a duke need be ashamed to put on his card". Macaulay lived here for 15 years. He had returned from India a man of independent means and could now set to work on his History of England. Every day he would produce six pages of foolscap notes - the equivalent of two pages of print. By 1855 his work was done and 25,000 copies of the greatest work to emerge from Albany were being printed by Longman's.

Macaulay had been "happy at the top of this toilsome stair" and rejoiced in the over-flow of a hyper-Protestant work ethic that impelled three hours' work before breakfast: "A man may feel his conscience so light during the day when he has done a good piece of work before leaving his bedroom."

Literary associations survived Macaulay's departure. John Lane's Bodley Head bookshop appeared in Vigo Street, behind Albany, in 1887. As a publisher, Lane was part of the world of Rossetti and Burne-Jones, of Japanese prints and Liberty's designs. But he was also an ambitious literary entrepreneur. He took the lease of G1, the ground-floor set of chambers on the east side of the north entrance leading into Vigo Street. He got the Albany trustees' permission to convert the bay window of the dining room into a street entrance, transferred his business there and created a literary salon. Aubrey Beardsley came to breakfast, George Moore and H G Wells would drop in after dinner.

Henry Harland was the consummate literary editor who persuaded Max Beerbohm and Arthur Symons to contribute to the new Yellow Book (yellow being the colour of the 1890s). Lane - more cautious - insisted on the inclusion of established figures such as Henry James, Arthur Waugh (father of Evelyn), and A C Benson. But it was Beardsley's drawings that established the reputation of the Yellow Book and its association with "decadence". The Albany shop window was soon a blaze of yellow and Oscar Wilde would set the first act of The Importance of Being Earnest in B1 ("earnest" being contemporary society slang for gay). It was the last time that England was to produce a true avant-garde in the arts.

Compton Mackenzie, who was offered but refused a set of chambers, refers in Sinister Street to "Albany's atmosphere of passion squeezed into the mould of contemporary decorum". The ghosts that hover there are now sanitised and Albany is a rich and respectable business recycling its past. It is a very English heritage tale of paradise lost and parasites found.

Nineteenth-century England saw the masculine privacy of the gentleman's club replacing the openness of the coffee-house and the femininity of the salon. Albany is a chapter in that history of reclusiveness and withdrawal. The spirit of Lady Melbourne's salon survived in Regency Albany much as Chambers' original design persisted behind Holland's conversion. Secluded antiquarianism, however, has been the tone of 20th-century Albany. It's a safe bet that today's Byron redivivus would be happier in a Soho lofthouse than cloistered behind that chaste facade with its - strictly metaphorical - twitching net curtains.

This article first appeared in the 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.