When we hear British folk talk about a mews (and yes, it is a singular noun, even though it sounds very plural), we think of a quaint cobble-stoned street lined with stable-like town houses, usually forming a quiet cul-de-sac off — and hidden away from — a larger residential street.
A recent article on Narrative.ly described an American mews that few have heard of, let alone seen, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “The Walk, as locals call it,” Narrative.ly exlains, “is a small English-style mew modeled after the streets of London and named for a romantic comedy by British playwright Louis N. Parker, set on a similar mew” [my italics]. Mew? According to all my dictionaries, singular mew means a gull, the cry of a cat, or a house for hawks. But considering it’s hard to find a real mews outside Great Britain, Americans can easily be forgiven for getting confused about the word and its usage …
OED defines mews as a British noun meaning “1. a set of stabling round an open yard or along a lane. 2) such a set of buildings converted into dwellings; a row of houses in the style of a mews [pl. (now used as sing.) of mew(2), originally referring to the royal stables on the site of hawks’ mews at Charing Cross, London].”
The OED’s second definition of mew, as referred to above and from which the modern word mews derives, is “a cage for hawks, esp. while moulting”; this dwelling for birds used for falconry was often the size of a small building — especially when it housed the king’s hawks as it did in 14th-century London. When the hawks’ mews became the royal stables in the 1530s, the name remained; today the Queen’s stables, which were moved in the early 19th century to their current site in the grounds of Buckingham Palace, are still called the “Royal Mews”.
At the end of the Industrial Revolution, before the motorcar replaced the horse-drawn carriage on England’s streets, prosperous Victorians needed dwellings for their horses and grooms that were near enough to their own homes for convenience, but sequestered enough to hide the sounds, sights and smells of the 19th-century stable from the master and his family. So wealthy urban dwellers lived in large terraced houses (or “row houses”, in American English) with stables at the rear that opened onto a small service street — or mews — on which the horses and stable-hands lived and worked.
With the advent of the motorcar, the mews lost its raison d’etre and fell into disuse; those carriage houses that weren’t demolished became commercial properties or were converted into private dwellings, which are now some of today’s most fashionable and sought-after residences on London’s property market. The previously unnamed stable-lanes took on the names of the main streets they had served, with the tag “Mews” added to distinguish between them. Look at a map of Central London today, and in the small, picturesque section of Westminster between Marylebone High Street and Portland Street you can count no fewer than ten mews named after neighboring streets: Marylebone Mews, Wimpole Mews, Beaumont Mews, Browning Mews, Mansfield Mews, Weymouth Mews, Devonshire Mews, Bentinck Mews, Queen Anne Mews, and Dean’s Mews. See if you can spot any more …
There are very few mews outside London (a Washington Mews can be found in New York’s West Village). Some fancy apartment buildings, gated housing developments and cul-de-sacs in Canada, Australia and the U.S. include “Mews” in their names to lend an air of elegance and exclusivity, but few if any of their residents can claim horses and hay-bales as their predecessors.