Mews is a primarily British term formerly describing a row of stables, usually with carriage houses below and living quarters above, built around a paved yard or court, or along a street, behind large city houses, such as those of London, during the 17th and 18th centuries. The word may also refer to the lane, alley or back street onto which such stables open. It is sometimes applied to rows or groups of garages or, more broadly, to a narrow passage or a confined place. Today most mews stables have been converted into dwellings.
In the Smart Growth, Traditional Neighborhood Development and New Urbanism movements, the term is used to refer to the creation of new housing with similar characteristics to the historic type: a grouping of small dwellings which front on an alley or pedestrian passage.
The term mews is plural in form but singular in construction. It arose from "mews" in the sense of a building where birds used for falconry are kept, which in turn comes from birds' cyclical loss of feathers known as 'mewing' or moulting.
Though the term originated in London, its use has spread to parts of Canada, Australia and the United States (see, for example, Washington Mews in Greenwich Village, New York City).
From 1377 onwards the king's falconry birds were kept in the King's Mews at Charing Cross. The name remained when it became the royal stables starting in 1537 during the reign of King Henry VIII. It was demolished in the early 19th century and Trafalgar Square was built on the site. The present Royal Mews was then built in the grounds of Buckingham Palace. The stables of St James's Palace, which occupied the site where Lancaster House was later built, were also referred to as the "Royal Mews" on occasion, including on John Rocque's 1740s map of London.
The term "mews" is not used for large individual non-royal British stable blocks, a feature of country houses. For example, the grand stable block at Chatsworth House is referred to as the stables, not the mews. Instead the word was applied to service streets and the stables in them in cities, primarily London. In the 18th and 19th centuries London housing for wealthy people generally consisted of streets of large terraced houses with stables at the back, which opened onto a small service street. The mews had horse stalls and a carriage house on the ground floor, and stable servants' living accommodation above. Generally this was mirrored by another row of stables on the opposite side of the service street, backing onto another row of terraced houses facing outward into the next street. Sometimes there were variations such as small courtyards. Most mews are named after one of the principal streets which they back onto. Most but not all have the word "mews" in their name. This arrangement was different from most of Continental Europe, where the stables in wealthy urban residences were usually off a front or central courtyard. The advantage of the British system was that it hid the sounds and smells of the stables away from the family when they were not using the horses.
Mews lost their equestrian function in the early 20th century when motor cars were introduced. At the same time, after World War I and especially after World War II, the number of people who could afford to live in the type of houses which had a mews attached fell sharply. One place where a mews may still be found put to equestrian use is Bathurst Mews in Westminster, near Hyde Park, London, where several private horses are kept. Nearby, the mews' stables have been put to commercial use, Hyde Park Stables, where horses may be let for guided rides in Hyde Park, £79 for the hour (2015 price). Some mews were demolished or put to commercial use, but the majority were converted into homes.
Contemporary movements to revitalize and creatively re-use historical and traditional features of urban environments have also cast some appreciative light on mews. A contemporary presentation of the some 500 former horse stables in the city of London appears in the book The Mews of London: A Guide to the Hidden Byways of London's Past.
In 2015 a survey of the Mews in London estimated that there were 433 Original/ Surviving Mews properties still in existence. The Survey classified an Authentic Mews property as "A property in a Mews – a lane, alley, court, narrow passage, cul de sac or back street originally built behind houses in the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries to provide access for stables or coach house accommodation (often with associated living accommodation) – that is now most likely to be a modernised residential dwelling, possibly with commercial premises. An Authentic Mews property will still retain the approximate appearance, form and footprint of the original Mews but it may have been re-developed to a degree and no longer retains all original Mews features."
The use of Mews in new urban development is advocated by Leon Krier, who is himself a strong influence on the New Urbanism movement in the United States. (For his foundational contributions to the movement, Krier received the first Athena Medal awarded by the Congress for the New Urbanism in 2006.)
In the Smart Growth, Traditional Neighborhood Development and New Urbanism movements, the term is used frequently, but definitions of the term are rare. The East Village Redevelopment Plan for Calgary, Alberta, Canada, explains that "Mews are narrow, intimate streets that balance the access and service functions of a lane with active building frontages, accessory uses, and a street space shared by cars and pedestrians.",