The sun is shining – just the afternoon for a stroll in St James’s Park. The other day I started off at St James’s Palace where the scarlet-coated guardsmen were fending off the advances of crowds of camera-wielding tourists and then walked down narrow Marlborough Road between the Palace and Marlborough House. This access to the park did not exist until the 1850s and effectively cuts off Marlborough House and the Queen’s Chapel on one side from the Palace on the other.
The Queen’s Chapel, although a Chapel Royal is not The Chapel Royal which is within the Palace and which is where Prince George was christened recently. The Queen’s Chapel was designed by Inigo Jones in the 1620s for Queen Henrietta Maria, the Roman Catholic wife of Charles I, although since the 1690s it has been used as a Protestant place of worship.
Crossing the Mall, with its view of BuckinghamPalace to the right, I dodged the Royal Parks gardeners getting ready for the post-picnic lunch clear-up in the Park and entered through the gorgeous wrought iron gates.
St James’s Park is the oldest royal park and dates back to Tudor times. Elizabeth I hunted deer here but by the time of James I there was a physic garden, a menagerie (including crocodiles) and an aviary, which is recalled in the name of Birdcage Walk on the northern edge of the park.
Charles II had considerable work done to create the central canal by joining up several ponds and marshy areas, planting trees and stocking it with deer. It is from this date that the pall mall alley was laid out. The Russian ambassador presented Charles with a pair of pelicans in 1664 and there are still pelicans amongst the exotic birds on the lake today. Occasionally one creates havoc by pouncing on a passing pigeon and swallowing it whole.
At the eastern end of the park was SpringGardens, a pleasure garden dating from the 17th century. All that remains of it now are two stubs of roads cut across by the Mall and with Admiralty Arch sitting in the middle. By Jane Austen’s day they were notable for various indoor places of entertainment, art galleries and so on. The Picture of London (1807) recommends Wigley’s Royal Promenade rooms here. They were open 10am to 10pm, admission one shilling. The visitor could ‘meet’ two invisible girls who spoke or sang on demand, or listen to a performance on the panharmonium, a mechanical orchestra.
The Society of Painters In Water Colours exhibited at Spring Gardens. On 24 May 1813 Jane wrote of a visit with her brother Henry and reported that she was well-pleased with what she saw, especially, ‘with a small portrait of Mrs Bingley…exactly herself, size, shaped face, features & sweetness; there never was a greater likeness. She is dressed in a white gown, with green ornaments, which convinces me of what I had always supposed, that green was a favourite colour with her.’ Deirdre le Faye identifies this picture as the charming Portrait of a Lady by J F-M Huet-Villiers.
However pleasant it was in broad daylight, Miss Austen would have been cautious about walking in the park after dusk without a male escort for it was a notorious haunt of prostitutes of both sexes. Even though the park was locked at night it was thought that almost 7,000 keys were in private possession, so it might just as well have been open. James Boswell records various encounters with prostitutes there but it was also a dangerous place for a man by himself, for gangs of blackmailers operated under cover of its shrubberies. One man, his breeches undone, would leap out at the victim, crying that he had been attacked, while his confederates threatened to fetch the watch and swear they had witnessed an indecent assault. At a time when homosexual acts were criminalised and could lead to the gallows, many men paid up rather than risk not being believed.
The Globe newspaper for January 7th 1809 reports, We were in hopes that the conviction of Cannon and his companion Wilkinson, for extorting money from Mr Butterworth the silversmith, in St James’s Park, would have put a stop to the depredations of those execrable wretches who are making a miserable existence by the diabolical practices of threatening respectable persons with a most detestable crime. But they regret to have to report yet another instance had just come to light.
In August 1814 the park was the site of a series of extravagant celebrations: first for the centenary of Hanoverian rule, then the anniversary of the Battle of the Nile and finally the peace celebrations following Napoleon’s exile to Elba. The architect Nash designed an exotic seven-storey pagoda, which unfortunately caught fire during a firework display. Ironically this was organised by Congreve, the inventor of the military rockets which went on to cause almost as much alarm and confusion amongst British troops as amongst the enemy at the Battle of Quatre Bras the following year. There was also a bridge, which lasted rather longer, until 1825, although in a half-burnt condition and made perilous by the remains of the hooks that had held the Catherine wheels.
Festivities were also held on the Serpentine in Hyde Park, which had a miniature navy afloat on it, and at the temple of Concord in Green Park, both events open freely to the public. The organisers at St James’s Park, however, decided to charge half a guinea and erected barriers and toll gates. Despite the charge the event was hugely popular and the gates had to be closed. Despite the crowds none of the public were killed during the fire, although two unfortunate workmen died.
After the event the park was left in a dreadful state and it was not until 1827 that the government found the money to renovate it. Nash was chosen for the job and he remodelled the canal into a sinuous lake, added a duck island, a new bridge, widened the Mall and replanted the trees, shrubberies and flowerbeds.
The park now is much as Nash left it, although the bridge is a replacement and the view includes the London Eye. From the modern bridge there is an excellent view of Buckingham Palace. Jane Austen knew it as the Queen’s House and it only took on its present appearance when George IV began its enlargement to fit his concept of a fitting palace. The black and white print of skaters shows the Queen’s House with the park before Nash’s remodelling.
Often I will walk from the bridge to Horse Guards Parade, this time I went down to Bird Cage Walk and along to Westminster Abbey to catch a bus up Whitehall to Trafalgar Square – I’ll be talking about exploring London by bus in my next post.