Yesterday I was reading The Courier (as one does) for September 23rd 1817 and discovered that two hundred years ago, almost to the day, St James’s Square was being renovated and lit by gas.
St. JAMES’S SQUARE
“No expense is spared, that can render the area of this assemblage of noble dwellings delightful to the taste of its inhabitants. The wall on which the iron railing of the new inclosure is to be placed, having been found so high as to obstruct, in some measure, the view of the intended greensward, it has been lowered, although the coping had been laid on, and great part of the iron railing fixed. Besides this provision for the pleasantness of the square by day, care has been taken, not only for its security, but for its splendour by night. The gas-lights will be scarcely more than twenty paces distant from each other, raised upon handsome iron stands, through the hollow of which the gas will ascend. The form of these is nearly that of a cannon, as far as three feet from the ground; afterwards, they become slender tubes, of a figure not unlike the stalks of some plants. The lamps they are to bear will be large; and not curved but angular, according to the present fashion. The east and west sides are to have seven each; the northern side six. It may be hoped that the improvement, which will be made here by the introduction of these lights, will lead to their use in St. James’s Park, where they are still more necessary.”
(The reference to the Park is presumably to its notorious reputation as a location for nocturnal sexual activity!) The rather small image at the top of the post is a version of Ackermann’s print and shows the Square in 1812 looking northwards towards St James’s church standing opposite the top of Duke of York Street (formerly Duke Street). The statue of William III in the centre and the covered seat on the far left still remain.
St James’s Square has always been the location of some very smart houses, but its central area has had a somewhat chequered past. The area was developed on open fields shortly after the restoration of Charles II by Henry Jermyn, Earl of St Albans. He laid out a square which had fine new houses on three sides, but which, on the fourth, southern, side, consisted only of the backs of the houses already facing onto Pall Mall.
The central area though, was a problem and, for some reason, no-one seemed to take control of the ground and landscape it. At first it was simply a bare area decorated by ash heaps, rubbish, dead cats and dogs and a storage shed erected as a timber store. There is even a record of a man who ‘kept the ring in St James’s Square for cudgel playing.’! It was also the site of occasional grand firework displays. One of the most spectacular must have been to celebrate the Peace of Ryswick in December 1697 when 1,000 skyrockets, 2,400 ‘pumps with stars’, 15,000 ‘swarms’ 7,00 ‘reports’ and 22 rocket chests each with 40 rockets, were let off.
In February 1726 a petition was presented to the House of Commons complaining that the Square ‘had lain and doth lie rude and in great disorder.’ There were individuals ready to spend money on improvements but they needed an Act to be able to do so. It proceeded with great speed (presumably due to the exulted status of the local inhabitants of the area) and the Trustees were enabled to clean up and ‘adorn’ the Square. Things then proceed slowly until in February 1727 the decision was made to dig a ‘bason’ to be surrounded by an octagonal five foot high iron railing incorporating eight stone obelisks with lamps. This must be the work that is shown in Horwood’s map of 1795.
There were also plans for a statue of William III in brass, showing this very Protestant king ‘trampling down popery, breaking the chains of bondage, slavery etc.’ Nothing came of that, although it was discussed by the Trustees endlessly. Meanwhile the Trustees had to wrestle with the problems created by the fountain in the middle of the octagonal pond which stopped working . In 1778 its surrounding plinth was removed which produced correspondence from a gentleman ‘who had some interest in the ducks’ that roosted on it. Whether he was a naturalist or a lover of roast duck is not clear. Finally the statue was erected, on a plain plinth, in 1807.
For some reason, in 1799, the Trustees were considering changing the octagonal enclosure to a round one and the Ackermann view of 1812 appears to show that this was done. A Committee for Lighting the Square was set up and it is, presumably, its preparatory work that The Courier was reporting on. However, the number of lamps was exaggerated – in the end twelve lamps were set up, plus one on the South side which was supplemented by four more paid for directly by the residents. The installation of these lamps makes St James’s Square the first public area to be lit by gas. Demonstration lights had been used in Pall Mall 1808-10, but they were not permanent until 1820.
Having routed, they hoped, streetwalkers, pickpockets and undesirables with their new lighting, the Trustees turned their attention to upgrading the centre of the Square and secured the services of John Nash, architect of Regent’s Street. Nash’s scheme included an iron fence around the pond and plantings of shrubs with paths weaving through them. The pond continued to be a nuisance with the need to keep cleaning it out and it was finally filled in during 1854. During the Second World War the railing were removed for scrap metal and the gardens converted to allotments. The present railings and gates date from 1974, the Square having narrowly escaped a proposed underground car park (1953) and a cost-cutting exercise by Westminster Council that would have fenced it with plastic-covered chain-link.
It is still possible to walk along gas-lit streets in the St James’s area, although now the gas lamps are on a timer system, not requiring a lamp lighter, except to change the timer seasonally. The photograph shows gas lamps in Crown Passage which cuts between Pall Mall and King Street.