Category Archives: Architecture

Story of a Square 4: Leicester Square – From Common Land to Fashionable Residence to Popular Entertainment Centre

For Jane Austen the Leicester Square area was the location of some of her favourite shops. Until 1630 it was Leicester Fields, common land available for parishioners of any class to dry clothes and to pasture their livestock after Lammas Day (12th August). But London was moving out from its old centres and the Earl of Leicester acquired the area in 1630 in order to build Leicester House. That occupied, more or less, the area between today’s Lisle Street and the Northern edge of the Square. To the East it finished more or less where Leicester Place is and to the West on a line where the edge of the Empire cinema stands. Lisle Street ended at the Western edge of its gardens.

The parishioners were, naturally, unhappy about this incursion on their land and rights and Charles I had to appoint a Privy Council committee to arbitrate. His lordship was ordered to make compensation and he had a high brick wall built along the Southern boundary (the current pavement line, more or less) and, in accordance with the committee’s instructions, had the rest of the land – the present Square – turned ‘into Walkes and planted with trees along the walkes and fitt spaces left for the Inhabitantes to drye their clothes there as they were wont, and to have free use of this place.’ As the other sides of the open area were built on the contractors railed off the centre and planted elms. The map at the top is a detail from Roque’s map of 1740.

In 1670 Leicester Square was laid out for ‘the benefit of the family, the advancement of their revenue, and the decency of the place before Leicester House.’ This was an indication that fine houses were being built around the Square. By the early 18th century there was a brick wall with iron railing and in 1784 a statue of George I in armour and on horseback was moved from the garden of the Duke of Chandos’s house to the centre. The gardens gradually deteriorated and so did the statue which lost a leg. It was finally sold for scrap for £16 in 1872.

Part of the Leicester estate, including the Fields and surroundings was acquired by the Tulk family in 1808. By this time all four sides of the Square were built up with fine houses and no commercial development had been permitted although by 1782 there was a linen draper by the name of Gedge operating at the corner with Cranbourn Street (running from the top Eastern corner of the Square). Six earls had residences in the Square and several artists, writers and men of business lived there. Hogarth created Marriage à la Mode, Rake’s Progress, Industry and Idleness and Gin Lane at no.30 and Joshua Reynolds lived at no.47 from 1760 to 1792. All the fine 17th and 18th century houses have gone now, replaced by buildings of the late 19th century onwards.

By the end of the 18th century the area had become rather less select and had taken on the form shown in the second map above. The Earl of Rockingham had lived at no.27 until his death. It became a bagnio – technically these were bathhouses, but more usually were brothels. This was the location for the great hoax of 1726, the place where anatomist Nathaniel St Andre brought Mary Tofts, a poor women from Surrey whom, he claimed, had given birth to a litter of 15 rabbits after being frightened by one when walking through a field. The story attracted George I’s surgeon who was taken in and claimed to have delivered her of part of another rabbit. Sir Hans Sloane, President of the Royal Society arrived to view the birth of yet more rabbits. Eventually she was caught buying rabbits and the scam was exposed.  The bagnio and the sensational hoax perhaps mark the beginning of Leicester Square as a centre for popular entertainment, although as this print of 1812 (from Ackermann’s Repository) shows, it was still a very smart area.

The view is from Leicester Place down to the North-East corner of the Square. If you stand there today you can still see the indentation in the street on the right hand side – I love how landholdings like this are reflected years later in the modern building line.

Jane Austen came to the area to shop, especially when she was staying with her brother Henry in Covent Garden. Prices were slightly lower than those in the Mayfair area and she patronised Isaac Newton the linen draper in Leicester Place whose unimaginative approach to window dressing can be seen in this print. Next door is a doorway with a sign over it “Rome Malta” which was the entrance into Barker’s Panorama, opened in 1793. It was a rotunda of 27 metres in diameter. It’s two rooms, one above the other, displayed perspective views of famous scenes and locations which could be viewed ‘in the round’ from the centre

of each room. Jane Austen also shopped for bonnets and caps in Cranbourn Alley.  On a snowy day in March 1814 she wrote to her sister Cassandra,

‘Here’s a day! The Ground covered with snow! What is to become of us? We were to have walked out early to near Shops, & had the Carriage for the more distant… Well, we have been out, as far as Coventry St; Edwd escorted us there & back to Newtons, where he left us, & I brought Fanny safely home.’ On that snowy shopping trip she saw, ‘A great many pretty Caps in the Windows of Cranbourn Alley! I hope when you come, we shall both be tempted.’ Intrigued, I set out to find Cranbourn Alley which runs between Cranbourn Street and Bear Street. It is still there – and a horrible little passageway it is now. I wouldn’t want to walk down it in daylight, let alone at night!

By the mid 19th century the ‘garden’ in the centre of the Square was so derelict that it had the Great Globe, a vast ball-shaped panorama built on it in 1851. Later it became a wasteland with occasional circuses, poor quality stalls and was used as a waste tip. It was surrounded by high wooden hoardings covered in advertisements  until in 1873 the Master of the Rolls had them removed and ordered that the area be returned to use as a garden. It was rescued in 1874 when it was bought by the flamboyant, and very rich, MP for Kidderminster, Albert Grant, who was created a baron by the King of Italy. He had the garden laid out much as it is today with a fountain and bust of Shakespeare in the centre. It was refurbished in 1992.

It seems difficult to see anything of the Georgian and Regency periods in Leicester Square today with its vast crowds of tourists queuing for theatre and cinema tickets, its souvenir shops and its endless food outlets. However, when I researched the area for Walking Jane Austen’s London and Walks Through Regency London I found plenty of fascinating reminders within a short distance. There’s Freibourg & Treyer’s shop, the oldest surviving in London,  in Haymarket. In Gerrard Street you can climb the stairs that Doctor Johnson and Joshua Reynolds would have used in the days when no.9, now a Chinese supermarket, was the famous Turk’s Head coffee house. The area has numerous Regency-era shopfronts too, especially in Lisle Street. Then you can have a drink and sandwich in Tom Cribb’s pub on Panton Street and escape the crush around the Square!

 

 

 

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Lighting Up St James’s Square

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.

 

 

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Admiring the Adelphi

In the 1750s the three acre site between the Strand and the Thames that had once been occupied by Durham House was nothing more than a ruinous network of slum courts. It was to be transformed into the Adelphi (from the Greek for brothers), an elegant housing development, by the family of Scottish architects John, William, Robert and James Adam. They leased the land for 99 years and imported a large team of bagpipe-playing Scottish labourers – cheaper apparently than the local workmen and a source of considerable resentment. (although the unfamiliar bagpipes may have contributed to that).

The Thames was not embanked at that point and the land simply ran down to the muddy foreshore with landing stages and water gates. It required an Act of Parliament in 1771 to allow the Adam brothers to create an embankment with arched entrances into subterranean streets and storage areas and the Corporation of London was none too pleased at this infringement of its rights over the river. As well as the Mayor and Corporation they also managed to upset the Watermen and Lightermen’s Company, the Coal and Corn Lightermen and (somehow) the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey. A popular ditty of the time reveals the general prejudice against the oatmeal-eating Scots.

Four Scotsmen by the name of Adams

Who keep their coaches and their madams,

Quoth John in sulky mood to Thomas

Have stole the very river from us.

O Scotland, long has it been said

Their teeth are sharp for English bread

What seize our bread and water too….

Take all to gratify your pride

But dip your oatmeal in the Clyde.

The Adams brother might have got the site at a good price but they soon found themselves in financial difficulties as they constructed the magnificent terrace of eleven houses which made up Adelphi Terrace shown in the print at the top of the post. They had employed top-level craftsmen and artists on the interiors, including painter Angelica Kaufman. Then, no sooner had they begun than there was a spectacular banking crash “the Panic” of 1772  following the collapse of the Ayr Bank. The repercussions were far-reaching and had an effect in both Europe and America. Faced with bankruptcy they held a lottery in 1774 which cleared their debts (probably helped by the fact that, somehow, they managed to win the main prize themselves.) Their next scheme, Portland Place in Marylebone, built between 1776 and 1790, created further financial problems and with house prices in the Capital falling they found it hard to sell the Adelphi properties and cover their costs with prices falling from £1,000 to just over £300 between 1773 and 1779.

However, they persevered and, with the help of royal favour and celebrity endorsement (David Garrick the star of the stage was a friend and the artist Rowlandson lived there for many years) they went on to sell to a number of big names. Behind the Adelphi Terrace itself was a tight set of streets named after the brothers themselves, along with shops and apartments and the Royal Society of Arts (Below. John Adam Street).

Only a few of the original houses now remain and the fabulous Adelphi Terrace was demolished in 1938 and rebuilt. John Street and Duke Street are now John Adam Street and William Street is Durham House Street.

The vaults under the Terrace still partly exist and can be glimpsed from Lower Robert Street, off York Buildings.

The final print shows the Terrace in the early 19th century. On the left, the little building is the York Watergate, built in 1626 for the Duke of Buckingham to act as a smart entrance to a private landing and steps. It has now been placed in the Victoria Embankment Gardens, completely out of context.

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St George’s Hanover Square – and Its Remarkable Neighbour, Trinity Chapel

 

A marriage between the aristocratic hero and his true love in St George’s Hanover Square forms the climax of many a romantic historical novel, and I’ve used that scene myself. The church, completed in 1724, was built to serve the new and expanding residential area between Piccadilly and Tyburn or Oxford Road (now Oxford Street). These handsome streets and squares were a magnet for the upper classes in Society and handsome St George’s was the perfect place to be married or to have your children baptised. The 5th Earl of Jersey, husband of Lady Jersey one of the famous Patronesses of Almack’s, was a churchwarden here, although their marriage was a private one by special licence in their Berkeley Square house.

In a detail from John Roque’s map of 1747 (below) the new church sits with Burlington House to the South and Berkley (as it was then spelled) Square to the South West.

True, it is not in Hanover Square at all, but on the East side of George Street and its position gives the West front a cramped outlook, almost but not quite, looking down Maddox Street. The view at the top of the post (1812, from Ackermann’s Repository) is probably the best angle, then and now.

It is sometimes easy to forget that the occupants of these fashionable squares, great mansions and elegant terraces were serviced by a multitude of tradesmen, servants and labourers, all of whom ‘lived in’ with their employers or set up shop close by or who lodged within easy walking distance of their employment. St George’s was their church too and in between the glamorous christenings and marriages the humbler parishioners were in and out, tying the knot, naming their babies and being buried.

This was brought home to me by discovering my great-great-great grandfather James Wood marrying Mary Baldwin at St George’s. This was a surprise – James was a humble labourer turned chair mender and caner from Berkhamstead in Hertfordshire. What was he doing in London, let alone getting married in Mayfair? Then I discovered that he was a ‘servant’ (no idea what kind) of the Earl of Bridgewater whose country house was at Ashridge, close to Berkhamstead. The Earl had a London home in Albemarle Street (bottom, centre on the map), so presumably James Wood was there serving his employer in some capacity.

After that discovery ancestors marrying or having children baptised at St George’s in the 18th and early 19th century started appearing in large numbers – all from the concentration of piano makers in Marylebone, just North of Oxford Street. Possibly St George’s was seen as an aspirational place to be married because the Marylebone piano key makers, piano string makers, piano striker coverers and occasional dolls’ eyes makers did have other options in the various chapels of ease that had been built to help ease the pressure on the churches in these new and crowded districts.

One of those chapels  can be seen on the map on Conduit Street facing up George Street. This was Trinity Chapel and had one of the strangest histories of any London place of worship. A Chapel of Ease was a chapel either built before a parish church was in existence or added later to take the strain in a very large or crowded parish. This one started life as a moveable Roman Catholic chapel on wheels used by King James II. After he fled the country in 1688 to be replaced by William and Mary, the chapel was abandoned on Hounslow Heath where James had abdicated. Probably he took mass there in one of his last acts as king. It was transported to Conduit Street and turned into an Anglican Chapel of Ease on the initiative of Archbishop Tenison. Later it was acquired by bookseller and High Bailiff of Westminster James Robson, who had it demolished and rebuilt in brick, but because it was on leasehold land it was not eligible to be a parish church, hence the need for St George’s to be built. Unfortunately no images of the remarkable ‘traveling tabernacle’ seem to have survived and Trinity Chapel was demolished in 1875, the owner of the ground having decided that secular buildings would be more profitable.

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Filed under Architecture, Buildings, courtship & marriage, High Society, Love and Marriage, Religion

A Great Investment – Or an Incitement to Murder? The Tontine

According to the Oxford English Dictionary a tontine is “A financial scheme by which the subscribers to a loan or common fund receive each an annuity during his life, which increases as their number is diminished by death, till the last subscriber enjoys the whole income…” [From the name of Lorenzo Tonti who initiated the scheme in France c 1653].

At first tontines seem to have been large scale affairs, often state-organised, and the reward for investment was the annuity, never a share of the capital, but by the later 18th century the very large tontines were out of favour and they were becoming a device for smaller groups to raise investment for a particular scheme. By the early 19th century there also appear to have been tontines where everything, including the capital, devolves on the survivor. This, of course, makes a perfect motive for murder, even for tontines where the capital is never awarded, but the survivors’ annuities increase with the death of each member. Who would want to stand at the head of a staircase with a fellow tontine subscriber behind you?

My first encounter with the concept of the tontine was in the film The Wrong Box (1966) which was based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1889 novel of the same name. The heirs of the two elderly Masterman brothers – the sole survivors of a tontine – engage in a range of hilarious and illegal tricks when it seems that one of the brothers has been killed in a train crash.

A few reminders of the tontines remain in the UK, mainly in hotels called The Tontine. There is one is Glasgow, one in Peebles – and the one that reminded me of the whole subject, in Ironbridge, Shropshire.

Here it is at the foot of the famous Iron Bridge itself. The bridge itself was opened in 1784 and immediately became a huge draw for not only  engineers and iron masters but also early tourists. The men behind the bridge saw the opportunity to cash in on this early tourist attraction and formed a tontine to pay for building the hotel. Pioneer industrialists Abraham and Samuel Darby and John Wilkinson were amongst the members of the tontine, but I have not discovered who was the survivor who eventually owned the hotel for himself.

In New York the Tontine Coffee House (1793) was funded by 203 shares of £200 each – a substantial investment. The coffee house on the corner of Wall Street and Water Street became the heart of New York financial dealing – the birth of the stock exchange. In this picture it is shown on the left with the flag above.

Meanwhile I am left wondering if I can’t use a tontine in a murder plot…

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Scenes From a Regency Childhood – glimpses of a young Charles Darwin

This little boy is Charles Darwin, aged 7, painted in 1816. It is difficult sometimes to remember that great men and women, whose images we are so used to seeing when they are in their prime, actually had a childhood! Darwin is such a key figure in the Victorian world that coming across two locations that link to his childhood took me by surprise.

Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, in 1809 and he was baptised (despite his father being a free-thinker) in the church of St Chad’s in the town. St Chad’s was then a virtually new church, a stunning circular building built in 1792 and designed by Scottish architect George Steuart. In the interior view the altar and stained glass are Victorian additions – in Darwin’s youth there would have been a three-decker pulpit in the centre, in front of the altar steps.

I was hoping to see the font where Darwin was baptised, but that was a silver basin which was later replaced by this one in oolitic limestone. I love the fact that it is full of fossils, a clue to the evolution Darwin so controversially revealed.

One final Darwin childhood scene I discovered in Shrewsbury was this rather plain house on Claremont Hill.

The house was built in 1689 and between 1715 and the 1920s was the manse for the Unitarian minister for the town. Many of Darwin’s family were Unitarians and the house also served as a school giving non-Trinitarian teaching. Both Darwin and his sister attended here in 1817 and I could just picture them climbing those steps. It has another Darwin connection – the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was a candidate for the ministry here until a grant from Darwin’s grandfather, the potter Josiah Wedgwood, enabled him to work independently on his radial politics and philosophy.

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A Georgian Facelift

Georgian domestic architecture still impresses us today with its elegant formality, symmetry and fine detailing. Even modest terraces of Georgian houses command good prices and once inside we expect to find high ceilings and a regular ‘rational’ floor plan.

Here is the Square in the centre of the Shropshire town of Shrewsbury – all apparently Georgian with the exception of the medieval market hall just visible on the right and the modern clock tower looming over the rooftops.

But very often all is not as it seems when we view one of these handsome frontages and that was brought home to me when I saw this house, also in Shrewsbury.

The imposing frontage on the corner of Belmont and Belmont Bank dates from 1750, but it has been slapped onto the front of a half-timbered house that is at least a century older. The old house has had new sash windows inserted and the weight of a new front top floor is being carried on the roof beams of the old house. From the front it looks completely Georgian, although the strange brickwork on the side to disguise the jetties of the timber-framed house seems rather odd. But the game is given away the moment one sees it from the side, and as most of the traffic approaching it must have come from that direction it seems a strange economy not to replace both faces. Possibly this would have been structurally impossible, given the way the timber-framed house was constructed – the side face could not be cut back and the frontage was already right onto the pavement, so extending out to cover it was not a possibility.

One wonders just how many of the ‘Georgian’ houses we admire are simply refaced. I have seen some in Bury St Edmunds where the attractive Adam-style fanlights over the door reveal timber beams from the old structure behind them and there are certainly parts of London where entire streets retain early buildings hidden behind more ‘modern’ facades. Jermyn Street in the St James area, for example, appears Georgian and Victorian, but most of those frontages conceal the original 17th century houses. The shopfronts of Paxton & Whitfield (cheesemongers since the mid 18th century) and the historic perfumery firm of Floris are two examples. In Soho many frontages, such as those of Frith Street and Compton Street, conceal buildings of the early 17th century. You can be guided through St James and Soho in Walks through Regency London.

And it wasn’t only the Georgians who saved money by remodelling the exterior of houses, the Victorians did it too. When I was researching for Walking Jane Austen’s London I located two of Henry Austen’s London homes where Jane had stayed. One, in Sloane Street, has no Blue Plaque on at all, the other has one saying that the house, in Hans Square, is ‘on the site of’ Henry’s house. But in fact both of these are simply the Georgian ‘new-builds’ that Henry leased, remodelled and refaced in the late 19th century. Just after the war a researcher managed to gain entry to both and wrote a little book which I managed to track down in the British Library. It describes how the properties were refaced, additional floors added and in the case of the Hans Square House, the front door was moved. It is possible to glimpse the back of the Sloane Street house and see the octagonal room that Jane describes in a letter to her sister Cassandra as the scene of a party that Henry and his wife Eliza threw.

In the images the Sloane Street house is the one with the scaffolding (being remodelled yet again!). Here a new top floor has been added and the whole refaced in 1897. The Hans Square house was refaced in red brick, had a new top floor and the front door shifted in 1884.

 

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