Tag Archives: London squares

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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The Story of a Square 3: Lincoln’s Inn Fields

lincolns-inn0001

Lincoln’s Inn Fields is the largest square in London and records exist concerning it from the 14th century when it really was a field – or rather, two – Purse Field and Cup Field. They adjoined the west wall of the grounds of Lincoln’s Inn, one of the four Inns of Court, and were the natural playground for the legal students’ ball games. The survival of this vast open space in the middle of the city, surviving Stuart property developers and massive Victorian road improvements and slum clearance, is due to an early example of NIMBYism.

In the Middle Ages, and well into the 17th century, there was nothing resembling a civilized park – the fields were leased out as pasture and, occasionally, used as places of execution. In 1586 the Babington Plot conspirators were hanged, drawn and quartered there, Catholic martyrs were burned in the 1580s and Lord Russell was beheaded in about the centre in 1683 for his involvement in the Rye House Plot.

As London expanded outwards developers began to cast an eye over such a tempting expanse of open ground and the first attempt to build a house there was in 1613. This was successfully resisted by the Society of Lincoln’s Inn – lawyers powerful enough to influence the government on the subject. It was clear that improving the open space would assist in preserving this asset, so the Society and the neighboring parishes petitioned Charles I in 1617 that “for their general Commoditie and health [the fields should be] converted into walks after the manner of Morefeildes.” The proposal appealed to the King and the Privy Council supported the scheme “as a means to frustrate the covetous and greedy endeavors of such persons as dailye seeke to fill up that small remainder of Ayre in these parts with unnecessary and unprofitable Buildings.” Resistance to developers seems to be as strong then as it it now.

Neither development nor improvement as an ordered public space happened immediately, but in the 1630s the leaseholder of the fields petitioned the King to allow the building of 32 houses. After some wrangling the permission was granted but the developer agreed that the centre of the area was  “for ever and hereafter to be open and unbuilt.” The houses were built by 1641 and the area became a fashionable place to live despite the Fields themselves being a dangerous place with fights and robberies (and the odd execution) commonplace.

In 1716 John Gay wrote  in Trivia that, despite the square being railed, it was unwise to venture in at night. The beggar that the benevolent pedestrian had given coins to during the day would turn his crutch into a weapon at night “and fell thee to the ground” and the linkboy offering to guide him through the area will lead him into the clutches of robbers and “quench the flaming brand and share the booty with the pilfering band.”

Nell Gwynne had lodgings here, and another of Charles II’s mistresses, the Duchess of Portland, had a house. Numerous aristocrats, politicians and high-ranking lawyers lived around the Fields in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries but the person whose name is nowadays most closely associated with the square is the architect Sir John Soane. His house is now one of the most atmospheric and eccentric museums in London and is located in the middle of the north side. The print at the top of this post, from Ackermann’s Repository, shows the view from the north-west corner in 1810 and you can get more or less the same view today by standing at the point where Gate Street and Remnant Street enter the Fields. (The Remnant name reflects the fact that this was once the end of Great Queen Street before the Victorians drove Kingsway through the tangle of medieval streets to the west of the Fields.)

The tall buildings to the right of the print occupy the site of what is now the Royal College of Surgeons which contains the extraordinary Hunterian Museum, a fascinating, if gruesome place to visit for anyone interested in the history of surgery and anatomy.

Lincoln’s Inn Fields is included in Walk 7 of Walking Jane Austen’s London (an excellent stocking-filler for any history buff’s Christmas stocking!) As well as the two museums there are still a number of fine 18th century houses and the gardens themselves to enjoy – open to the public since 1894.

 

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The Story of a Square 2: Berkeley Square

Berkeley (or Berkley as it is often spelled on early maps) Square was built on the farmland owned by John, 1st Baron Berkeley of Stratton, a Royalist military commander in the English Civil War and close friend of James, Duke of York (later James III) who did very well for himself after the restoration of Charles II . Amongst other things he was a co-founder of the Province of New Jersey. Berkeley acquired extensive farmland to the north of the Exeter Road in London, now Piccadilly, and in 1665 he had a mansion built there. Today it would occupy the block bounded by Piccadilly, Stratton Street and Berkeley Street, with its gardens (partly designed by John Evelyn) stretching northwards. In the map below of 1682 ‘Berkley House’ can be seen just above the ‘ETC’  of The Road to Exeter Etc.’ (The area marked ‘St James Park’ is now known as Green Park.)

map-1682

Evelyn records that it cost “neare 30,000 pounds” and called it a “palace”. After Lord Berkeley’s death in 1678 his widow sold off strips at the side of the grounds to create Stratton Street and Berkeley Street, much to Evelyn’s disgust. Princess (later Queen) Anne occupied the house 1692-5 during a spat with her sister Queen Mary and in 1696 it was sold to the Duke of Devonshire and renamed Devonshire House. It was rebuilt after a fire in 1734/7 and this is the house that can been seen in Horwood’s map of 1799/1819. The reservoir in Green Park mentioned in a recent post can be seen at the bottom.

map-horwood

One of the conditions of the sale was that view over the land to the north of the gardens should be unobstructed and this is one reason why, when the area was developed, that Lansdowne House is set to one side with its gardens respecting the view from the rear of Devonshire House and there was no building along the south side of Berkeley Square.

The square was laid out in 1730 with houses on the east and west sides.The east side was the first to be built and was finished about 1738 and the west side was completed in 1745. Of these houses only the western side remains intact – the 1930s saw the replacement of the eastern side and the garden wall of Lansdowne House – and the site of Mr Gunter’s famous establishment in the south-east corner is now under a branch of Prêt. The customers still take their refreshments outside to eat under the plane trees – although rather less elegantly than Mr Gunter’s patrons would have done. It was originally the shop of Dominicus Negri, an Italian pastrycook, who set up there in 1757, trading as The Pot and Pineapple.

In the centre was  an equestrian statue of George III – a not very successful effort whose legs soon collapsed. It was replaced by the little pump house with a Chinese roof which has survived. The famous plane trees are perhaps the most striking survival of the Georgian square and were planted in 1789.

Ackermann’s Repository featured the square in September 1813 with this view which appears to be the south-west corner with the wall of Lansdowne House’s gardens in the background.

ackermann-1813

According to the text “This square is distinguished from all the others in the British metropolis by its situation on the side of a hill, which gently slopes from north to south. the houses on the north side are, upon the whole, rather mean; those which form the east and west sides, though many of them, individually, very good buildings, do not, from the want of regularity, appear altogether to such advantage as where greater attention is paid to that point, and where the site is more favourable to it… The area, which forms an oblong square, containing about three acres, is inclosed by an iron balustrade; and the inhabitants, after the example of their neighbours, have, of  late years, caused it to be planted extensively with shrubs, which have thriven very rapidly, and give a rural air to the whole.”

victorian

This late Victorian print shows the southern end of the square, looking west with the Lansdowne wall on the left.

Nowadays it needs some care to recapture the Georgian spirit of the square, but it can be done, especially when sitting in the shade of the plane trees and looking at the wonderful ironwork of the western side. But don’t expect to hear a nightingale singing in Berkeley Square – they probably flew off in the 1730s when the builders moved in!

You can visit Berkeley Square on the Mayfair walk in my Walking Jane Austen’s London.

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