We think our public parks are suffering from neglect but even after years of austerity and poor maintenance they haven’t quite fallen into the same state of decay as the well-known public space being described here in a book named Gaslight and Daylight, published in 1859 by George Augustus Sala, a friend of Charles Dickens and a contributor to his magazines.
“There was no grass, but there was a feculent, colourless vegetation like mildewed thatch upon a half-burnt cottage. There were no gravel-walks, but there were sinuous gravelly channels and patches, as if the cankerous earth had the mange. There were rank weeds heavy with soot. There were blighted shrubs like beggars’ staves or paralytic hop-poles…on their withered branches, strange fruits- battered hats of antediluvian shape, and oxidised saucepan lids… The surrounding railings, rusty, bent, and twisted as they were, were few and far between. The poor of the neighbourhood tore them out by night, to make pokers. In the centre, gloomy, grimy, rusty, was the Statue – more hideous (if such a thing may be) than the George the Fourth enormity in Trafalgar Square – more awful than the statue of the Commendatore in Don Giovanni.”
That’s a bit of a difference from this painting of the same place just a few decades earlier! You might be surprised to find out where it was.
Sala’s gruesome description was of Leicester Square in the heart of London’s West End and it was a sad indictment of what had once been an elegant aristocratic residential area.
Until the 1630s the area had been common fields used for grazing and drying laundry. Then development began and eventually becoming home to the Prince of Wales and whatever the collective noun is for a host of earls, before slowly transforming into a cultural quarter with theatres, museums and restaurants moving in. But at the same time the central space became grimly decayed and squalid just as Sala described. Saved from complete destruction in the late 19thc it has been struggling, not always very successfully, to claw its way back up, although it will, in my humble opinion, probably never qualify as elegant again. [That will have the Friends of Leicester Square ,if there are any, down on my head like a ton of bricks!]
So today’s post is the story of the rise and fall of Leicester Square, which as you can see from the image above isn’t actually a square at all, but still largely retains the shape of the original mediaeval field.
Owned by the crown after the dissolution of the monasteries it was sold to the earl of Leicester in 1630 who decided that he wanted to build himself a grand house there. The idea caused a considerable upset and the local inhabitants petitioned the king to stop him developing further.
The Privy Council acted as arbiters between the two sides and hit on a compromise. The earl could build on one side provided he also “improved the nether part of the fields by casting it into tree-lined walks and leaving fitt spaces…for the inhabitants to dry their clothes there as they were wont to do, and to have free use of the place but not to depasture it, and all the footways through that close to be used as they now are.”
Leicester House was finally finished just before the Civil War and occupied most of the north side of the site, with a large garden to the west of the house.
But never trust a property developer, especially an aristocrat who was short of money, because, eventually, it was depastured and footpaths closed while building leases were negotiated on other plots all around the fields.
By the 1670s the southern part of the fields had been laid out as Leicester Square, with elegant terraced houses, and a central area laid out with wooden railings, grass plots and elm trees, to form an aristocratic enclave to rival St James and Piccadilly. According to Weinreb & Hibbert’s London Encyclopaedia, it was home to a count of earls [I kid you not – that is apparently the collective noun] including Ailesbury, Sunderland , Rockingham, Scarsdale, Westmorland and Deloraine, and consequentially a centre of the capital’s social and political life.
Indeed it went one level better, reaching the height of its prestige when the Prince of Wales, later George II, took a lease on Leicester House in 1717 after a row with his father, George I. He remained there until he succeeded to the throne in 1727. History then repeated itself a few years later as he, in turn, quarrelled with his own son Frederick and threw him out of St James Palace. The Prince and his wife, Princess Augusta also ended up at Leicester House.
Later in 1747 an equestrian statue of George I was installed in the centre, either by Frederick [to annoy his father?] or the earl of Ailesbury. The statue probably came from the sale of Cannons, the Duke of Chandos’s great house at Edgware, which was sold off piecemeal in 1747 after his death. Ailesbury was one of his heirs. This is the statue described by Sala.
Frederick died in 1751 but Augusta remained at Leicester House with the her eldest son, the future George III, until he becme king in 1760, while her younger sons lived in other houses on the square.
As the century progressed the aristocrats were joined gradually by others, less socially elite, but probably more renowned – including artists like Hogarth, Joshua Reynolds and John Singleton Copley.
A few commercial premises also started to appear and then in 1774, in a sign of what was to come for the whole district, now that royalty had departed, Leicester House was leased to the gentleman naturalist and collector Ashton Lever .
Lever bought his huge collection to London and opened the house as a museum. He also turned the gardens into an archery range and with some friends formed the Toxophilite Society in c1780.
Eventually the Leicester estate was partitioned and sold off by the heirs. Leicester House itself was sold and demolished in 1791 for building materials. Attempts were made to build a magnificent opera house in its stead but it failed to materialise and the site was used for housing.
In 1808 the gardens in the centre were also sold by the Leicester estate, for the comparatively paltry sum of £210, but the new owner failed to do any maintenance. The square was sold on several times, and even divided, but none of the new proprietors took any interest so the gardens became overgrown and moves began to build over them.
The gardens only survived because of a landmark law-case [Tulk v Moxhay 1848] which ruled that a restrictive covenant can “run with the land” (i.e. future owners are subject to the restriction). One of the earlier land sales had a covenant which said that it had to remain “uncovered with buildings”. Without that clause there would probably be no Leicester Square today.
It didn’t help that traffic increased drastically with the opening of New Coventry Street right across the top of the square in the early 1840s. But traffic bought trade, and theatres, hotels, bathhouses, shops and exhibition centres opened replacing, or inside, what had been private houses. They thrived and the area became one of the major centres of entertainment in the capital.
But by then part of the central ground of the square had been leased by James Wyld, a mapmaker and former MP, who in 1851 built the Great Globe. This was an enormous hollow sphere – 60 feet in diameter – described by Punch as “a geographical globule” with a central gantry which the public could climb to “take in at one swallow” the earth’s physical features, such as rivers and mountains, built to scale and modelled in plaster on the globe’s inside surface.
One downside of Wyld’s enterprise was that most of the square had to disappear underneath it. What happened to the statue is not totally clear but in all likelihood it was buried in a special pit underneath the Globe to await a potential resurrection at the end of the lease.
George Sala thought the whole thing a great improvement: “Where now is a lofty dome was once… a howling desert enclosed by iron railings”. It had been, he continued, a place where …”Men told, holding their breath, of cats run wild in its thickets, and grown as large as leopards. There was no garden, and if any man possessed a key to the enclosure, he was too frightened to use it. People spoke of a dragon, a ghoule, a geni, who watched over the square, and for some fell purpose kept it desolate. Some said, the statue was the geni; but in 1851, when the Globe was proposed, he showed himself to the world, howled dismally, and did furious battle to keep his beloved Square intact in all its ruin and desolation. This geni, or dragon’s name was… Vested Interests. [ie the previous owners who had enforced the covenant] He was vanquished.”
Although Wyld’s Globe was initially successful by the end of the lease it was losing money and so was taken down and sold for scrap. At least it meant that the statue of George I was uncovered again, albeit in a somewhat battered state. In 1862 the horse was found lying on its side, while His Majesty’s body was incomplete and in pieces. It was re-erected but didn’t outlast the Globe by very long. Vandalised and mocked endlessly it too was sold for scrap for just £16 in 1866.
The end of the Globe didn’t improve matters and the space was became an eyesore once again, and reported to be “the playground of the unwashed Arabs of Westminster who disported themselves at their own will among the putrefying remains of dogs and cats.”
At that point the fate of the square looked pretty desperate, when suddenly out of the blue in 1874 a white knight stepped in to save the day.
Albert Grant was quite an unlikely character to fill that role. He was a Conservative MP but also a financial fraudster on a grand scale and thought to have been the model for Augustus Melmotte, the corrupt central character of Anthony Trollope’s novel, The Way We Live Now, published in 1874 when Grant’s career was at its height. [Great book btw if you haven’t read it!]
Grant was born Abraham Gottheimer in Dublin in 1830, but changed his name just before his marriage in 1863. In 1868 the King of Italy made him an Italian baron, ostensibly because he had enabled the construction of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan, although bribery is equally likely! Grant made – and lost – several fortunes largely by the promotion of ‘bubble’ companies which were financially unsound and involved shareholders in enormous losses.
Nevertheless he bought the square for £11, 600 and commissioning James Knowles to lay it out as a proper public space, at a cost of a further £17,0000. It opened in July 1874 with great ceremony and he then gave it to the Metropolitan Board of Works.
A plaque on the central statue/fountain of Shakespeare [the only public monument in London to Shakespeare alone and copied from one in Westminster Abbey] records Grant’s donation. Busts of four great former inhabitants of the square, Hogarth, Reynolds, Newton and the famous surgeon John Hunter, were placed in the corner. In 1981 they were joined by Charlie Chaplin.
Why did Grant do it? It was hugely expensive and although never actually accused of criminal wrongdoing, he was facing a series of civil suits from disgruntled punters and in the end declared bankruptcy in 1879. Was he trying to hold onto some of his reputation and ensure a lasting legacy? Certainly there were those who expected him to lose his parliamentary seat and believed he hurried the opening so that the plaque on Shakespeare’s statue could still read “donated by Albert Grant MP”.
In fact although he scraped home in the 1874 election he was quickly unseated for fiddling his election expenses. Apparently while the opening ceremony was underway sandwich-board men paraded around the square with signs saying “A title without honour is a barren grant”. Slippery to the end Baron Grant avoided justice and poverty by putting a large part of his money into his wife’s name. This meant he could retire to a stately pile outside Bognor where he lived in considerable comfort for another 20 years, and not dying until 1899. And the plaque remains in place.
Once Grant’s gift ensured the survival of the square, more theatres joined the mix around the new gardens, including the Empire in 1884, and then the Hippodrome in 1900. Many of these were converted into cinemas in the early-mid 20thc. By then all the elegant buildings had long gone and by the time Pevsner wrote his Penguin Guide in 1962, their replacements got very short shrift.
Poor old Leicester Square was dismissed architecturally as “a discrepant uneasy lot”, while the gardens are “small and au fond intimate with grass plots and plenty of seats naively arranged…and the most unpretentious of monuments that a capital has ever put up to the greatest national poet and four bedraggled busts in the corners.”
Since then its quality as a green space has declined further, although it was extensively refurbished and remodelled for the 2012 London Olympics, at a cost of more than £15m. Not only were the pedestrian areas “outside” increased in size but the whole space made available for commercial hire, and this includes for substantial amounts of time at Christmas in particular. Nevertheless the scheme by Burns + Nice won the Landscape Award President’s Award in 2013. It is however no longer Leicester Square but Leicester Square City Quarter.
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Leicester Square (used) to be a spot where you could see one of the great sights of London, the curious ever changing cloud of starlings that billows around and about as the sun sets over the capital. Do the starlings still appear each year and make this performance, I know at one time there was a campaign to stop there annual roost in the trees of Leicester square, because they made a mess. Of course that was about the time the four busts were ‘restored’ which seemed to have been done by dunking their features in acid, all detail melting away.
Of course no ‘real’ Londoner would be seen dead in Leicester Square, but another great site were the Wilson, Kepple and Betty impersonators that used to entertain the crowds for the cinemas, but now I’m really showing my age.