Before the Square


I’m often asked to talk about the history of London’s squares and I always wonder what causes this almost endless fascination.  Of course there’s no doubt that, as the London Gardens Trust says,  “squares are one of the defining features of London. Like other European cities, London has its grand civic spaces, but no other city has developed the garden square in quite the same way.”

They have survived changes in taste and style, war and reconstruction and all the vicissitudes of finance and management problems. I suspect that is largely due to their spatial integrity which has  largely remained intact despite  the street scene changing drastically over the past 400 years.  We have seen buildings refaced, redeveloped or replaced, trees, shrubs, paths, lighting, and railings have come and gone,  but despite everything the successful combination of architecture and horticulture has somehow survived.

Over the next few weeks I’m going to look at London squares and their history beginning today with  “where did the idea for a square come from?”

Todd Longstaffe-Gowan  in his  book on the London Square is clear that the square was not a random discovery or the spontaneous creation of public spirited aristocrats in an age of taste but a hybrid of various different antecedents, including cloister gardens, college quadrangles, closes, sheep walks, paddocks and waste common ground. And its success comes from the idea of creating a unified residential set-piece, focused on a large open space surrounded by a reasonably uniform architectural framework.

The result was as  Anne Scott-James said  “ a London specialty with no counterpart abroad… The London square…is one of the most comfortable garden ideas since the turf seat!  [Anne Scott-James and Osbert Lancaster, The Pleasure Garden 1977]

Gardens obviously existed in medieval London.  The court and ecclesiastical elite had grand gardens attached to their palaces along the Strand or, like their commercial counterparts, in their city mansions.  They were of course largely private. So too were the cloister gardens of convents and monasteries, the Inns of Court and the city livery companies, which were enclosed and  inward-looking spaces, either courtyards within buildings or walled in spaces attached to them.

 For the ordinary people there was little by way of private space of any sort. Instead for work or exercise they had the street, the churchyard and the common fields outside the city walls where there were communal rights of way, where their animals could graze, and they could spread their washing out to dry & which were used for fairs, markets and sport.

Another piece of ground also originally used for games and other recreational activity, as well as rubbish dumping, was  at Gray’s Inn, one of the legal Inns of Court on the north west fringes of the city.

Bewteen 1587 and 1608 under the aegis of Francis Bacon, lawyer, philosopher and future Lord Chancellor, this was  made into a garden with associated walks and mounts.  The garden was quite quickly surrounded by new buildings for the Inns  &  attracted attention because it was relatively public, setting it apart from the secluded cloisters and courts of the City.

As Grays Inn was being finished the city fathers began  the laying out of new public walks in 1606 on some of the common fields outside the city wall at what is now Moorgate.  These walks were  lined with elm trees, surrounding railed-in grass squares.  No sooner was Moorfields part-completed but the people who had previously used it for their washing, strolling, archery, horse-riding, rubbish dumping and everything else you can think of, found themselves without space to do any of these things. 

They rebelled.  Rails were broken, washing was hung on trees and rubbish was still dumped.  The corporation responded by introducing the first bylaws and appointed keepers to enforce them. The fields were finally completed in 1618 but not before encroachments against the walls which give a more “square-like” feel to them.

Shortly afterwards  developers began eyeing up Lincoln’s Inn Fields, so the lawyers of Society of Lincoln’s Inn began planning ways  to preserve the common land beside its Inn setting them out with “faire and goodlye walkes which would be of greate ornament to the Citie, pleasure and freshness for the health and recreation of the Inhabitants thereabout, and for the sight and  delight of Embassadors and Strangers coming to our Courte and Cittie, and a memorable worke of our tyme to all posteritie”.

In 1638 William Newton proposed building 32 elegant large houses facing the fields and gradually, with interruptions caused by the Civil War, other houses were built  to complete three sides with the walls of the Inn itself forming the fourth.  The central area of the fields  became a public space laid out with gravel walks and areas of grass surrounded by a low wooden fence.

You will note that I said public space and that’s indeed what it remained… although here were some barriers it’s pretty clear from Hollar’s images that anybody could still use them- and here again on his map of the west end of c,.1658-with many worn paths, although there were soon fears that   the inhabitants felt “almost quite deprived of their former walking, training, drying of clothes and recreating themselves in the said fields.”

from Hollar’s Great Central Map 1658                                                                                                                   – the speculative building development around the fields is beginning to look “square-like”

So the idea of enclosing common fields for “recreational” use was catching on. But in 1630 things had gone  one stage further when  the  earl of Leicester acquired the lease on common fields that became known as Leicester Fields. He applied for permission from the king to build his own private house  and lease the remainder for building.


This would have deprived the ordinary inhabitants of St Martins in the Fields of their “local” open space and they petitioned the king and Privy Council to prevent him doing so. Eventually the  Privy Council ordered that although the earl could build his own house on the north side, it was  only  on condition that 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 sued as they now are.”    But never trust a property developer, especially an aristocrat who was short of money because  eventually of course the earl negotiated building leases on other plots around the fields but the central section remains as Leicester Square today.

[For more on Leicester Square and its history see this earlier post]

So those are some examples of how common fields were enclosed and improved, now lets look at enclosures formed by regular buildings – the other factor that Longstaffe-Gowan notes as being key to the development of the square as a building form. It’s here,  that we first encounter the Russell family who play such a large part in the history of the London square.

The first and by far the most influential of these new enclosed developments was Covent Garden, completed in 1631.    Francis Russell 4th Earl of Bedford obtained his permission from Charles I on condition that the buildings he put up were suitably grand. 

To make sure that was the case Russell commissioned Inigo Jones to design the new up-market housing scheme, which came complete with St Paul’s Church.  Jones  based his scheme on developments he had seen in  Paris and the result was the Covent Garden Piazza, the first formal square in London, although it actually only was 3 sided, the church, and the north and east terraces.

The southern side was the back wall of Bedford’s garden, so that the earl could see into it from his garden terrace.  [You can see  the earl’s garden wall with its banqueting houses at either end very clearly on Hollar’s birds-eye map below].  The square/piazza was paved, with drains that took the water into the earl’s garden to power his fountains there.  In the centre of the square was planted a small tree surrounded by wooden benches although this was dug up after the Restoration and in 1668 replaced by a  stone sundial on a column.

Next in line in this fashion for grand developments was a 1647 scheme  by the Earl of Southampton for “a noble square or piazza or little town” on the fields of Bloomsbury.    It was the first to be called officially a Square.

Named originally, surprise surprise, after its owner, as Southampton Square, it soon became better known as Bloomsbury Square.  There was  a grand house for the earl with its  forecourt opening onto one side of a square that was surrounded by elegant terraced housing.

However 1647 wasn’t an auspicious time to start a new development and the looming Civil War soon put a stop to its completion and even in 1665 when John Evelyn visited it was still incomplete.

Meanwhile immediately after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 plans began to shape up for the next major development, this time  in the fields  next to St James Palace and Park.  Charles II has a reputation as a jovial monarch who was on easy terms with everyone and who walked in the park alongside his people, but that is only part of the story because he certainly did not want to live alongside them. Instead he decided to  create a cordon sanitaire around St James Palace to provide an elegant setting for the royal parks and to segregate the court from the hoi polloi.  To achieve this he granted land to courtiers with permission to build.  Prime amongst them was Henry Jermyn, Earl of St Albans who was a well travelled and cultivated man. He had been to France and Spain on embassies and had seen the latest architectural fashions there and they doubtless influenced his designs for what was to become St James square.

The aim of this development was to create a spacious place “for the conveniency of the Nobility and gentry who were to attend on your majesties Person and in parliament”… because in St Alban’s view “ye beauty of this great towne and ye convenience of yr courte are defective in point of Houses fitt for ye dwellings of Nobel men and other persons of quality.”

The original plan was for a small number – 13 or 14 -of very large houses to be clustered around an open central area. In the end the money wasn’t there to finance that and instead Jermyn subdivided some of the plots to increase the number to just over 20. The new scheme also included some “meaner streets” leading into the square or adjacent to it for shopkeepers and tradesmen who were to serve the aristocrats within their uniform range of “Pyatzaz Houses”.  It would also include a separate market area thus it would not be socially or architecturally homogenous but it would be instead something more like a complete residential quarter or what Evelyn called “a little town”.   Of course the earl did not want to dirty his hands with the work of actually organising or supervising the construction so that was delegated to middlemen, usually a specialised craftsman or builder.

These great  elite building schemes established what architectural critic and historian John Summerson identified as the 3 clear principles of development that determined the shape of post-Restoration London squares. 

The first was the principle of an aristocratic lead figure who built his own house on the site and lived in it . The second was the principle of a complete development which in addition to the square itself had  secondary streets and perhaps  a market and a church. The third was that generally in order to finance the scheme there was a speculative builder  who acted as a middleman.  They leased  land to and from the owners,  usually for 99 years and at a low ground rent. They built quickly and cheaply, and then rented or more usually sold the leases, recouping their outgoings while the landowner knew that the property would revert to their estate in due course.

 These early schemes also effectively coincided with two great disasters.  The Great Plague of 1665 which killed many Londoners, & the Great Fire the following year which made more than 100,000 homeless.  For the owners of the fields around London, and  for developers these events could not have come at a better time. For after them wealthy Londoners did not want to return to the cramped, dangerous conditions of the old city, and were attracted by the healthier, more spacious way of life offered by living outside the City walls, indeed well away from the city completely…. and we’ll continue the story soon.

Leicester Square c1753


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1 Response to Before the Square

  1. Pingback: Fair and Square | The Gardens Trust

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