Speculation and ‘the Rural Manner’

Last week I discussed the origins of London squares and looked at the earliest examples.   Today I’m going to look at what happened after the Great Fire of 1666  when the balance of the city’s population shifted to the suburbs and particularly to the western ones  where air pollution was less severe.   It coincided with the withering away of royal control over building licences  so that landowners became free to capitalise on their estates almost at whim.      This quickly led to a speculative building boom in which  landowners leased sites to speculative builders, usually for 99 years at a low ground rent,  who did the dirty work and took the risks.  The result was that the new squares and their adjacent terraced streets became the foundations for the shape of modern London.  

It began in Soho where a whole series of squares and terraces were built  from the 1670s onwards, largely thanks to these speculative developers.  Many of these were on the sites of aristocratic mansions:  “Albemarle House is sold for Thirty three thousand pounds and to be put into a great square as So Hoe is; Leaster House and Nuporte House and Worcester are all upon the sale”  Leicester House was on Leicester Square and Newport and Worcester Houses were in Soho.

Prominent amongst the speculative developers was the flamboyant and larger-than-life Nicholas Barbon who was a ruthless exploiter of anything and anyone he could get his hands on.  Building standards were low to put it mildly. Here are just a few extracts from the archives:  “Dr Barbon is now carrying on a sewer from the buildings newly erected in the place called the Military ground if the same be not prevented their houses will be drowned”.    “Alterations lately made  by Dr Barbon” to drains caused them to be “foundred in and broken downe to ye emminent damage and danger”.   “Ever since the new houses have been made they have been grievously annoyed with water in their cellars”. So perhaps you can see why Barbon thought squares a waste of useful building space and only included them if he had no choice.  


It was not just Soho, but the other outer fringes of the city where squares began springing up.  The Corporation of London was keen to attract back residents after the Great Fire so encouraged the copying of west end building styles in the hope of getting the wealthy to move back into the walled city.  Crosby Square off Bishopsgate was laid out in 1671, Devonshire Square was developed by Barbon from 1680, with Heydon Square, New Square and Bridgewater Square in the 1680s.

Unfortunately it didn’t work because most of these city developments tended to be small and less regular than their west end counterparts.  They were however noticeably better designed than the higgledy-piggledy maze of alleys and courts all around them.

In  the area immediately north there were Hoxton Square 1683, Webbs Square 1684, Charles square 1685, further east were Wellclose and Princes Squares while  to the far west was Kensington Square near what was about to become Kensington Palace.

But Barbon almost met his match in Bloomsbury. When he acquired the lease on Red Lion Fields, just north of Holborn in the 1680s he originally intended to build all over them but he was “compelled to break his design and model” and leave a “square” [actually a narrow rectangle] opening in the centre of his new development when the lawyers of Gray’s Inn took notice and they tried to find “fitt expedients to hinder and obstruct the intended building and the burning of bricks”.

Nothing worked so “the gentlemen of Graies Inn went with  a considerable body of one hundred persons;  upon which the workmen assaulted the gentlemen and flung bricks at them,  and the gentlemen at them again in this skirmish one or two of the gentlemen and servants of the house were hurt,  and severall of the workmen.” The Privy Council Register records the provocation of “the said Barbon [who] marched about the fields in the head of two hundred men, shouting and hallowing by way of challenge exorting them that they should not be discouraged for he would back them with a thousand the next morning.”

Eventually, however, Barbon was allowed to build but conceded just one point and left the elms in the field as the centrepiece of his new square. I doubt it ever looked quite as immaculate as in the print above. 

This pattern of urban development was continued into the 18thc.  Cavendish Square, just north of what is now Oxford Street, was begun around 1717, and faced open countryside and the Marylebone Basin.

It  was centred on a grand open square,  and was intended to have a grand mansion on one side for the Duke of Chandos as well as its own church and market. It was built in line with Hanover Square, establishing the pattern of streets in the area and making Marylebone into a new and fashionable part of London. 


In Bloomsbury the early 18thc is marked by the laying out of Queen Square – again an unusual development because it was only 3 sided, with the 4th northern side left open for the views to Highgate and Hampstead.

What  all these new western suburban had in common and  why they all quickly increased in popularity was their reputation as  pleasant, airy places to live with many set on the edge of fields and with views of the open countryside.  However although by the late 17thc it had become almost standard practice for all new buildings in the fashionable parts of the capital to be supplied with fresh water in pipes and to be linked to a mains sewer,  little consideration was given to what went on in the enclosed square space in front and  very few were great horticultural achievements  especially in the early days– even in prints which tended to be very flattering.   They are just unplanted open space.  Just one or two – notably Soho and Golden Squares proved  the exception in having planned gardens with funding for maintenance.  

By the 1720s many of the other squares had become choked with rubbish and the focus of crime and anti-social behaviour. With no-one accepting responsibility for the central area, apart perhaps from an absentee freeholder. Most were poorly maintained and open to abuse by both the public and the square’s own residents. Covent garden piazza, for example, was full of shops, temporary stalls , sheds, and had pits dug for wells and bog-houses. This painting is I’m sure a polite version of reality.

Bloomsbury Square, Lincolns Inn Fields and Leicester fields were sites of “great mischief” and the resort of “many wicked persons” and the filthy conditions in St James’s Square led its wealthy residents in the 18th century to petition Parliament for more control.  The square had they said a “common laystall for dust, and for the refuse of kitchens and dead animals;” and, worse than all, because less easily dispossessed, we are told that a coach-maker had the audacity to put up a shed some thirty feet in length, and to pile a stack of wood in the area.

The resulting legislation The St James’s Square Act of 1726 created a board of trustees with the power to make a regular charge on residents for the maintenance of the square.   It gave residents the ability to ‘clean, repair, adorn and beautify’ the square. Watchmen were appointed and Charles Bridgeman redesigned the space adding a large basin of water at the centre, surrounded by eight stone obelisks bearing lamps. Iron railings replaced the old wooden fences in 1728.

This was a turning point, and many other squares followed suit with their own private Acts of Parliament.  It was a real sign of the part that the square was to play in defining the segregation of social classes in the city.  In the early modern city all classes had lived cheek by jowl with little distinction but the square offered the opportunity for self-contained private housing, a sort of domestic isolation from others, and it offered private open space shared with people of similar status, wealth and interests.    This increasing separation of the elite and upper middle class from more lowly folk was later to be one of the factors that influenced the rise of the public park.

By the 18th mid-century many but by no means all of London’s garden squares had enclosed gardens, open only to resident key-holders. The transformation of previously open semi-public areas into closed  and largely private ones marks another major aspect of the square’s particular character.  Of course greater control of access not only allowed squares residents to increase security, but also  helped improve the condition of squares and their gardens because there was less danger of vandalism and dumping.

However the enclosed square was not just being physically improved but socially improved too. Enclosure of space = control of space.  As contemporary architectural writer James Ralph put it:  “Enclosure protects the square from the rudeness of the populace” and as the poet John Clare was later to remark creates “a wider space between the genteel and the vulgar race”.

As the squares were being bought into this new form of control a Hoxton nurseryman Thomas Fairchild in his book The City Gardener of 1722 was proposing other solutions to the problem: namely planting them as gardens or imitations of the countryside in the city –& urged the owners of squares to adopt ‘the Rural Manner’ with groves of trees, fountains and shady walks.” This became known as rus in urbe or the country in the town.

Fairchild’s plan

“I think some sort of Wilderness-Work [in squares] will do much better, and divert the Gentry better than looking out of their Windows upon an open Figure.”   His book included a model plot for a square, which might think rather contrived and odd but it would certainly have been different at the time!  Fairchild’s suggestions were taken up by Sir Richard Grosvenor, who was in the process of developing Grosvenor Square.

He spent nearly £3000 on the garden which included a mile of elm hedging, 4,100 turfs, 2635 shrubs, plants and evergreens and 3000 flowering shrubs.    A contemporary thought the square “is certainly laid out in very expensive Taste, and hitherto kept with great Decency and Neatness;  The making it circular is new in Design and happy in Effect”, although while “the Statue in the Centre makes a very good appearance in Prospect and is a fine decoration…  in itself is in no way Admirable, or deserving of much Applause.”  Nevertheless the garden apparently overshadowed the surrounding buildings which were condemned as “little better than a collection of Whims, and Frolicks in Building without anything like Order or Beauty.”

But fashions change and in 1771 architectural critic John Stewart complained that “almost every other square in London seems formed on a quite different plan; they are gardens, they are parks, they are sheep-walks, in short they are everything but what they should be. The rus in urbe is a preposterous idea at best; a garden in a street is not less absurd than a street in a garden.”

Nevertheless Fairchild’s idea of bringing the country into the town set the tone for the 18thc  square, and was commented on very favourably by foreign visitors as well as being popular with residents.

The result was that landowners, architects  and speculators drew up plans for many more.  There was even a plan to put a new royal palace in Hyde Park and turn the park into a giant square around it.

In Bloomsbury the Russell family  also decided to develop their estate but taking even more control than their counterparts in the West End did,  laying down  a set of rigid rules to govern development on their estate.

Their architect Thomas Leverton set a new trend with the first project, Bedford Square, where all the houses were built to a unified design. According to architectural historian Andrew Saint  this made Bedford Square “a golden example of what the classical ideal and an authoritarian landlord could achieve together.”


The success of the Bedford estate  mixture of open aspects but a uniform building design for each square almost certainly encouraged the spread of the idea to neighbouring landowners. Fitzroy Square appeared within a grid of streets north of Oxford Street to designs by Robert Adam and from the 1790s Mecklenburgh and Brunswick Squares went up on the Foundling estate.

The Foundling Hospital estate, with the hospital itself in the middle,1811 from Todd Longstaffe-Gowan’s  The London Square

This was ostensibly to increase the standing and setting of the hospital but of course equally important it was to raise money. Again the hospital’s architect took a central role in establishing the street layout and insisted that the square was the key part of the pattern. It was also a good example of how the whole could be completed in sections and not depend on the success of the other parts before it could be built.

Yet there is a downside to everything as always.  Social segregation was increasing. So were Crime and public disorder at least in the public mind. There were fears that squares could become a focus for riots. Security measures were stepped up, with watch patrols and extra lighting. During the Gordon Riots in 1780, troops assembled in squares and rioters burned down the house of the Lord Chief Justice in Bloomsbury Square.[There’s no picture of that but the one above should serve!]

Iron railings became increasingly commonly used, allowing views into the square but keeping the public out. In some places this improved matters: Grosvenor Square installed railings in 1774 in place of a high ‘fence-wall’, which had concealed the garden entirely. By 1800, Lincoln’s Inn Fields was the only one of the great squares which was still completely open to the public and even that was locked very soon afterwards and the edges thickly planted to prevent passers-by peering in.

We should not think that the squares were unique in that regard. All across the city other open spaces were increasingly restricting access if they could, and this include churchyards.  The first locks and keys I found when researching this date from the Civil War but by the mid-18thc almost every churchyard was locked during the day apart from services and burials, with access restricted to a small number of key holders. Locking squares had some advantages – for the key holders of course. They could now do more imaginative things in the grounds.

More on the development of London’s squares soon…



About The Gardens Trust

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