The March of Bricks and Mortar

More on London squares. A couple of weeks ago I looked at the beginning of Rus in Urbe – the idea of the countryside  being  bought into the city and the way that it changed their layout and planting. What I didn’t say then was that in some ways the mixing of urban and rural wasn’t such a strange concept to Georgian Londoners.  Elements of the countryside were ever-present. As can be seen from contemporary images animals were still a frequent sight on the streets – and not just going to the markets or butchers. There were sheep in Cavendish Square and cows in St James Park where visitors could buy fresh milk direct from the dairymaids.

However by the end  of the 18thc  this was beginning to change and today’s post continues the story of London’s squares into the 19thc when the city expanded rapidly in what George Cruikshank satirised as the March of Bricks and Mortar. He could easily have added the march of shrubberies, iron railings, locks and keys.


As the 18thc went by Thomas Fairchild’s ideas, outlined in The City Gardener (1722),  of introducing the “Rural Manner” to the planting of squares began to take over from the earlier model of just gravel, grass and a few trees and shrubs. It often went hand in hand with private acts of Parliament which allowed the enclosure and planting of the square by its residents.

Grosvenor Square which as we saw in an earlier post, had been expensively planted by Sir Richard Grosvenor was described in 1740: ‘the inside is surrounded with Rails in an Octagonal [sic] Form, different from all the Squares in London; and agreeably planted with Dwarf-Trees, intermixed with fine Walks. In the Middle stands the Equestrian statue of King George I, finely gilt; which together with the noble Houses that are building, and those already finished, makes this the most magnificent Square in the whole Town.’  The planting was kept clipped with a maximum height of 8ft so that the first floor drawing rooms of the surrounding houses had uninterrupted views across the square.

By the 1770s this kind of planting was becoming outmoded, with John Stewart in his  Critical Observations on the Buildings and Improvements of London (1771) saying  that Grosvenor Square was surrounded by “a clumsy rail, with lumps of bricks for piers, to support it, at the distance of every two or three yards” which blocked “almost entirely the view of the sides” while  “the middle is filled up with bushes and dwarf trees, through which a statue peeps, like a piece of gilt gingerbread in a green-grocer’s stall.”

Shortly afterwards  the square’s residents  petitioned  for the right ‘to inclose the said Garden in a more substantial Manner, and to alter and embellish the same’.  The result was, according to a German visitor Carl Philipp Moritz –  that “in Grosvenor Square, instead of the green plot, or area, there is a little circular wood, intended, no doubt, to give one the idea of rus in urbe’.”  The wife of the American Ambassador, Abigail Adams,  described the changes in more detail : “in the middle of the square which is very spacious is a circular inclosure in which clumps of trees are planted which look like shrubbery as the trees are small and close together. Round them is the hedge which when cut has a very rural appearance. In the middle is the King on horse back. The whole is laid out into walks.” She went on to recount how “those who live in the square have a key to one of the gates which you may make use of for to walk.’  They needed a key because the square  now  had iron railings and was gated and locked.

Images of other squares show similar changes to their planting. By the 1790s  Soho Square, for example, had been replanted under the watchful eye of its most famous resident Sir Joseph Banks.

Down the road at  Lincoln’s Inn Fields the gardens were restructured into a “naturalistic scene” with “a double row of quicksett inside the railings”  and large numbers of ornamental trees.  This was partly as its most famous resident Sir John Soane noted “the most effectual mode of fencing it in so as to prevent nuisance”  [police advice to householders wanting to prevent burglary is still much the same…plant pyracantha & berberis under your windows!] Images of other squares show similar changes to their planting.

New squares too adopted this new, more secluded and private approach.  For example Portman Square was mainly  built in the 1760s and 1770s. The leases and rents  included an allowance for maintenance of the the central area which was railed, but proved insufficient for it ‘to be laid out as a Garden or Pleasure Ground’.  A private Act of Parliament of 1780 allowed  a rate to be charge and for the square to be  “laid out with proper Walks and otherwise embellished as a Pleasure Ground for the use of the Inhabitants, and a more effectual Provision made for preventing Nuisances and Annoyances therein.”   Similarly Dorset Square, also  part of  the Portman Estate had its own private Act in 1813 before much building had taken place,  which allowed the trustees to enclose and then lay out a circuit walk surrounded by shrubbery  and  perimeter planting of trees underplanted with more shrubs, making the square’s interior  private.

The overall effect of this was noticed by another German visitor to London, who noted in his Letters from Albion to a Friend on the Continent that the city’s squares were a great ornament to the city. “Country and town in the same spot is a charming idea. Fancy yourself in an extensive quadrangular area surrounded by the finest houses, and in the midst of its delightful plantations with walks, shrubberies and parterres of fragrant flowers, inclosed with an elegant iron railing, where ladies arranged in all the splendour of fashion are taking the air; where children sweet as Loves chase one another; and growing beauties, with chequered silk chords in their showy hands skip like zephyrs amongst the roses…then you will have a faint representation of these private promenades…. Thus the inhabitant of the square has a rural prospect before his eye without having to leave his house.”

detail of Belgrave Square, 1828 – the print is almost all about the grand houses but the thick perimeter planting is just caught on the edge

Of course the primary purpose of planting the square was to attract purchasers or tenants, and such was the interest that in some new squares the planting was actually done before the houses were built. At Tavistock Square [as can be seen clearly above] planting was started in 1803 but the houses only some years later so the planting was well established and provided a decent “rural” setting for the surrounding new terraces. That was also the case at both Euston Square which was started around 1811 and and Belgrave Square in the 1820s.

The continuing rapid development that led to Cruikshank’s cartoon was driven of course by the aristocratic estate owners out to capitalise on otherwise non-profitable landholdings.

We mustn’t assume, however, that everyone found this rapid urbanisation a pleasant experience.

For example the residents of Queen Square which had been deliberately left open on the north side to take advantage of the view out  towards Hampstead and Highgate must have been furious  when they heard that the governors of the nearby Foundling Hospital were planning to build on fields that they owned which meant  building across the view on the fourth side of Queen Square.   Work started in 1790 and despite the residents taking legal action against the governors by 1812 the terraces of Guildford Street  had been built and  their  views lost. Perhaps in compensation it was now quite lushly planted, becoming another example of rus in urbe – the Rural Manner  – as Thomas Fairchild had urged.

Similar sentiments must also have been felt by the residents of other squares which had been built on the edge of the city with immediate views over and access to surrounding countryside.

Guildford Street blocking the view

There was another significant change in the way that development happened.  The small-scale speculative builder of the 18thc began to give way now to a new sort of middleman, one who worked more closely with the landowner and took charge not just of small plots or terraces but whole swathes of an estate using his own workforce

The epitome of this group was  Thomas Cubitt.  He had started life as a ships carpenter but eventually set up his own building business in 1810 on Grays Inn Road.  He was extremely successful, and had a huge impact on the face of the capital, working with several of the great landed families to develop their estates but also eventually buying land and developing it himself.

As a result the fields of Bloomsbury began to disappear fast. The Duke of Bedford got a private act of Parliament and then got Cubitt to lay out  Tavistock and Gordon Squares.

The Duke’s statue on the edge of Russell Square. His interest in agriculture and horticulture can be seen as his hand is on a plough and the  four seasons are at his feet . Notice too the thick shrubbery & perimeter planting, 1809

Like his ancestors The Duke insisted on retaining control of the style of the housing  but also  took a very keen interest in the  “decorating” ie the planting and maintenance  – of the new squares on his estate. To make sure this was done to the right standard Cubitt even set up a nursery [top left on the plan above & now the site of the Quaker HQ on Euston Road] to supply the trees and shrubs for the Duke’s schemes.  It all helped the estate attract the right sort of tenant. While Bloomsbury did not attract that many aristocrats it proved a magnet for rich merchants like Mr Sedley in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, lawyers and  senior military men.  

[If you’re interested in knowing more about the residents there is a very good article on the Bloomsbury Project website on Russell Square and its inhabitants]

The new residents were given responsibility for the square’s maintenance and  powers to levy a rate to do so. As a result according to St James’s Magazine the square had the “vastness of Lincoln’s Inn Fields without its dinginess.” 

The Duke’s decision to insist on high standards was both profitable and well timed.  The Bedford estate rentals in Bloomsbury went from £13,000 in 1805 to £17,000 in 1806 and £25,000 in 1816.  By 1819 the rentals from their London properties were worth as much as all the other Bedford estates put together.  By 1880 their income from Bloomsbury was £66,000 year.  Not bad for what had previously been a few fields of poor pasture.

The outline of Belgravia detail from Faden’s 1819 edition of Horwood’s Map of London

The march of the bricks  slowed down a little at the height of the Napoleonic Wars but following that, and despite the economic recession,  began again in the 1820s.  Cubitt  now also began working for Richard Grosvenor, Viscount Belgrave [later Marquess of Westminster] laying out the grand stucco terraces and squares of Belgravia on the swampy ground between Westminster and Chelsea, which quickly became the most fashionable address in London.  Cubitt also built over the last major market garden area in inner London, the Neat Houses, laying out the  the slightly less grand streets of Pimlico.   [If   you’re interested in knowing more about Cubitt take a look at Hermione Hobhouse’s “Thomas Cubitt Master Builder” 1971.]

Wilmington and Northampton Squares near the Angel                                                                                 detail from Faden’s 1819 edition of Horwood’s Map of London

While Cubitt was building fairly centrally, other developments using the square format were spreading much beyond that.  A good place to see the extent of this spread into the suburbs is Richard Horwood’s map of London, which first appeared in 1799 with more editions until the 4th updated by William Faden in 1819.  This is available in printed form as the A-Z of Regency London, but also on line

But the bricks went marching far beyond the boundaries of Horwood’s map and squares sprang up anywhere that was designed to appeal a better class of new residents.   To the West  through Chelsea, Knightsbridge and Kensington . To the North to Marylebone,  St Pancras, Clerkenwell, and Islington. They went east to Hackney and Bethnal Green, and south of the river through Lambeth and Southwark    As W.Weir commented in 1844:  “In all the suburbs, squares are now springing up like mushrooms.”

Of course as Todd Longstaffe-Gowan points out in The London Square these  more “suburban developments were not often as grand and ambitious as earlier schemes, but tended to be more modest and as he puts it “were as a consequence, frequently mere incidents in, rather than the principal objectives of, new development.”

Apart from the greater use of shrubberies, perimeter  and planting to allow  great privacy to users, many, if not most of these new developments were also railed and gated to keep out the hoi polloi.  This is well recorded in images like the one below. Indeed so, by now, were almost all the older squares and they were not unique in that regard. All across the city other open spaces, including churchyards, were increasingly restricting access if they could, and 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. The struggle to allow any form of public access again was a long and convoluted struggle, but meanwhile the march of bricks and mortar across the rural outskirts of London continued unabated and I’ll continue the story soon.



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