Fair and Square

Over the last couple of months I’ve done a series of posts about the history of the London square.  We looked at the origins of the square as an architectural form  in the 17thc, then  the development of planting in the squares with Thomas Fairchild who suggested bringing the countryside into the city, and most recently at the march of bricks which saw the square spreading into the growing suburbs of the city and the rise of developers like Thomas Cubitt.  Today’s post is going to look at how its popularity continued to spread through the Victorian city but also how its form was adapted and even began to attract criticism.

Cubitt’s work in Bloomsbury, Belgravia and Pimlico was done on a grand scale with him working in concert with the landowners.  A different approach was taken when the Bishop of London decided to develop their extensive estates in Paddington on the then western outskirts of London.

They had already  sold some land  to the Grand Junction Canal Company and by 1812 work on the Regent’s Canal had begun. When it opened in 1820  the. area around the canal was becoming an industrial and warehousing centre.  The rest of their land, further south, was close to the ever-expanding fashionable western suburbs as well as Hyde Park, so suddenly looked ripe for residential development.

The bishop appointed Samuel Pepys Cockerell, an architect who had already planned Mecklenburg and Brunswick Squares,  to draw up a masterplan in 1804 for what was to become known as Tyburnia [ after the stream that ran through the area]  and then later as Bayswater and  now by estate agents as “Hyde Park  Village”.   The plan doesn’t seem to have been published until 1824. Instead of finding a single developer like Cubitt,  it was decided instead to entrust development to smaller scale local enterprises, many of whom ended up living on the streets and squares they constructed.  It was a much slower process and it isn’t until 1821, when the post-Napoleonic building boom was under way, that Connaught Square was got underway and it wasn’t finished until 1828


It was a piece of thoughtful town planning. Cockerell turned the roughly triangular site to advantage, linking two main roads out of London, aligning the new scheme with with existing built up areas and capitalising on the views onto Hyde Park.  He planned two main roads through the site – Praed Street and Grand Junction Street [now Sussex Gardens] and two  large open spaces  with many of the grand houses entered from the rear via a private road or mews. He also suggested a large crescent directly facing Hyde Park.

Hyde Park Crescent from the anonymous birds eye view

It aimed at attracting an elite clientele and its early inhabitants included George III’s nephew and son-in-law Prince William Frederick , who was also duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh and earl of Connaught – hence many of the street names in the area.

Unfortunately Tyburnia was in competition with the development of   the Duke of Westminster’s estate as well as Nash’s  new Regent’s Park estate. On top of that there was a major financial crisis in 1825 which led to the collapse of a large number of banks and  everything had to be scaled back.  After Cockerell’s death in 1827 his original grand design was modified to encourage take-up.  His successor, George Gutch, increased the density of housing  in places partly by replacing the proposed grand crescent with a grand terrace but elsewhere maintained the principle of large communal garden areas.

The names have changed from Gutch’s suggested Polygon but the layout is still very much in place today and include six squares, a crescent, large churchyard and wide tree-lined streets.

At the same the prevailing architectural style was changing from “standard Georgian” brick to  stuccoed Italianate.  There was some criticism of style, comfort and indeed the sheer size of some of the houses, Anthony Trollope, for example, wrote of unfinished, chilly, and pretentious ‘Princess Royal Crescent’, “from one end of which the Hyde Park may be seen” but which was crucially was a “quite correct” address.   There was also an element of snobbery. Satirical writer  George Sala  claimed in 1866 that while “the region of the Grosvenors”[ie Belgravia] was “the place for the swells of the peerage, those of blue blood and the strawberry-leaves,”  Tyburnia suits admirably “the nobility of yesterday, your mushroom aristocrats, millionaires, ex-lord mayors, and people of that sort.”  Yet despite this  the two were often compared favourably, with the Victoria County History of Middlesex suggesting that  they were considered almost equally fashionable by the 1870s.  whilst  in 1884 it was referred by Loftie’s History of London as  ‘the city of palaces north of the park’.

Part of the attraction must surely been the underlying emphasis on green spaces both communal and private, with the new residents having the status of the grand new district allied with the amenity of often generous garden space.  That combination was very much in evidence in another nearby contemporary large-scale development: the Ladbroke Estate.

Most of the squares we have looked at were designed by architects or surveyors usually working in conjunction with landowners and speculative builders but in 1823, as the post-Napoleonic War building boom was under way, planning started on an estate to the west of Tyburnia where things were slightly different. First of all the owner, James Ladbroke, seemed to take little interest in his sizeable London landholding apart from collecting the money from it.  Instead he left it the management in the lands of a firm of solicitors working with a surveyor/developer named Thomas Allason.

Allason was more than just  a surveyor.. He was a successful architect and also worked for the Earl of Shrewsbury at Alton Towers, where ‘he was engaged in laying out the gardens and from this period he was much employed as a landscape gardener.’ 

Allason’s original plan, image taken from Longstaff-Gowan’s The London Square. Original in London Metropolitan an Archives.


A private act of Parliament was obtained in 1821 to allow development of the 170 acre  estate and Allison drew up an ambitious  proposed master plan. Its main feature was an enormous central circus, about a mile in circumference, and and about a third of a mile across [ [1600m x 520m], surrounded by large houses in their own grounds.   Streets radiated from that.  The other interesting idea he included was to leave three blocks of ground – which he called paddocks – empty and completely surround them with houses. The intention must surely have been to make them  private enclosed spaces for the general use of the residents of the adjacent houses, probably for gardens. Allason’s  plans bear all the signs of being influenced by John Nash’s work at Regent’s Park, but also, perhaps, by a design exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1802–3 for the layout of a large double circus on the Eyre estate at St. John’s Wood,  both of which aimed to  to provide Rus in Urbe – the countryside in the city.

The 1825 financial crisis put a stop on most work for about a decade and  although part of the circus was staked out no building took place there.  A large section of the land was then let out for a racecourse which could be viewed from the summit of Ladbroke Mount (or Notting Hill) where St John’s Church now stands but this was a flop and soon closed.

To encourage work to start again a rethink was needed. Other architects including James Thomson, a pupil of John Buoanrotti Papworth, became involved and the final design clearly reflected the additional experience that they  had in  landscape design. In place of Allason’s monumental circus  a completely different layout was created in which the paddocks survived but in a new form as the idea of the square was turned on its head.

James Thomson’s Plan, 1846 image taken from Longstaff-Gowan’s The London Square. Original in London Metropolitan an Archives.

Now, instead of the communal gardens being set  across a public road from  the houses around them, and thus having to be railed in and screened by shrubs, the whole idea was reversed. The grand stucco terraces  and semi-detached villas still faced the streets but while each had a small private garden immediately behind it, these all opened onto a large communal garden shared and controlled by the residents,  and visible and available only to them. In the early stages five communal gardens containing over 5 acres of ground in total, were laid out, completely enclosed by housing.

Typically under the terms of early leases  the paddocks were laid out  ‘for the convenience and recreation of the tenants and occupiers’, and granted them the right to use the garden and ‘to walk and demean in and upon the same premises in manner customary in enclosed pleasure or ornamental garden grounds in Squares and other like places in London’, provided that ‘none of the Livery or other servants . . . save and except the domestic servants in actual attendance on the Children or other members of the family’ should be permitted to enter.” 

 This principle was extended as the estate developed over the next few decades until there were a total of  16 communal gardens in all, the largest of which at 7 acres,  is Ladbroke Square, completed by Allason in 1849.

The full story of the estate’s development is extremely complex [For a very detailed account see  Survey of London vol. 37] as it was divided up into plots and let out to speculative developers, many of whom went bankrupt, over the space of more than 50 years from 1821 until the late 1870s.    Given how popular Noting Hill is today, it’s strange to realise that  in the early decades of 19thc  relatively inaccessible and the final sections weren’t finished until the arrival of the Hammersmith and City railway in 1864. The whole estate has been a conservation area since 1969 and the gardens collectively are listed as Grade II.

But not everything was sweetness and light. While Allason and Thomson were reinventing the square and others were playing with related forms such the crescent, the polygon and the circus,  as Todd Longstaffe-Gowan points out in The London Square, there were others still who  were beginning to be more critical of the whole concept..

John Claudius Loudon for one. In an article in The Gardener’s Magazine in 1829  he suggests that towns and cities should be planned with alternating areas of city and countryside radiating outwards from the centre. This idea was, he recognised, unlikely to be put into practice, although there are definitely elements of his idea in  the green belts around many of our conurbations.  “Hints on Breathing Places for the Metropolis, and for Country Towns and Villages, on fixed Principles”, argued  no-one should live more than a quarter mile from some kind of park, garden or piece of countryside. But in his view that meant the end of the square as an architectural form: “The zones of town we would confine as much as possible to private dwellings, not admitting squares, burial-grounds, market-places, or any naked space, save good broad streets.”

In addition to his general planning considerations Loudon made an early  call for publicly available open space serving everyone rather than reserved private green space like the square. This would be made available in what he called “the country zones.” There apart from buildings for refreshment and leisure all the land “as park and pleasure-ground scenery, and introduce in it all the plants, trees, and shrubs which would grow in the open air, with innumerable seats, covered and uncovered, in the sun and in the shade. We would also introduce pieces of water, under certain circumstances (especially if there were no danger of it producing malaria), rocks, quarries, stones, wild places in imitation of heaths and caverns, grottoes, dells, dingles, ravines, hills, valleys, and other natural-looking scenes, with walks and roads, straight and winding, shady and open; and, to complete the whole, there should be certain bands of music to perambulate the zones, so as at certain hours to be at certain places every day in the year.”    This is nothing less than a description of the earliest public parks

Others had different concerns. Samuel Leigh in New Picture of London complained that although “nearly 200 areas bearing the name square” only 25 which were of historic interest or had “peculiar beauty”.  That’s partly because of poor planting in many squares which was noted by W.S.Turner  in an article “Suggestions for a Society for promoting the Improvement of the Public Taste in Architectural and Rural Scenery” in Loudon’s  The Gardener’s Magazine for June 1835.   Turner asks “who that has been charmed with the aspect of one of the squares judiciously planted and laid out, can help being as much shocked with the bare and tasteless way in which others are still suffered to remain? He  recommends “the excellent effect of a few trees judiciously planted…to render London incomparably more ornamented by trees than at present.”  Of course Loudon had things to say about that as well and added his comments immediately after Turner’s piece. Although he doesn’t specifically mention squares his criticism of public planting is scathing: they were “filled, for the most part, with the common stuffing of the nurseries” and asks why we ” cannot spare a few thousands for planting in a superior manner ?”

The same year, 1835, the Rev Jonas Dennis was also assessing the planting of squares and making suggestions for improvement.  It was, he said  in his book The Landscape Gardener, “most perplexing” because of the difficulty of commanding an ornamental view from each of the four lines of surrounding houses.”   He thought they should be more open and that ” inhabitants should be presented with the refreshing verdure of an open lawn in each direction, terminated by foliage not in one unbroken mass, but admitting through two or three apertures perspective display of the ulterior verdure.” So a sort of half-way compromise between the earliest squares which were wide open and the densely planted wilderness suggested by Fairchild.  It was a variation on  rus in urbe, although there should be few trees. Instead Dennis suggested planting  ”  principally composed of evergreen shrubs” with  “a thick surrounding hedge ‘of wild holly uninviting to cattle, and including a walk of four feet width, surrounded by privet backed by laurel.”

Loudon followed up his comments in the Suburban Gardener and Villa Companion of 1838 by praising squares on the continent and comparing them favourable with those in England where “a public square or garden …is never so varied or interesting…because such squares are only accessible to the occupiers for the surrounding houses, whereas on the continent they are open too all persons whatsoever.”

This difference, between the private and the public, was to become a real bone of contention over the following century, and will be the focus of another post very soon.

Clarendon Road and Lansdowne Road Communal Garden
Laid out around 1860 for the use of residents of those two roads




About The Gardens Trust

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