A Tale of Two Cities

We saw last week that although new squares continued to be built in the middle of the 19thc the design was sometimes adapted and modified, and there was sometimes criticism of both the layout itself and increasingly of the planting.

Nevertheless most squares, as Todd Longstaffe-Gowan points out,  “somehow miraculously maintained a degree of social pre-eminence regardless of the vicissitudes of fashion.”  London squares were generally still seen as   prestigious places to live, “bestowing social rank, dignity and precedence upon their inhabitants.” That meant they continued to attract the aspirant classes [sometimes known as “gentility-mongers”] and more squares were built in the later years of the century.

Yet at the same time there were  huge and growing differences  between them and some had even ceased to be residential. The social commentator Henry Mayhew, as part of  his studies of poverty and crime, tried to categorise the city’s squares in 1862.  Some were “imposing”, others “stately and gorgeous” while another group were  “intensely quiet ..and as still and desolate as cloisters.”  But it’s clear that the whole concept of the square as a social construct was changing as he dismissed a large number of others as “pretentious parvenu-like suburban squares” and wrote off more as “obsolete or used up old squares.”    What was happening and why?

Cadogan Square and in the background Cadogan Place

One reason was the changing demography of  London. The elite were gradually abandoning the older squares of the centre, specially the smaller and less prestigious ones in the City itself, but also in areas like Soho. They were moving westwards in the same way that their 18thc predecessors had done.  New squares went up in Earls Court – The Boltons in 1864, Earls Court Square in 1868, Cadogan Square in 1877-88, Nevern Square between 1880-86   Many older squares now sometimes became home to more ordinary tenants or were subdivided, and in others gradually switched away from being residential and were turned into  business premises, offices or housed institutions. That might explain, at least in part, why there are few contemporary images of squares.

The best known example of this depressing saga is probably Leicester Square, which I wrote about earlier this year. Once an aristocratic enclave, it was by the mid-19thc a scene of decay and desolation, much satirised and condemned before being regenerated in the 1870s. I’ve also written about Queen Square in Bloomsbury where residential use declined rapidly and almost the whole square was taken over by boarding houses, hospitals and other institutions.

Nevertheless the more prestigious squares maintained their elevated status, partly at least for the social cachet of their addresses. Another factor may well have been   the growing awareness of their potential impact on health, in a crowded and heavily polluted city. Squares were seen in an anatomical analogy as the city’s lungs and given the ravages of diseases like smallpox and cholera perhaps it’s not surprising that doctors wrote about the perceived benefits of living on one.  The London Medical Gazette carried an article in 1842 explaining that in addition to affording a space for recreation, squares served “as reservoirs of pure and fresh air” and those in the centre allowed this to “radiate into the surrounding districts and purify the neighbourhood.. .”

A rather romanticised view from Jacob Abbott’s Harper Story Book 1854

As we saw in earlier parts of the story squares had always been seen as places for fashionable parade but now they were now seen by doctors as especially suitable places for the privileged children of the inhabitants to be taken  for exercise under the safe charge of their nurses. [See for example the comments of Dr C R Aiken]. Behind iron railings and away from the crowded streets and “ordinary” people they could get fresh air [well as fresh as it ever got in the capital] and avoid diseases such as smallpox and typhus which was potentially rampant.   It didn’t help of course that the areas around them, especially in the older parts of the city, were increasingly overcrowded and insanitary. Noxious industries sat side by side with poor housing that lacked any form of sewage disposal so it’s not surprising Longstaffe-Gowan has a whole list of examples from medical reports and articles about the health risks that led to the sanitary reforms led by Edwin Chadwick in the mid-century.  As the great Victorian sewerage and drainage system, which we still largely rely on, was installed it was soon noted by Mayhew that there was no favouritism in the districts they served. The sewers in Belgrave square smelled as badly as those in the slums, and the system that served the notorious rookery of Seven Dials was in a better state than those of the “costly squares” of Hyde Park/Tyburnia area we looked at last week.

Alongside the sanitary  reforms there was also a growing understanding of the value of open space for exercise for everyone, not just those with access to private sauces and gardens.  There was a parliamentary select committee on Walks and Places of Exercise set up in 1833, but like so many other things its recommendations for the protection  of open space and its provision where it didn’t exist, fell on deaf ears.

Square Louvois dating from 1839

This was in marked contrast to Paris where a network of local parks was slowly being established under the auspices of Adolphe Trebuchet, head of city’s public health regime. [He is a significant figure but doesn’t yet have a wikipedia page but if you read French there is a biographical webpage about him]. His work is picked up by prominent social reformers in Britain who see the improvement of public health and housing going hand in hand with the provision of museums, art galleries and urban parks and green spaces.  All are designed for the moral uplifting and education of the working classes as well as their physical well-being.

Thomas Milner, an evangelical cleric writing in 1846 thought that rather than building “sterile” monuments, we should give people a sense of pride in their locality  with “works of public utility” and saw the  Victoria Park in east London “then in the course of preparation”  as a good example of this in practice. But Victoria Park was ahead of its time and as Longstaffe-Gowan points out it’s not until the 1860s that the Parisian model of local public squares and parks begins to be accepted.

Peabody Square, Islington

There had been from the early 1840s a series of philanthropic initiatives – often known as Model Dwellings companies – to build better housing for the working classes.  Although most were very spartan others did begin to try and create open space around the housing. Columbia Square in Bethnal Green was a very early example, praised by Dickens in a long article  Hail Columbia Square in 1862. Others followed, including the Peabody Trust. But there’s still a long way to go before London matched Paris because Peabody Square in Blackfriars was a rare exception, all that was in the middle of Columbia Square and most of the other model dwellings was an open courtyard at best. 

Gradually over the course of the 1860s English opinion started to shift, helped in particular by William Robinson, the journalist and plantsman. He had lived in Paris, as we saw in earlier posts, and been impressed by the quality of the green spaces of the city, and written about them in The Parks, Promenades and Gardens of Paris in 1869. This had the telling subtitle: described and considered in relation in relation to the wants of our own cities.   

Paris was lucky enough by then to have Adolphe Alphand in charge, and he was lucky enough to have the backing of Baron Haussmann and the Emperor Napoleon III.

There is a chapter in Robinson’s book which begins: “Most of us are familiar enough with the aspects of the London squares, with their melancholy loneliness, and frequent filthiness — their highest efforts being in the planting of Privet, &c., so cleverly that any view of the interior is impossible. If by way of contrast we glance at the state of one of the most central and best known squares in Paris …  we may be able to get an idea of the different system pursued in each city, and I trust also of the great advantages and superiority of the Parisian one.”

His example was the park next to the Tour St Jacques in the very heart of the city where “the first thing that strikes the visitor .. is its freshness, perfect keeping, and the numbers of people who are seated in it, reading, working, or playing.”  He describes the planting at length. “Nor have the richest potentates more beautiful or diverse objects in their gardens than are here spread out for all who will enjoy them. It is almost as attractive to the passer-by in the street as to those inside, for instead of a clump of shrubs of commonplace character, cutting it off from the view of the passer-by there is a belt of grass of varying width, kept perfectly fresh and green, and on it here and there large beds and masses, usually distinct from each other.”

There were now two campaigns being stirred up by Robinson.  One was already well underway on a wide social and political front, encouraged and supported by Dickens and Angela Burdett-Coutts to encourage public access to private squares: “At present the gardens in our squares are painful mementoes of aristocratic exclusiveness. They who need them the least monopolise them “But of course  whatever the condition of the squares of London now we should be thankful we have them.”   [I’m going to look at the whole question of opening up these private  squares soon.]   The other was more specific and narrow in focus and was about improving planting. What struck me researching this section was how difficult growing conditions were, and how easy it is to forget that when making criticisms from our own time.  The air was heavily polluted and many plants, especially evergreens simply did not survive more than a season or two.

Of course Robinson was not alone and I’ve just picked out a couple of examples to make the point.  Samuel Broome, head gardener at the Inner Temple writing in 1858  was ” continually hearing complaints from families residing in some of the squares of their being kept so indifferently, having so few spring, summer, and autumn flowers; and the cold and comfortless appearance during the winter, for want of some evergreens to relieve the deciduous trees and sooty earth . The introduction of a few Rhododendrons, with Aucuba japonica, Box, and Holly would do much to remedy the complaint …  they do tolerably well for a time and look cheerful, if often washed with a syringe in fine weather…”   He also recommended the installation of a conservatory as “Ladies and gentlemen, with their families, would find it a very interesting and pleasant place in bad weather, to take a little exercise in a filtered air, as the glass would prevent the descending soot and smoke from mixing with the air in the conservatory. The house may be filled with common evergreens and half – hardy plants through the winter, which may be used for exterior decoration in the square in summer; in fact, hundreds of magnificent plants might be propagated for out – of – doors during the summer.”

The terraces and squares of Tyburnia which I wrote about in the last post, where one would have thought that good taste and design were in place were condemned in The Builder in 1863 as “wretched examples… of hortulan taste. What we want is the stately, shady, widespreading plane, the varied shrubbery, and the bed of transplanted flowers : these, with an emerald turf, and rich sanded walks.”

An unsigned article in The Builder  August 1864…Seeing that miles of flower-border in Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens are kept in brilliant bloom, the condition of the squares generally is most disgraceful. The same attention to planting out, cutting away redundant trees and arborage, thinning and pruning some of the bosquets, renewing others, and above all, well watering the whole, would render the railed-in spaces, dignified by the names of squares, crescents, ovals, or circuses, truly ornamental, as well as more cheering and healthful to our teeming and still increasing population….it is not the extent of inclosure, but the care be-stowed upon it that excites an interest, and there is ample scope for improvement in the widest and best we have: a little circus like Golden- square may become respectable, as Leicester- square is an abomination.”

Gardeners Chronicle carried  what looks like an editorial in June 1867 inspired by a letter from George Eyres, who had worked with Paxton on the Crystal Palace and was to go on and become Superintendent of the Royal Horticultural Society gardens at Kensington.  Eyres had sent in a suggested scheme for planting and ornamenting a square which was commended by the paper following a damning series of comments – the first paragraph of which you can see in the extract attached.  It’s hardly revolutionary but it does show that there was still a real interest in improving the planting and appearance of the city’s squares.

Interestingly at least one of the model dwellings companies seems to have taken heed. The Metropolitan Board of Works carried out slum-clearance  in the 1870s around the Royal Mint and auctioned off the land for what we would now euphemistically call social housing.  A building firm worked with  the Metropolitan Industrial Dwellings Company, on part of the site to put up 7 connected five-storey blocks for 225 tenements, not quite a square as the east range had to curve along the railway line.  However in the middle of Royal Mint Square was a garden.

To conclude today’s piece, it seems fair to say that  the traditional square was losing some of its magic but as Longstaffe-Gowan points out all the adverse comments were made by outsiders, and the understanding of the residents, as expressed in their garden committee minute books seem very different. Having looked at many of the surviving accounts he thinks that much of the care was ad hoc, in order to keep the rates low,  and perhaps because the houses on the squares usually had gardens behind where they could indulge any love of gardening leaving  the uncultivated look or “rusticity” of the squares to be seen as the real rus in urbe!



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