Over the past few months we’ve examined the story of the London square, and the last post revealed the beginning of both a slow decline in status and tentative attempts to open them to the public. Today’s post is going to look at these attempts and show how, gradually through the second half of the 19thc, the squares became part of the movement to increase the amount of publicly accessible green space in the capital.
It was achieved by a mix of charitable institutions, religious and secular bodies petitioning the owners and trustees of private squares, especially those whose gardens were unkempt or under-utilised to allow limited access to them. But these reformers could not achieve their aims alone. They had considerable help from a public-spirited Duke who also happened to be the wealthiest man in Britain.
Once the momentum developed, legislation followed that allowed local authorities to acquire other important open spaces such as commons, burial grounds as well as squares for recreational use.
It didn’t help that until the late-19thc London’s local government was chaotic with no coherent overarching authority of any sort. Instead, apart from the City of London itself, it was governed through the surrounding counties of Middlesex, Surrey, Kent and Essex with, under them, vestries which were roughly the equivalent of parish councils. Some were minuscule with just a few hundred people, while others were enormous with tens of thousands. Few vestries were elected, and almost all represented the interest of the wealthiest inhabitants, with little interest in providing anything other than minimal services because of the cost to the ratepayer. Whilst elsewhere in the country local government had been reformed in 1835 every attempt to introduce any form of rational reform in London met with fierce opposition from vested interests.
It was not until 1855 that the Metropolitan Board of Works was established to organise capital-wide infrastructure projects such as sewage and drainage, the embankment & bridges, fire brigades, and major roads. It was also given the power to provide “parks, pleasure-grounds and open spaces”. It was a power they, and their successor, the London County Council which was set up in 1889 were eventually to use very effectively.
Gaining access to private squares often began with an occasional special event such as a local flower show. In November 1858 for example the Trustees of Lincoln’s Inn Fields decided to invite “all respectable persons” to see the display of chrysanthemums grown by Mr Morgan their new head gardener who was clearly an expert at growing them. They may have regretted their decision because their minutes for the following months reveal more requests for access – perhaps for children to play for an hour on Sundays, or for the elderly, sick and infirm to be able to walk or sit one afternoon. They were all refused.
But the other Inns of Court attracted praise for doing so albeit very rarely. In particular the Temple Gardens led the way, with the head gardener, Samuel Broome, another enthusiastic chrysanthemum grower being particularly keen.
Press reports like the one in the Pall Mall Gazette above added strength to the great campaigner for social reform, Octavia Hill’s claim that “the only harm that could done to a square that was ‘lent’ by its inhabitants to the poor of their own district for a flower show would be that the grass would be trampled quite brown.” Nevertheless it was to be a long struggle and in the case of Lincoln Inn Fields it took until 1874 before the trustees relented and allowed her to escort a party of children from the Drury Lane area on one Saturday afternoon. It too became an annual event, although of course no games were allowed! Gradually the trustees resistance was eroded although it took another twenty years before the Fields were opened properly in 1895.
Using flower shows as an entry point was effective. Octavia Hill and others, including Lord Shaftesbury were already actively promoting local parochial flower shows and the ones organised by the curate of Bloomsbury, Rev Samuel Hadden Parkes deserve special note. While most of these shows were organised by members of local horticultural or floral societies who invited the public to visit and admire the exhibits, Parkes organised shows where the “working classes… were not expected to take any role other than as exhibitors.”
After the first couple of years he set his sights higher arguing ‘it would be a great boon to the poor, and would in a great measure ensure the success of these flower shows, if they could be held in the larger squares of London’. His plea was taken up in July 1861 by the Journal of Horticulture [and no doubt by Hill and Shaftesbury ] which specifically expressed their ‘hope’ for a ‘marquee upon [the] grass’ of Russell Square.
In 1863 an article about that summer’s show appeared in the London City Press and asked with amazement: “And where does the Reader suppose this Flower Show is to be held? On top of a house? In a stable? In the Museum Reading Room? Or the sanded parlour of a public house? In none of these places, but one even less likely than all, but the most suitable for the purpose imaginable….” It was indeed to be held in Russell Square where “The inhabitants have consented to allow the exhibition in their garden, which sounds as if the end of the world is near at hand”.
It might not have been the apocalypse but it was the first time that a large number of the working class had ever been invited into a private London Square. It was not the last. In 1865, the show moved to Bloomsbury Square and in in 1866, to the garden of the FoundlingHospital.
Of course such events were transitory and there was no real sense of public access. It is not until 1872 when that becomes a possibility with the Marquis of Westminster – later the 1st Duke -takes a lead. Owner of the Grosvenor estates he was a typical aristocrat in many ways – hunting, shooting and building were top of his country pursuits, he had a philanthropic side too. Apart from being president of several hospitals and supporting nursing funds, he supported what we would call “green” causes including the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association, the Gardeners’ Royal Benevolent Association, the Hampstead Heath Protection Society, and the Royal Agricultural Society.
He took a great interest too in improving housing and public space for the poor and in 1872 he approached St George’s Vestry with his ideas for converting Ebury Square in Victoria into public gardens.
Ebury was definitely not a prestigious Belgravia square but one laid out in 1820 which had declined in status quite rapidly. By the 1870s it was sandwiched in between railway lines and the warehouses on the canal and was a very poor working class area. Nevertheless the idea of opening the square to all the locals was a highly symbolic gesture and coincided with a major housing development on one side of the square by the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company. [See last week for more info]. The Duke also gave land and helped pay for the construction of a working mens club on the corner of the square.
He also offered to pay for the laying out of the square and said it was his intention to “give the public the benefit of the ground” and “experiment with an entirely open square without railings in imitation of continental public gardens.” His proviso was that the vestry maintain it. The Graphic newspaper commented that “it will be a great boon to the many poor children who will thus be enabled to enjoy their garden parties there.” The vestry, however, were shocked. “We had not quite arrived at the time to appreciate the continental management of such places, and that in the present case it would be necessary for railings to be put up and a keeper appointed to look after the place.”
In the end they declined but the Duke opened the square anyway for the summer parties in August 1872. He later offered a lease to the Metropolitan Board of Works in return for their agreeing to maintain the square. They too declined arguing it was not worth the expense for just a 42 year lease.
Luckily the Duke was an optimist as well as a reformer and pressed ahead with his plans. He was also good friends with Lord Brabazon, later Earl of Meath, who was the moving spirit behind the foundation of The Metropolitan Public Gardens Association in 1882. The MGPA’s aims were simple: “the protection, preservation, safeguarding and acquiring for permanent preservation for public use, of gardens, disused burial grounds, churchyards, open spaces, areas of land likely to be used for building purposes, strips of land adjoining roads and footpaths, or any land situated within the Metropolitan Police District or in its vicinity.”
Ebury Square was leased to the new Association that year and work began almost immediately on laying it out as a public garden.
It’s thought this was done by Fanny Wilkinson, the first professional woman landscape designer who worked with the MPGA, for nearly 20 years designing at least 75 gardens. The gardens formally opened to the public in 1884, becoming one of the earliest open spaces in their care.
The opening of Ebury Square was symbolic in other senses too, and helped build the pressure on other private squares.
The Duke carried on with his plans, next opening up Lower Grosvenor Gardens in August & September when the wealthier inhabitants would be expected to be out of town. That too was a success and the Duke had ambitions to open more of the squares on his estate.
He was thwarted in his wishes because many of the properties had been let on leases, with boards of trustees appointed by the residents to run the communal gardens. Their agreement would have been necessary and it was not forthcoming. Mary Eliza Haweis, the author supported “the residents of old fashioned squares” who refused “to throw open their central gardens” because “high-wrought children require an outlet from the prim nursery as much as poor children from the fever-den… but the classes cannot mix while the habits of the poor remain uncleanly.” [Contemporary Review, 1885] [I suspect she might have changed her mind later as she became prominent in the campaign to secure women’s rights ] Others argued that if public access was forced through then it should only be if there was “adequate police surveillance.”
But such views did not deter the Duke or the handful of improving landlords who followed his example. The Marquis of Northampton handed over Canonbury Square to the MPGA in 1884 and Percy Circus & Northampton Square to the Clerkenwell Vestry in 1885. Viscount Halifax gave Nelson Square to the London County Council in 1903.
Several others followed including Wilmington Square in Clerkenwell, De Beauvoir Square in Hackney, and Marlborough Square in Chelsea, The last was an unfortunate case.
It looks elegant on the map but had been run down with extremely high poverty levels. Charles Booth’s survey of 1899 described the area as mainly two-storey cottages that were ‘rather rough and dirty’ while the grass had completely disappeared from Marlborough Square. Indeed, it had become a little used piece of leftover ground that could be accessed only by narrow entrances from neighbouring streets. In this public ownership was no help as the whole area was demolished and replaced by “social housing” this time by the William Sutton Trust.
The MPGA also rescued Albion Square in Hackney. Laid out in 1844 as the area was being urbanised it was in a poor state by the end of the century and was saved by Lady de Saumarez who gave the freehold to Hackney Vestry, with the MPGA laying out the ornamental gardens with their central fountain.
Not all landowners were public-spirited. Some demanded compensation while others refused and the ground had to be compulsorily purchased. But the Board of Works and London County Council were prepared on occasions to use those powers so the tide gradually began to turn. I’ll look at squares in the 20th century in another post early in the New Year.