Mornington Crescent and beyond

Our series of posts about the London Square has now reached the turn of the 20thc and the dawning recognition of their  importance.  So why Mornington Crescent?  

I’d guess that for most people all that  Mornington Crescent means is the zany panel game without rules on I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue.  Although no-one knows why the name was chosen   it may have been because of  its reputation as a downmarket slice of inner north London, wedged in between a major road  and the main railway line into Euston station, and served by a rather dilapidated tube stop on a branch of the Northern Line.  Unlike  the panel game it probably  wasn’t the destination  everyone aspired to reach.   

That hasn’t always been the case.  In the early 19thc when the area was being developed Mornington Crescent was a lot grander and had 3 grand curved terraces laid out around about large communal gardens and overlooking fields at the rear.  Later, after going into decline  it became home to a colony of artists.  Unfortunately the story ends with  developers building all over the gardens, but the one upside of what happened was that it served as a warning and helped saved the rest of London’s urban green spaces.

In the last post about squares I looked at  how philanthropic landowners, and open space campaigners were trying to open what had previously been privately owned squares to the  public but were meeting resistance from less enlightened owners.

The creation of  London County Council in 1888 was a positive boost to gaining public access. The LCC established a Parks and Open Spaces Committee under the chairmanship of the Earl of Meath, who had been the driving force behind the establishment of the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association in 1882. Although as Todd Longstaffe-Gowan details there was a lot of in-fighting, the LCC gradually began to “reflect the increasingly popular view that saving the squares was not a mere  parochial or local matter but one that affected the welfare of the entire metropolis.”  

Some landowners saw the writing on the wall. But they reacted in different ways.  The Duke of Bedford decided that land in London could no longer be regarded as a reliable source of income, and so began to sell off the estates which his ancestors had enjoyed for nearly four hundred years.  Covent Garden, for example, was sold in 1914:  a decision I bet his descendants deeply regret.  Others gifted or sold squares and gardens at a reasonable price, with one early success in 1894 being the purchase by the LCC of Lincoln’s Inn Fields for just £12,000.

Other freeholders, however, decided to try and build on their open spaces.  This was not a popular decision and three cases in particular changed public attitudes and slowly even governmental ones too, which eventually led to much needed legal protection for the London square.  Let’s start with the earliest one of the three where the outcome was happier. 

Edwardes Square in  Kensington  was originally laid out in the first two decades of the 19thc. The houses were generally quite small while the central garden area was, at about 3 acres, quite substantial.   It was an unusual design with houses on just 3 sides, and the fourth being the back gardens of Earls Terrace.  The Edwardes Square Act was passed in  1819 and allowed  the ‘paving, cleansing, lighting, watching, watering, planting, and otherwise improving’ of the gardens  and appointing residents as trustees.   A  lodge for a gardener or beadle was built  and the gardens were  laid out, ‘in groups and winding walks, in a manner different from most other squares’, by a local resident Agostino Aglio, an  Italian artist with guidance from the Horticultural Society.

In 1903 the freeholder, Lord Kensington, put the estate up for sale because the leases of many of the properties were soon to run out, and selling the freehold without leaseholders would be more profitable. The lease of the square itself was also due to run out in 1910.    When details of the proposed sale were announced Kensington Borough Council   discussed whether the square should be bought and opened as a public park while London County Council decided to apply to Parliament for power ‘to secure the continuance of the restrictions against, and prevent any building over, the garden of Edwardes-square’.   These potential actions, although they eventually came to nothing at the time,  probably reduced interest in the sale  and in the end there were no bids for Earls Terrace and its gardens, or for the houses on the south side or the square itself.     Lord Kensington later sold them all  privately to  Amalgamated Estates Limited for £58,000.  I bet his descendants are regretting that decision now.

Meanwhile the LCC continued to look for ways to protect the  green spaces in its jurisdiction and in 1906  a bill they promoted  finally became law as the London Squares and Enclosures (Preservation) Act.  Great news you might think  but unfortunately there had been considerable opposition from vested interests and the original bill was watered down and ended up only applying to those 64 enclosures where the owners were happy to consent.  Amalgamated Estates were not amongst them!

As the date for the expiry of the lease on the square got closer and closer Amalgamated Estates complained that the trustees  had neglected to maintain the square and asked for damages. This  spurred the trustees to take legal action against Amalgamated just four days left before the lease ran out.   While this was working its way through the system  Amalgamated applied for planning permission to build not only over the square but also  the roadway between it and Earls Terrace.

London Daily News – Saturday 28 May 1910

The Graphic – Saturday 04 June 1910

When Kensington Council refused permission Amalgamated blocked the roadway at both ends with locked barriers and  told residents that the square was now closed.   Things started to heat up.  The residents continued to use the square and the council declared that the roadway was public as they had been maintaining it for over 50 years.  When the developers refused to take down the barriers the council sent workmen  in to dismantle them.  The developers immediately rebuilt them and the council removed them again. This happened twice more over succeeding days.   At the same the developers now tried  to padlock the gates of the garden.  The beadle who lived in the ‘temple’ and  one of the residents, prevented them from shutting the one on the south side, so the following day while the council workmen were removing the barriers across the road the developers forcibly removed the beadle and locked the last gate.

Meanwhile the legal action by the trustees came to a head and  finally reached court in  July 1910. The judge ruled that  the ‘operation of the Act of 1819 was not limited to the duration of the Lease, but was perpetual, and was intended to be perpetual, at all events so long as there should be any inhabitants of the houses in Edwardes Square and the other places around’. The residents had won.  

This did not stop the developers appealing to have the ruling overturned.  Their case was dismissed  by the Master of the Rolls, so they took an appeal to the House of Lords  where, in January 1912, the Law Lords once again found in favour of the trustees. 

You can sense the jubilation in the air when the local paper reported that evening  ‘fifty cartloads of timber fuel were taken to the middle of the garden, and a bonfire forty feet high was built. This was well saturated with oil, and at nine o’clock, amid the beating of gongs and the cheers of the crowd, it was set alight. Later there was a display of fireworks and a procession around the grounds, headed by a band of pipers. All the houses in the square were lit up with electricity or fairy lamps.’  [Bayswater Chronicle, 27 Jan. 1912.]

But after the good news comes the bad.  While Edwardes Square was saved  there were about to be two disasters almost simultaneously.


Euston Square was laid out in 1827 and named after the country seat of the Duke of Grafton who opened the land,  at Euston Hall in Suffolk.  The square was bisected by the busy New Road [later renamed Euston Road] and never really functioned as a single unit, but rather as two distinct sections on either side of the road.

 [There is an interesting detailed history of the square as a whole with lots of maps and images  at the  Hydeparknow blog]

The New Entrance to Euston Station from Illustrated London News 8th Oct 1870.  This was through the northern section of the square. The lodges in the foreground are still there while the railings of the square can just be made out behind them.

The northern side   was further divided by the approach to the  station which opened  in 1837.  It was threatened too by an expansion of Euston  station in 1890 and became an early test case for the LCC.  Despite the railway company having bought the freehold to the northern sections of the square the LCC opposed the development of “:unbuilt-on space” and won.

Unfortunately objectors were not so successful in the 1960s when the appalling redevelopment of Euston Station  went ahead, or again more recently when half of what remained  has just had most its trees felled and went under tarmac as part of the latest redevelopment of the station  and for  HS2.  Artists responded with drawings and paintings and one of them Nick Andrew has documented some of this on his blog.

As the Euston Road got busier and was widened the southern section, was so detached from its counterpart that in 1879  it was renamed  Endsleigh Gardens.  

By 1920 the original  leases of the surrounding houses of Endsleigh Gardens were beginning to expire and the  Duke sold the freehold  to Sir Alfred Butt, a Conservative politician,  theatrical impresario and property developer  who  re-sold the houses with a restricted covenant that “No right of access, user, light, air or otherwise over the pleasure grounds in Endsleigh Gardens are conferred by the sale”.  Effectively that meant that he retained ownership of  three acres of prime development land on the Euston Road, free from any restrictions. He offered to sell it to the local authority for use as a public space, but despite pressure St. Pancras Borough Council, could not – or would not – justify spending £50,000 to make a public park.

The site was put up for sale again and attracted the interest of the Society of Friends  who were looking to move from their cramped HQ in the city.  There was a lot of internal debate  and it was recognised  that they “were likely to be criticised in some quarters if we build on land likely to make an excellent open space”. To ease their consciences, an approach was made to the Metropolitan Gardens Association with the suggestion that they should purchase half the site consisting of the two end portions for about £15,000, and develop them as gardens. The offer  was not taken up and the Quakers built their grand new headquarters building leaving just a small section of garden space at one end.

Mornington Crescent, by Spencer Gore 
British Council Collection

Not far to the north of Euston stood Mornington Crescent and its loss was, in many ways worse, since it was larger, intact and well-loved.   The houses had long since lost their high status  while further nearby development and the opening of the railway  changed the demographics. Gradually the  houses were split into flats or went into multiple occupancy.   But such changes  had one advantage:  rents were cheaper. As a consequence the area attracted  a large number of artists who formed the Camden Town Group. They included Walter Sickert and Spencer Gore. 

Despite the fact, that according to Tate etc, the gallery’s magazine  that “the typical CamdenTown picture is easily summarised: the shabby interior of a seedy north London boarding house,.. [or]  the corner of a dreary street, often seen at an oblique angle from an upper-storey window” it’s thanks to them that we also have so many images of the gardens there.

Just as in Edwardes Square and Endsleigh Gardens  the freehold of the crescent gardens had been bought by a developer, a Mr Minter of Putney.  He wanted to rebuild the houses and build over the gardens, which he  had  boarded up and  covered in advertising hoardings.  This caused a great public outcry and linked Mornington Crescent Gardens to the far wider campaign for public open spaces. In 1920 Minter offered to sell the site to St Pancras Borough Council for £60,000, to continue its use as a park but after much deliberation they declined.  There were moves made to get the LCC to intervene and either buy or help St Pancras to buy, but again the price was considered excessive. 

Minter sold the site to  “an estate development expert” a Mr Philips of Conduit St W1, and in 1921 he offered it to a “motoring firm” who had plans to build a garage there at the same time. Again both councils were urged to intervene but declined on the grounds of cost. Philips blithely  stated that “naturally I would like to see kept as open space but I cannot have it remaining indefinitely on my hands so have to sell.”

from Pall Mall Gazette – Saturday 09 June 1923

But maybe he wasn’t such a villain after all? As he wrote to the press [see left] he had offered the site to St Pancras at the same price he had paid for it and even to help them take a mortgage on it, and suggested they  use it as a project for the local unemployed.  Again the local authority declined on grounds of cost and it was sold to Carreras the tobacco giant  who, between 1926 and 1928,  filled the entire site  with a cigarette factory.  It was where their Black Cat cigarettes were produced and the architecture of the new factory reflected both that and the Egyptomania that followed the discovery of Tutankhamuns’s tomb in 1922.

And to be fair not  everyone was disappointed by the loss of the gardens. 

It’s true that the building  is  a striking example of Egyptian Revival architecture –  which has become iconic in its own right. When it was “modernised” in  the 1960s all the distinctive Egyptian-style ornamentation  including the black cat statues on the steps outside was removed, only to be put back again in the late 1990s. There are lots more photos and a full history of the building here. 

The Black Cat Factory – put up in the years immediately the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922


The public outcry at the development of these two squares  led to the appointment of the Royal Commission on London Squares. They argued in their 1928  report that  “…the [squares] add greatly to the amenities…of London as a whole…Their loss…would effect an alteration in the characteristic development…of London…which would in our view be deplorable.”  The result was the passing of the  London Squares Preservation Act of 1931 which gave  protection to 461 squares and other green enclosures, only about 20% of which were then in public hands.   Such strict control of private space was, I think,  unprecedented but  it ensured such spaces were preserved for leisure and recreation and could not be developed.   What the Act did not do of course was to open the squares to public access or protect the buildings around them. But that’s a story for another day!


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