I looked last week at the fate of London’s squares during wartime, and one might have thought that things couldn’t get much worse. Unfortunately, as in many other areas of post-war life they did. There was no quick recovery and austerity hit harder than bombs. Part of the problem was that in the drive to rebuild, the normal standards of care and concern didn’t seem to apply. Economic growth and regeneration and the need to rehouse large numbers of people took precedence over most heritage and environmental issues. And leading the way in all that was dependence on the motor car. Many London squares were on their metaphorical knees at the end of the war and continued to have a rough time at the bottom of the priority list for decades….
Although virtually all the iron railings had been removed, as we saw last week, some were quickly replaced by temporary barriers of strands of wire or wooden palings.
In August 1944 George Orwell wrote an article in Tribune expressing his disgust at this: “I see that the railings are returning – only wooden ones, it is true, but still railings — in one London square after another… [so the owners] ” can make use of their treasured keys again, and the children of the poor can be kept out.”
When challenged he responded in another article: “For three years or so the squares lay open, and their sacred turf was trodden by the feet of working-class children, a sight to make dividend-drawers gnash their false teeth. If that is theft, all I can say is, so much the better for theft.”
As the war drew to a close, the Greater London Plan of 1944 – the Abercrombie Plan- accepted the principle of universal access to green spaces in the centre of London. Abercrombie made clear the huge contribution that squares made to life in London and the city’s image and ambience and they featured briefly in a promotional film based on his report. His suggestion that local authorities be granted the right the right to purchase private open spaces and maintain them for the benefit of all was accepted, so it seemed that more democratic ideals were finally going to prevail. Of course these powers were rarely invoked, for financial reason if nothing else. Nevertheless after the war the expectations had shifted and more squares were opened to the public. Some were leased or given to local authorities by landowners who could no longer afford their upkeep, while a few others like St James’s Square, although they continued to be privately owned, were made more generally available to the public.
None were in particularly healthy state. Bomb damage affected many and of course as we saw last week 7,000 tons of railings around squares and parks had been taken down by London County Council between 1940 and 1944. After the war along with many other local councils they attempted to negotiate with the government over the cost of the replacement of the most significant ones. Eventually they were offered £80,000 towards it. This was nearly 10 times the minimum scrap value of just 25 shillings a ton that was being paid to householders but clearly way way below the actual cost of replacement. Most authorities resorted to chain-link fencing or even chicken wire which often remained place for decades.
For example it took 15 years to replace the railings around Russell Square in 1957, while Green Park was bounded by concrete posts and chain-link until the early 1960s. St James remained wrapped in chain-link until 1974 when plain steel railings were installed as a better but still temporary replacement for the lost John Nash originals. which were topped with urns as well as spikes. They are still fundraising to replace them.
But at least chain-link fencing and chicken wire could be replaced.
Unfortunately from the early 1930s onwards a threat was emerging that was going to cause far more serious and irreversible damage to several of London’s most significant and historic squares in the years after the war. It was summarised by an article in the Times on 14th July 1936. The Ministry of Transport announced “there is absolutely no room left in (Central) London which is available for parking”. The ministry must “not only palliate the evils of today, but also anticipate the exigencies of tomorrow.” You can guess what they went on to say was one of the possible solutions: the underground development of squares and similar open spaces and the preliminary works for that should “be put in hand forth with.”
The Ministry wanted to take advantage of one of the exemptions in the 1931 act. Although the gardens were protected what was under the surface was not. Indeed owners or lessees of the squares were “specifically permitted to use the subsoil for the construction and maintenance of underground works at the same time taking over as much of the surface as may be necessary for the provision of entrances, exits, ventilation shafts, et cetera.”
The ministry was in some ways aided by the imminence of war and the very recent experience of the Spanish Civil War, which emphasised the need for secure bomb shelters in case of air raids. They took advantage of that to consider additional or alternative uses including car parking. Some of these schemes were quite futuristic such as the one above featured in Illustrated London News which suggested incorporating offices and parking to pay for the complex.
The first proposals were for a scheme to shelter 40,000 people under Bloomsbury Square in a “grandiose carpark.” [Times 21 April 1939], and another under Russell Square. Then the modernist Tecton Group of architects which included Berthold Lubetkin, and Denys Lasdun, working with Ove Arup, proposed a large network of subterranean shelters under five squares in Finsbury, some of which would be joined up by tunnels.
Finsbury Borough Council voted in June 1939 to build car parks/air raid shelters under both Finsbury and Charterhouse squares at a cost of £256,000. The one under Finsbury Square was to be the largest and to take 12,000 people in the event of war and 764 cars in “normal circumstances”. The outbreak of war prevented that happening and instead Finsbury Square was taken over for barrage balloons while two small shelters were excavated under the surface.
Another even more futuristic scheme was proposed for Leicester Square by Sydney Clough, an architect better known for designing ice-rinks. It was featured in Illustrated London News on New Year’s Eve 1938 and clearly shows the intention to use the structure for car parking in peacetime.
There was no time for any of these to be built but the threat remained post-war as traffic congestion continued to get worse, so while bomb-sites became temporary parking lots the ministry continued to eye up squares as an easy future option.
Of course in the late 1940s and 1950s the car was seen as being the solution to many problems but they needed “waiting space”. The LCC too saw squares as “the most practical site for such car parking facilities”. There were three options, surface car parks “which would destroy all the amenity value of the square”, underground car parks which would allow the retention of some amenities but involve the removal of trees or finally simply leaving car parking on the surface in the street which would spoil the amenities of a large area.
In March 1953 the Ministry of Transport announced their plans for traffic congestion in the centre of the city which included the construction of subterranean carparks under nine squares as well as a number of ancillary garages on the surface. They got as far as commissioning feasibility studies from engineers but costs seemed prohibitive .
Matters came to a head in 1956 when an application was submitted by Lex Garages to build a car park underneath Finsbury Square with a petrol station on the surface above it. Finsbury Square, was still a mess after the war and hardly a shining example of decent green civic space. There was opposition including from the Church Commissioners who had sold the square to the council for a nominal £50 on the understanding it was in “safe custody for the benefit of the public” as ” a proper public garden”. Of course there were also fears that allowing a car park here would create a precedent.
Two Finsbury Square Acts had to be introduced to allow the car park and associated works to be built. The second eventually passed in June 1959 and the car park finally opened in 1961. In compensation the square was refurbished with gardens, a bowling green and café .There have been several much-needed attempts since then to redevelop the site, and these are still on-going.
While this was going on Lex also investigated the possibilities of building under Cavendish Square with support from the owners the Howard de Walden Estate [ inheritors of the Harley-Cavendish estate] After responsibility for parking was delegated to local authorities Westminster gave permission and in 1968 the contract was awarded to Taylor Woodrow for £928,906.
The Borough engineer had drawn up an ingenious scheme described as “a doughnut ring” with three subterranean levels catering for over 500 cars. The square was full of mature trees and shrubs but in the end virtually had to be felled to allow construction to take place. The character of the space changed totally and was really little short of disastrous. London was, the Architects’ Journal proclaimed, ‘an anti- clockwise roundabout to the good and one square to the worse’. Even perimeter tree planting and other attempts by well-respected landscape architect Michael Brown could do little to repair the damage.
Cavendish Square became – and remains – a grim reminder of the folly of such exercises. The only joy to be gained is that it raised public awareness and stronger opposition to similar schemes Ironically with more recent changes in attitude, the car park is about to be closed and turned into a commercial and medical hub.
Westminster Council recently gave planning permission for this because “overall the proposals are an improvement on the existing structures and that if there is harm to the heritage assets then that harm is outweighed by the public benefit of bringing new life to the Square and the car park, and also the introduction of traditional railings around the gardens.” Let’s hope they’re right – although its difficult to see how it could be worse!
At almost the same time Bloomsbury Square was in the firing line too. This is where I became involved in green issues for the first time because I worked just round the corner. The square itself was still owned by the Bedford Estate but had been let to Holborn Council, [now part of Camden]. It contained 60 mature trees and provided a very quiet green oasis. There were also plans at the same time to build the new British Museum Library on 7 acres the south side of Gt Russell Street and west side of Bloomsbury Sq which would have meant wholesale demolition of much of the surrounding area too.
Despite huge opposition from local residents, academics including Sir Nikolaus Pevsner and politicians including Frank Dobson, the then leader of the Labour group and later MP, the project went ahead. In the process 18 trees were cut down, using the usual excuse that they were diseased or “old” and between 1971 and 1973 a spiral car park that descended 66ft was constructed underneath at a cost of £687, 000 or £1600 for each of the 450 parking spaces Other trees died later because of alterations in the water table
Scrawled on one of the construction site entrances were spotted two haiku: “You will no longer linger by the leafy trees. This square is for cars” and “Camden’s contribution to this Conservation Year: Destroy Georgian Squares.”
A third underground park was also being proposed at the same time, beneath Cadogan Gardens in Chelsea. This one was opposed by the LCC but supported by Cadogan Estates who went on to appeal the refusal by the LCC “arguing that although “there would be some disfigurement during the building operations and the gardens would present a ‘thin appearance’ …after 10 years the trees transplanted in place of those felled would have achieved a reasonable maturity and there would also be the opportunity to re-landscape the gardens which was ‘rather dull'” Despite everything the scheme eventually went ahead and you too can now park there for rather a lot of money
From these last cases you’d never believe that in 1967 Parliament had passed the Civic Amenities Act which gave local authorities powers to designate conservation areas! Unfortunately it took a while for there to be any real change in tone. These car parks under historic squares were just a symptom of a terrible love affair with the motor car and its infrastructure. The government, local authorities, planners, engineers and architects – not everybody in those groups of course but enough – had embarked on a whole series of attempts to “modernise” London. The redevelopment of Euston between 1962 and 1966 was an early sign of what as to come and showed that historic buildings and green spaces were still not considered that important.
There were, for example, plans to redevelop the whole Whitehall area including Foreign Office and Treasury buildings, to pull down Carlton House Terrace and build offices, and to flatten Piccadilly Circus under another version of Centre Point.
Soho with its historic squares was to disappear under a huge mass of concrete, and there were plans for a motorway box around the city, flattening great swathes of Islington, Camden, Kensington, Clapham and Greenwich.
The turning point came with a 1968 plan from the new Greater London Council to flatten most of Covent Garden and surrounding areas. The piazza effectively London’s first square would have remained but be surrounded by slabs of offices that stretched all the way from the Strand to High Holborn which were destined to become four-lane dual-carriageways, on the grounds that without such infrastructure “London will grind to a halt”.
Backed by Edward Heath’s government the Tory controlled GLC pressed on and were only thwarted by mass protests and two dissident Tory magnates. Lady Dartmouth and Geoffrey Rippon engineered the spot listing of 250 buildings across the whole area and the plan ground to a halt. In 1973 at the following elections the GLC changed hand and the incoming Labour group dropped the whole madcap scheme. It was too late to save areas like Vauxhall and Elephant & Castle but the knock on effect saw the survival of St Pancras station in the face of British Rail’s proposal to demolish it, while much of Georgian Spitalfields area was saved by a similar ploy of listing buildings . English Heritage laid on an exhibition “Almost Lost” in 2014 to show the extent of the threat. For more background see: “Concrete Bungle” by Simon Jenkins [Guardian 22 Oct 2019]
The appearance of inner London we see today was largely determined in the immediate aftermath of 1973, including the 250 conservation areas set up by 1975 across Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea and much of inner Camden and Islington. What the fights against underground car parks in our squares and even more the fight against the demolition of Covent Garden showed was that sensitive conservation rather than concrete is the way to economic dynamism and revival. A lesson still not learned by everyone yet!