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History,

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Gardens

History,

In our address book,

Gardens

Life in squares

12.12.2023

Words by Hermione Russell

A guided tour through the history of London’s iconic garden squares

The first garden squares

When most people picture the quintessential London property, they imagine a white stucco townhouse on a garden square. These squares are one of the city’s characteristic features, like the boulevards of Paris or the piazzas of Rome. What’s more, the story of their development offers a window into the architectural history of London.

The first squares were constructed in the seventeenth century. In the building boom that followed the Great Fire of London, wealthy Londoners began moving out of the cramped medieval city into squares of terrace housing. These early squares were found in nearby neighbourhoods such as Bloomsbury, St James’s and Soho – forming the first London suburbs.

To begin with, their ‘gardens’ were simply patches of open pastureland at the centre of each square. What’s more, by the early eighteenth century, most of them had become communal rubbish dumps, attracting crime and antisocial behaviour. It was not until 1726 that St James’s Square established a board of trustees with responsibility for the garden’s maintenance.

Soon, other squares had their own boards, which began fencing off the gardens to the public. For instance, Soho Square was given iron railings in 1748 to protect its ornamental layout. By this point, many garden squares were only open to resident key holders.

St James's Square, date unknown

Communal garden for Clarendon Road, present day

St James's Square, date unknown

Communal garden for Clarendon Road, present day

Residents only

The largest number of garden squares were constructed in the decades after the Napoleonic Wars, a peaceful period when London grew increasing wealthy. In the Regency and early Victorian era, Thomas Cubbitt transformed the marshy areas on the Duke of Grosvenor’s estate into the fashionable neighbourhoods of Belgravia and Pimlico.

Cubbitt not only designed the houses, but also laid out the garden squares in the landscape style made popular by Capability Brown. Scattered trees and open grassland brought the countryside into the town, while Cavendish Square even had sheep gazing behind its railings like a rural estate. Other famous landscape architects who worked on garden squares include Charles Bridgman, John Nash and Humphry Repton – the Regency designer responsible for Bloomsbury and Russell Squares.

By the mid-to-late Victorian period, domestic privacy was considered increasingly important. Iron railings meant the gardens could be seen from outside, but now evergreen shrubs and trees were planted round the borders to give a greater sense of seclusion. Similarly, though the grandest Georgian squares were built in a strict classical style – their terraces resembling a single mansion called a ‘palace front’ – by the Victorian era, that style had become more informal, with rows of detached or semi-detached villas meeting this need for greater privacy.

Bloomsbury Square, 1787

A rare level of discretion

In 1840, the wish for privacy was taken to its logical conclusion on the Ladbroke Estate. Houses faced the street, while their rear gardens opened onto a communal square. As a result, these Notting Hill squares are now some of most sought-after in the city, offering a rare level of discretion and retreat.

Between the wars, the London Squares Preservation Act gave protection from development to 461 garden squares. However, during the Second World War most of their railing were melted down for the metal, while the gardens themselves were farmed for vegetables, or else used to store military materials.

Then, in the years after the war, several squares fell into neglect. However, in 2000, English Heritage and the National Lottery launched a scheme to revive as many as possible. According to English Heritage, there are roughly six hundred garden squares in London, with over a hundred of those found in the neighbourhoods of Kensington and Chelsea. Nowadays they are the pride of the city, offering sanctuaries of quiet, shade and greenery in the centre of the bustling capital.

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