The Secrets of London's Squares: Westminster and Bloomsbury by Alan Brooke & David Brandon
Many cities of the world are famous for their squares. For example: Red Square in Moscow, Times Square in New York, Saint Peter’s Square in Vatican City and Tiananmen Square in China. When it comes to London many people, if asked, would name Trafalgar Square or even Leicester Square. The squares (and one might add the parks and gardens) are a defining feature of England’s capital city. ‘Square’ is a generic term for urban open spaces and as we know many are not actually square or even rectangular. Squares are a form of architecture and town planning not exactly unique to the metropolis but never exploited to the full in other cities although it could be said that Bath, Edinburgh and Liverpool all made some use of the concept.
Given the hundreds of squares in London we decided to focus on Bloomsbury and Westminster. We also included a handful of what might be called ‘stand alone’ gardens so see this as a bonus!
Some have an abundance of features including statuary, gardens, inscriptions on benches, fountains, gravestones, commemorations and of course many London plane trees, which account for over half of the city’s tree population and are in evidence in many of the squares in this book. It was the unusual, quirky and curious that fascinated us as well as the familiar features of the selected squares.
Garden squares provide a welcome retreat for people seeking rest and for those who work nearby. However there are many squares off the main streets that are probably less known to the visitor. Of course there are limits to what can be seen in London in a short space of time but some of the squares and gardens in Westminster and Bloomsbury are certainly worth seeking out and do provide many unexpected discoveries as well as a peaceful haven.
The London Square has to be seen as an evolving historical and architectural phenomenon. Its origin probably lies in the work of Inigo Jones in Covent Garden in 1631-39 on land then owned by the Earls of Bedford and of which very few traces still exist. Despite the Georgian association of some squares many were built in the Victorian period notably between 1840 and 1880, in such districts as Kensington. The grandest ones were largely in estates whose ground landlords were the Russell, Grosvenor, Portman and Cavendish-Bentinck families or their connections.
The earlier squares were paved and largely of open access which made them less exclusive. The private enclosed garden in the centre of a square emerged as a conscious attempt to safeguard the existence of at least some open space as London expanded in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and especially the nineteenth century. Even the resulting ‘green’ amenity was only available to a small privileged elite. As the nineteenth century wore on many resented the social privilege of these gated spaces. The closed or private garden ones had few, if any occupants. Those that had open access drew huge numbers of visitors, clearly enjoying, respecting and appreciating the space and the surroundings.
George Orwell felt strongly about the exclusive nature of the squares. ‘…the railings are returning in one London square after another…So the awful denizens of the squares can make use of their treasured keys again, and the children of the poor can be kept out. When the railings round the parks and squares were removed, the object was partly to accumulate scarp iron, but the removal was also felt to be a democratic gesture…The parks were improved out of recognition by being laid open, acquiring a friendly, almost rural look that they had never had before’ (As I Please 1943-45).
Most squares did their duty in the Second World War and not just in giving up their iron rails. Belgrave Square became a tank park, St James’s Square was dug up and given over to vegetable growing and air raid shelters were built in Soho and Manchester Squares.
The building of residential squares started to decline in the early twentieth century and many faced demolition. It was the London Squares Act of 1931 that saved many from such a fate. There has been a minor resurgence of squares in the latter part of the twentieth century notably with the expansion of office squares such as Canada Square in Canary Wharf. In more recent years events and organisations such as the London Open Garden Square Weekend and the London Parks and Gardens Trust have added to the interest and upkeep of these places.
As with much of London the most fascinating aspects are those in the less familiar places. Do seek out both the lesser as well as the better-known squares and gardens – there is much delight to be had and discoveries to be made.
Alan Brooke & David Brandon's new book Secrets of Central London's Squares is available for purchase now.