Survey of London: Volume 42, Kensington Square To Earl's Court. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1986.
This free content was digitised by double rekeying and sponsored by English Heritage. All rights reserved.
CHAPTER II - Kensington Square and Environs
In 1685 a wood-carver and joiner of St. Martin-in-the-Fields called Thomas Young, who had acquired some property in Kensington which he wished to improve, ‘did sett out and appoint a considerable part thereof to be built into a large Square of large and substantial Houses fit for ye Habitacion of persons of good Worth and Quality, with Courts and Yards before and Gardens lying backwards’. (fn. 1) Thus in 1701 Thomas Young himself summarized the origins and development of Kensington Square. It had originally been called King's Square, in honour of the reigning monarch, James II, and this name persists until quite late in some documents. The decision to build a square so far from the centre of London is remarkable and was presumably Young's own; the half a dozen or so examples which already existed were all much more central. He does not seem, however, to have had any difficulty in persuading other builders and developers to join him in the venture. But finding tenants for the houses in the early years was to prove rather more difficult, and Kensington Square was probably only saved from failure by the establishment of the Court at Kensington Palace—an event quite unforseeable in 1685.
This came too late to save Young, who by then was enmeshed in financial difficulties which resulted in his being imprisoned for debt. After the departure of the Court from Kensington in the early 1750s the square lapsed into a period of gentle decline. Perhaps partly in consequence there were no ambitious schemes radically to renew the fabric and something of the appearance of the old square survived. This has not been wholly lost even today. The square's escape from extensive office and commercial use in this century has left it with more of its old appearance and air of private occupation than other of London's early squares.
These first paragraphs are chiefly concerned with the early years of the square and what is known of its builders, and with the dominating influence in its recent history—the proximity of an expansive department store. This is followed by accounts of the individuals houses in the square, and of some neighbouring streets.
The property in Kensington which Thomas Young wished to improve by laying out a square had been acquired by him in 1682. It consisted of some fourteen acres of enclosed ground and a capital messuage or mansion house behind the south side of Kensington High Street. (fn. 2) The house was assessed for nine hearths in 1666. (fn. 3) The extent of Young's estate, in so far as it is known or can be reasonably conjectured, is shown on figure 1: it is not known if it had a frontage to the High Street. In the early seventeenth century it had formed part of the much larger holding hereabouts of the Muschamp family, who in 1635 had leased the house and some twelve acres of land to Sir John Thorowgood, knight, for his own occupation. In 1655 Thorowgood bought the freehold of the property for £800, and after his death, in 1675, it passed to his brother, Robert Thorowgood, a merchant, from whom it was acquired by Thomas Young in 1682. The purchase price was £1,550, of which £1,000 was raised by mortgaging the estate, already encumbered with an earlier mortgage, back to Thorowgood. The various mortgage interests were subsequently conveyed to two lawyers of the Middle Temple, John Lloyd and Joseph Grymwade, who joined with Young in granting leases and in other legal transactions connected with the early development of the square. In 1686 Lloyd and Grymwade assigned their interests to Francis Butler of St. Bride's in the City, gentleman, and Francis Brockett of the Middle Temple, an attorney. According to Young, Butler and Brockett continued to hold the property in trust for him even after he had paid off the outstanding mortgages. (fn. 4) Thorowgood's mansion was presumably demolished by Young before laying out the square.
Although he is occasionally described as a slater, it was as a joiner and as a wood-carver in the Grinling Gibbons tradition that Young was chiefly employed. Of his background relatively little is known, but he was probably the Thomas Young, son of William Young of Exeter, joiner, who in December 1662 was apprenticed to Philip Milner, a member of the Joiners' Company. (fn. 5) After completing his apprenticeship, Young became a freeman of the Joiners' Company in 1670. (fn. 6) In 1672 he was one of the wood-carvers employed on Wren's rebuilding of St. Mary-at-Hill; and in the mid 1680s he undertook similar work at another Wren church, St. Mary Magdalene, Old Fish Street. (fn. 7)
Prior to the laying out of Kensington Square Young is not known to have engaged in speculative building on his own account, although he undertook work for others involved in the development of Soho. He was one of the workmen employed by the speculative builder Richard Frith and his partner, the timber merchant Cadogan Thomas, to finish the Duke of Monmouth's house in Soho Square in 1681–2. Three years later Young worked (as a slater) on the finishing of Sir Samuel Grimston's new house in Soho Square, and in Gerrard Street he and another building tradesman were granted the lease of a house in partial payment for work undertaken for the prominent late-seventeenth-century speculator Nicholas Barbon. (fn. 8)
Outside London, he is known to have worked as a carver at some important country houses—Burghley (1682–7), Chatsworth (1688–91), Sudbury Hall (1691) and Kiveton. At Burghley his period of employment overlapped that of Gibbons himself, but it was Young and a fellow woodcarver, Jonathan Maine, who received the largest payments. Thence he moved to Chatsworth, where he led a team of four carvers, three of them from London and one local man. (fn. 9)
Young, who wanted the square to be ‘completed and finished with all convenient expedience’, recognized that he could not ‘carry on so great an undertaking by himself’. (fn. 1) He therefore leased or sold most of the sites there for development by others. More than twenty different builders and building tradesment took sites, of whom perhaps a dozen also worked, liked Young, under Wren or in Soho. The former included the bricklayers Stephen Emmett and Henry Webb, the carpenter John Hayward, the joiner Henry Lobb, the plasterer Henry Margetts, the locksmith William Partidge, and the masons Nicholas and John Young (who are not known to have been related to Thomas). Henry Lobb, who built a house on the north side of the square and with his brother William, another joiner, purchased a large site on the west side (fig. 1), was also employed at Chatsworth, where a third brother, Joel, was one of Thomas Young's team of wood-carvers. (fn. 10) Another builder in the square to follow the Chatsworth trail was Henry Margetts, the lessee of No. 15. In London Margetts worked at both the Chelsea Hospital and Kensington Place. (fn. 11) At Chatsworth he was chief Plasterer, but the only comment on him there that has come down to us is a remark by the Duke of Devonshire's steward that ‘Mr. Margaretts I beleeve is but poore tho very rude to his Grace’. (fn. 12) Most of the builders who took sites in the square operated under leases granted by Young which were generally for a term of fifty-one years from Midsummer 1685.
House-Building was in progress by the summer of that year, Young giving the lead by undertaking six houses himself. These included the largest and probably the earliest house in the square on the site of the present No. 13. By about 1690 the north, east and south sides were largely completed. The south side did not then included Nos. 11 and 12, which were added about 1700 and although numbered in the square and perhaps its best-known houses are physically just outside it. The north side still lacked Nos. 36 and 37, the two westernmost houses, No. 37 being built soon afterwards but No. 36 not until c. 1721–2. On the west side only one house (No. 24) had been completed by 1690. The rest of this side was developed rather slowly and the last houses to be built there (Nos. 34 and 35) were not erected until 1736–7. (An account of the development of the west side will be found on page 29.) Early in 1691 the Middlesex Justices found the north, south and east sides ‘fit to be paved with stone from the place designed for a freestone pavement before the several and respective houses there, to the rails [enclosing the central garden] in the said square’. They ordered the work to be carried out by Midsummer 1691, but it was delayed by difficulties in apportioning the charge among the inhabitants and owners of the adjoining houses. (fn. 13)
As far as is known there are no early views of the square. The bird's-eye view which Joshua Rhodes included in his plans and elevations of Kensington Palace in 1762–4 is merely conventional in its depiction of the houses, and the picture painted on a fan, reproduced by Beresford Chancellor in his Squares of London and said to be of Kensington Square, is in fact a view of the Orange Grove in Bath. In the absence of any illustration it is not easy to imagine how the square looked in its early days, but even on those sides which were complete it was low-built and irregular, the houses varying considerably in width and most of them probably rising (as No. 45 still does) no higher than two storeys. In 1705, when the square was still near the apex of its fashionableness, John Bowack called it the most beautiful part of Kensington, ‘which for Beauty of Building and Worthy Inhabitants exceeds several Squares in London’. (fn. 14) In 1729 The Foreigner's Guide spoke of its ‘pretty Houses’. (fn. 15)
The centre of the square was laid out as ‘a Garden Plot’ enclosed within rails, the lessees of the houses being expected to contribute to the cost of making the garden and erecting the rails. (fn. 16) The earliest known plan of the square, in 1717, shows the garden simply laid to lawn edged round with single rows of trees, (fn. 17) a layout which persisted until at least the second half of the eighteenth century (Plate 1). Rhodes's view, rightly or wrongly, also shows trees planted along the edges of the pavement and extending up the east side of Young Street. The square is notable for the deep ‘Courts and Yards’ Mentioned by Young in front of the houses on its north and south sides. Some of these are still separated by shoulder-high walls of distinctive form which also occur on the later west side and may formerly have been a characteristic of the square.
Some stabling for the houses was provided in a separatemews laid out by Young at the eastern end of the way or passage leading out of the south-east corner of the square (fig. 1). Latterly called Kensington Square Mews, this survived until the early 1870s. Its site is now covered by the southern end of Kensington Court.
At least one house in the square was inhabited by 1687, the occupant being a Nicholas Bagnall, esquire. (fn. 18) By 1690 there were about a dozen inhabitants, but most of the thirty or so houses were still unoccupied. The fillip given to the square by the arrival of the Court at Kensington is reflected in a sudden surge in the number of residents after 1690, so that by 1696 all but one of the houses then completed were in occupation. (fn. 18) The impact of the Court on the character of the occupation of the square is discussed in Chapter I.
In order to encourage ‘persons of quality and other good and responsible tenants to rent and inhabit’ the houses in the square before proximity to the Court provided its own inducement, Young spent upwards of £650 in laying out a ‘large and commodious bowling green’ at South End (fig. 1), and in erecting ‘an House of Entertainment (for Eating and Drinking) to belong thereto’. The bowling green house, as it was known, was a substantial brick building of three storeys with four rooms per floor, ‘richly wainscotted and adorned and painted ’. Adjacent, Young laid out a ‘Spring Garden’, and was perhaps inspired partly by the Spring Garden and bowling green at Charing Cross. Young proudly described the bowling green as having been brought by him ‘to a great finish and perfection’, with ‘the levell, banks and green swarded in good order’ and the whole planted around with ‘a quick (and constantly green) hedge’. He kept the management of this amenity in his own hands and lived in the bowling green house with his family. Young claimed for the bowling green that ‘not only was it a great convenience to the inhabitants of the square but much encouraged and forwarded the well letting of the same’, and that ‘from the great resort of nobility and gentry and other persons of good account to the green’ he and his family enjoyed a very considerable trade, ‘to the comfortable support and maintainance of [himself], his wife and family’. (fn. 1)
A completely opposing view was taken by one of Young's mortagees who saw the bowling green rather as ‘an encumbrance and charge’ and asserted that Young, far from gaining any support from it, found it ‘the occasion of his running into debt not having a trade answerable to the expense there fore’. (fn. 1)
The mortagee just referred to—probably the most important of all Young's financial backers—was Thomas Sutton, an India-grown-seller of Buckingham Street, Strand, with two shops in the New Exchange. (fn. 19) In 1702 he was the defendant in a Chancery suit brought by Young, whose bill of complaint, together with Sutton's answer, is an important, if confusing and fragmentary, source for the early history of the square.
According to Young's testimony he had spent £7,000 ‘at the least’ on laying out his land. Some of this money he raised by outright sales of freeholds and some by mortgages to a number of creditors. (Those who lent him money by mortgage or otherwise included Matthew Child, the brewer, brickmaker and landowner at Earl's Court.) (fn. 1) In 1686 Young sold most of the west side of the square before any development had taken place there (see page 29) and in the same year he sold the freehold of four houses in the square (Nos. 4, 6, 19 and 45) and a couple in Young Street to Francis Butler for £300. (fn. 20) In the following year he raised a further £700 by selling the freehold of eight more houses in the square to Thomas Sutton (Nos. 5, 14–15, 21–23 and 43–44). In the same year 1687 Young borrowed money from Sutton to continue building, which was secured on a mortgage of three other houses in the square (Nos. 16, 17 and 20) and some undeveloped areas, usually referred as the waste, in its south-east and south-west corners. But within six months of obtaining this mortgage Young was arrested for debt and carried off to the King's Bench Prison. His explanation of his difficulties was the great loss he had sustained by the ‘divers persons who were indebted to him failing in the world’ and his having ‘exhausted and spent his stock in purchasing and building upon the estate and other improvements’. (fn. 1)
While in prison he was visited by Sutton who, ‘pretending great love and kindness’ to Young, persuaded him to assign to Sutton the equity of redemption in the mortgage, to protect his property from his creditors, who would otherwise have seized it and left him ‘to perish in prison’ and his family to ‘come to ruin’. If Young is to be believed it was this argument that induced him to execute an assignment to Sutton in February 1688. This made over to him the equity of redemption (in effect the freehold) of those parts of the square which he already held under mortgage and also of the bowling green, the bowling green house and the ‘Spring Garden’, which Young had already mortgaged elsewhere. The nominal purchase price was £400, which Sutton was, according to Young, to dispense on finishing some of the houses. Young afterwards claimed, in Chancery, that his assignment, though formally absolute, was in fact subject to an undertaking by Sutton to return his property to him on the repayment of his borrowings. Not long after this Young must, temporarily at least, have been set at liberty, for between 1688 and 1691 he was employed at Chatsworth. But in November 1691 he was again confined, (fn. 21) this time ‘ to a close prisson in ye prison of ye Fleet’, where he remained for most of the 1690s, (fn. 22) ignorant of and debarred from participation in Sutton's dealings with the property. (One expedient Young tried to use in 1698 was a loan to repay Sutton on the security of his whole estate from Hugh Chamberlen's ‘land Bank’, but Sutton, advised by the impolite plasterer Henry Margetts that the land bank would ‘not do’, refused to co-operate.) Eventually in 1701 Young brought his complaint in Chancery against Sutton for witholding his property from him. (fn. 1)
An exacerbation of Sutton's offences, in Young's eyes, was his treatment of the bowling green. This Sutton had caused to be ‘digged quite upp’ (having first removed the turf), and converted into what Young described as a ‘barren and unprofitable garden’. But according to Sutton it was the bowling green itself which had been unprofitable. He had allowed Young's wife and children to live on rent free in the house there while Young was in prison and to make what money they could from it, ‘yet the trade was so small they could not maintain themselves thereby’. As for taking away the turf, he believed ‘the green was never turfed otherwise than as it naturally grew’. After the departure of Young's family, Sutton had let the bowling green, the house and the ‘Spring Garden’ to ‘one Ful-wood’, but notwithstanding his and Sutton's endeavours ‘to encourage and bring trade’ Fulwood had been forced to quit, claiming that the ‘rent was great and the resort to the green so small’. After this Sutton had decided that to persevere with the bowling green would be a ‘great burden’ to the owner, so had converted it into an orchard, planting fruit trees there and replacing Young's hedge with a brick wall. It was not, he said, altered ‘out of desire to ruin or destroy it but to make all the improvement possible to the estate’. (fn. 1)
Although no record of a final judgment in Young's Chancery suit has been traced, it must be presumed to have failed in so far as Young seems never to have recovered any of the assigned properties. Thereafter he virtually disappears from view and is last heard of living in St. James's in 1721. He had a son, Peter, also of St. James's, who was a surveyor. (fn. 23)
Sutton, on the other hand, who by this time was living in the square (at the former No. 22), (fn. 18) continued in possession of the bowling green, the bowling green house, and the ‘Spring Garden’. He still had in hand five of the eight houses in the square (including his own residence) which he had bought from Young in 1687, the others having been sold. Two of the five, Nos. 14 and 15, he retained, and together with the former bowling green and ‘Spring Garden’ they were to remain in the ownership of his heirs until well into the eighteenth century. (fn. 24)
After selling his own dwelling house in the square in 1705, Sutton moved to a house at South End. (fn. 25) This was probably the former bowling green house, which Young thought Sutton would have difficulty in letting. No. person of ‘quality or worth’ would live there, he predicted, on account of its ‘Standing backwards behind the gardens and coachhouses and stables belonging to the square’, and it was ‘much too big for any gardener or other person of mean calling or circumstance to take’. (fn. 1) After Sutton's death (some time between 1724 and 1743 (fn. n1) ) his property in and around the square descended to his son, Thomas Sutton junior, a barrister. He succeeded his father in the house at South End, but later occupied No. 14 Kensington Square until his death in 1759; the latter's widow lived at No. 15 from c. 1760 until 1765. (fn. 27)
Throughout the eighteenth century the site of the former bowling green and ‘Spring Garden’ was let by Sutton and his heirs to a succession of gardeners, and apart from a small piece next to South End Row, which was sold in 1794 (see pages 136–7), the ground was still being cultivated as a market garden in the 1840s. (fn. 28) Bisected in 1865–6 by the uncovered tracks of the Metropolitan Railway, the site is now occupied by part of the garden and some of the buildings of the Convent of the Assumption in Kensington Square, and by the London Tara Hotel (figs. 1 and 2).
With the building of Nos. 34 and 35 in 1736–7 the square finally stood complete. The process of renewal was already beginning, however, and although it has never been very radical the height of the houses has generally been raised by at least a storey. By the 1780s some of the original brick fronts had disappeared under a skin of stucco. Only one house (No. 9) is known to have been rebuilt from the ground before 1800. This was followed by the replacement of Nos. 41 and 42 in 1804–5, and by the reconstruction of No. 7 in 1808–9. Another four houses (Nos. 4, 13, 23 and 27) had been wholly rebuilt by the mid 1850s. The last thirty years of the nineteenth century, a time when the historic character of the square was becoming appreciated, was also, ironically, the period when most rebuilding took place. Ten old houses were demolished (two of them for the chapel of the Convent of the Assumption) and another two were refaced. At four of these sites new ‘Queen Anne’ replaced the old fronts.
After the withdrawal of the Court from Kensington the square had become something of a backwater, most of the houses remaining in respectable private occupation but others passing into use for genteel schools and academies. Probably the earliest of these was estabished in the 1750s (at No. 30) and by the early 1830s there were no fewer than eight academies in the square, seven of them catering for boarders. (fn. 29) The Kensington Proprietary Grammar School for boys founded in 1831 (and its successor) was well patronized but succumbed to the dominance of the public school and the particular rivalry of St. Paul's at Hammersmith, and closed in 1896 (see page 33). The census of 1861 confirms this picture of a square largely in sober private occupation but with enough other uses to keep in unsmart. Twenty years later the picture is not very different, but with wealth and ‘position’ perhaps a little better represented.
In this century the charm of the square and the continuance there of numerous individual freehold units brought in owner-occupiers increasingly concerned for its survival—a concern that has not gone unexercised. This is because the issue which has dominated the history of Kensington Square after 1890 has been the growth of John Barker and Company from a handy shop in Kensington High Street into a gigantic concern which has threatened not just to overshadow the square but also, at times, to swallow parts of it up entirely.
By Barkers' own account the company first expanded into the square in 1890, ‘when our horses and vehicles were stabled in the yards forming part of Nos. 2 to 6, Kensington Square, on the East side. At that time and until after the 1914–1918 War, the Company's trade vehicles stood around the Square Garden, which was open and used by our staff, many of whom lived in certain houses of the Square.’ (fn. 30) By 1914 houses on all four sides had been in temporary or premanent use by Barkers or their rivals Derry and Toms. Most were used for business purposes, though there were some staff hostels. (fn. 31)
Any murmurings among private residents at this stage failed to make themselves heard. But after Barkers took over Derry and Toms in 1920 and embarked on a concerted expansion, trouble erupted. The immediate casus belli was on the north side where the company tried to buy Nos. 43–45, with No. 16 Young Street, in order to build a loading bay on the sites. A powerful protest, orchestrated by Bryan Fell of No. 43, secretary of the Kensington Square Garden Committee, was ‘got up’ in The Times in February 1923. Next year, Barkers agreed to be content with acquiring No. 16 and part of the gardens and not to pursue their claim on the houses in the square. For the time being the loading bay was not constructed. But as a result of the alarm, many private owners in the square signed convenants committing themselves and their successors to using their houses for residential purposes only. Thus, as so often, it was the threat of demolition which caused loins to be girded and the stirrings of an architectural re-evaluation to begin. (fn. 32)
In 1927 a far-reaching arrangement was made whereby the company undertook to rebuild the whole of Barkers and of Derry and Toms' main premises with modern service features behind (see page 93). This must have seemed by its very scale and appearance of completeness a guarantee for Kensington Square. But the first portion to be build, Barkers' service block on the south side of Ball Street, loomed over the square's north side; and despite the arrangement the company continued to extend its holdings in the square to the point where in 1939 it could claim ownership of some two-thirds of its houses. (fn. 33) Following what the residents viewed as repeated encroachments and provocations, relations between the disputants were now very sour, and the square's garden was firmly shut against the company's staff. ‘We in Kensington Square wage a ceaseless war to protect what is now the oldest Square in London still predominantly residential from destruction by commercial interests’, trumpeted Angus Acworth, occupant of No. 33, honorary secretary of the Georgian Group, and chief champion of the residents' interests. (fn. 34)
The climax of hostilities came in 1946–9, when Barkers pressed persistently for the removal of covenants on serveral houses in their ownership and returned to their aim of building a loading dock behind Nos. 42–45 Kensington Square and No. 16 Young Street. The issues generated prolonged public controversy and private lobbying and became an important test of the new post-war planning laws. (fn. n2) The outcome was a draw. Barkers obtained their loading dock, but without the thoroughfare through the ground floor of No. 42 Kensington Square which they had hoped for, while the planning authorities confirmed the residential status of the square, where many houses were listed as of architectural and historical interest. (fn. 36) In the event, therefore, no house in the square was demolished. Over the years Barkers' drive for expansion. diminished, allowing a gradual accommodation with the square's residents. At the time of writing the company still owns properties and houses some of its staff in the square. But none of its business activities are carried on there, and the overwhelming tenor of the square remains, as ever, domestic.