The site of Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery

Survey of London: Volume 20, St Martin-in-The-Fields, Pt III: Trafalgar Square and Neighbourhood. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1940.

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'The site of Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery', in Survey of London: Volume 20, St Martin-in-The-Fields, Pt III: Trafalgar Square and Neighbourhood, (London, 1940) pp. 7-14. British History Online [accessed 19 April 2024]

In this section


As can be seen from the plan given on Plate 2 the "Great Mews" in 1796, occupied the greater part of the site of Trafalgar Square, the "Crown Stables" being on the site of the western part of the National Gallery, and the Green Mews extending backwards to what is now Orange Street. The ground at the south-west corner of St. Martin's Lane was, however, in various ownerships and had to be bought in by the Crown for the formation of the square. Owing to its situation at the junction of several roads the site of Trafalgar Square has always been of importance; an outline of the history of the various portions of ground which it comprises is, therefore, set out below.

(i) The Mews.

No mention has been found of Mews at Charing Cross prior to the reign of Edward I, and it seems probable that he was the first king to maintain such an establishment there. Accounts of the works at Westminster Palace contain, from 1273 onwards, items relating to the building of the Mews, to turfs bought for the herbary of the falcons, to work done at "the houses of the chaplain officiating in the chapel of the King's Mews, and for the King's falconers dwelling there." (fn. 25) In 1306 the Master and Brethren of St. James's Hospital were allowed to acquire land in Westminster in mortmain provided that they maintained a chaplain to celebrate divine service daily in the "Chapel of Muwes." (fn. 26) Presumably this chapel was quite small and formed part of the Mews building. No later mention of it has been found.

Thomas de Erleham, who was keeper of the Mews early in the reign of Edward I, had an allowance of 9d. a day. (fn. 27) A hundred years later, Sir Simon de Burley, had 12d. a day for the same office, (fn. 26) and his patent sets forth the prices he was to pay for stocking the Mews, namely: 20s. for a falcon-gentle, 10s. for a tercelet-gentle, 13s. 4d. for a goshawk, 6s. 8d. a piece for a goshawk, sakeret, lanner or lanneret-tercel, 26s. 8d. for a gerfalcon and 13s. 4d. for a gerfalcon-tercel. Burley was tutor to Prince Richard (afterwards Richard II) and arranged his marriage with Anne of Bohemia. (fn. 28) After Richard's accession to the throne Burley remained his supporter, and in consequence incurred the enmity of the Duke of Gloucester and his associates. He was impeached and beheaded on Tower Hill in 1388. An inventory (fn. 29) of his goods "at the Mews and Baynard's Castle" includes a list of 24 books, a large number for those days.

During the 15th century the keepership of the Mews, like so many offices about the court, became largely an honorary dignity, the duties being performed by deputies. Among the holders of the office were John, Duke of Bedford, regent during the minority of Henry VI, and Richard, Earl of Warwick, "the kingmaker." (fn. 26)

An expenditure of £200 on "building the Mews at Charing Cross" is noted in "The King's Book of Payments" under date July, 1515, (fn. 30) but by 1530 Henry had become more interested in the reconstruction of Wolsey's palace, York Place, than in hawking, and buildings at the Mews, as well as those at Westminster Palace and the Manor of Kennington, were pulled down in order to provide stone, brick, chalk, tiles, etc., for the king's new palace. (fn. 31)

Stow (fn. 32) tells us that in 1534 "the king having faire stabling at Lomsbery (a Manor in the farthest west part of Oldborne) the same was fiered and burnt, with many great horses, and great store of Hay. After which time, the forenamed house called the Mewse by Charing crosse was new builded, and prepared for stabling of the king's horses, in the raigne of Edward the sixt and Queene Mary." Many writers have accepted this explanation of the change of function of the Mews which seems to have taken place about this time, but there does not appear to be any other evidence of the king having stables at Bloomsbury which would have been an incovenient distance from any of the royal palaces. Stow's survey was written some sixty years after the fire was said to have taken place; the account given in Edward Hall's Chronicle published in 1548 is on all counts far more likely to be correct. It runs: "The xvj day of the same month (i.e. August, 1534) was burned the kynges stable at Charyng crosse otherwise called the Mewse, wherein was brent many great Horses and great store of haye." In 1527 Thomas Wilson "yeoman farrier" was granted the custody of the Mews and he was succeeded in 1533 by Thomas Wood "yeoman of the Stable," (fn. 30) two appointments which corroborate Hall's suggestion that the change of function of the Mews took place before the fire and not in consequence of it. The Mews at Charing Cross were rebuilt as stables between 1547 and 1559. Over £8,000 was expended in this rebuilding. (fn. 33) The accounts reveal very little of the nature of the buildings, which probably consisted for the most part of one-storied stabling round an open yard. The pond, shown on later plans, was in existence at this date, and there were at least two gates. The Keeper of the Mews had lodgings there and there were also lodgings built over the main gate. (fn. 34) John Golightly, "the king's yeoman smith," and the owner of a considerable amount of property in the neighbourhood, succeeded Wood as keeper of the Mews. (fn. 26)

References to the Mews during Queen Elizabeth's reign relate mainly to minor repairs and to the supply of provisions. In the latter connection it may be noted that the parishioners of St. Martin's agreed to supply yearly four "loades of good swet and drye hey of the first mowinge at or before the firste of Auguste." (fn. 35)

In the 17th century parts of the Mews, either by formal grant or tacit consent, began to be used as lodgings for Court favourites and Court officials. Soldiers were quartered there during the Commonwealth period (fn. 36) but in 1653–4 the Mews "with all the lodgings, rooms and stables there other than the barn now used for the horseguard" were ordered to be cleared "For the Protector's use," (fn. 36) an order which provoked many protests from the inhabitants.

After the Restoration repair and rebuilding works were carried out at and near the Mews. On 7th September, 1663, the Earl of Newburgh claimed compensation for his "expensive charge in building of a howse, Stable and Coach howse upon his Mats Ground in the mewes" (fn. 37) and in the following year the Duke of Albemarle was responsible for paving the Mews "and the streets next to them near Charing Cross and St. Martin's Lane," and for "building two Coach-houses for the queen." (fn. 36) In the same year he wrote to the Lord Mayor "requesting a quill of water for the Gentlemen of the Horse at the Mews Gate." (fn. 38)

On 25th September, 1661, Pepys records that he met Sir R. Slingsby in St. Martin's Lane, and "he and I in his coach through the Mewes, which is the way that now all coaches are forced to go, because of a stop at Charing Cross, by reason of a drain there to clear the streets," and on 29th February, 1663–4, Pepys and Sir William Penn went to the Mews to see the Duke of York's horses. (fn. 39) In March, 1665, Pepys visited "Creed's new lodging in the Mewes," and there "found Creed with his parrot upon his shoulder."

In All Souls' College is preserved a plan made by Sir Christopher Wren "for rebuilding the royal Mews at Charing Cross to contain 388 Horses and 42 Coaches," (fn. 40) but this was never carried out, the first and only big improvement there being the rebuilding of the main block of stables on the site of the National Gallery by William Kent in 1732. Ralph, writing in 1734, (fn. 41) says: "The stables in the Mewse are certainly a very grand and noble building, but then they are in a very singular taste; a mixture of the Rustick and the Gothique together; the middle gate is built after the first, and the towers over the two others, in the last. I will not take upon me to determine whether this is a fault or no … but this I am sure of, that unless the other wretched buildings are pull'd down, and the corresponding wings are made to answer the bulk already rais'd; … and the whole laid open to the street, it will add a new reflection on our taste … I could wish too that a view was open'd from hence to St. Martin's Church." Noorthouck, forty years later, praised Kent's work, but lamented "the wretched buildings that form the other sides of the square," making it "look like a common innyard." (fn. 42) By the end of the 18th century most of the buildings, on the Hedge Lane and Charing Cross frontages appear to have been leased out to private persons, (fn. 43) and during the last few years of its existence even Kent's building lost its original function, being used for the storage of public records and, for a time, as a menagerie. There is little doubt that the clearance occasioned by the extension of Pall Mall eastwards to the Church was long overdue. An engraving by T. H. Shepherd showing the appearance of Kent's building just prior to its demolition in 1830 is reproduced on Plate 3b.

(ii) St. Martin's Watch House.

In 1697–8 the parish authorities obtained from the Crown a grant (fn. 43) of a small piece of ground, part of the Mews, which had previously been used for the storage of coals, on which to build a parish watch house or round house. (fn. n1) The ground was only 16 feet by 17 feet in extent and the building must have been very small. It was the scene of a horrible incident in July, 1742, when the parish constables having got drunk took up some five and twenty women and thrust them into the round house for the night. According to one account six of the women were stifled to death. (fn. 44)

The site of the round house is shown on the plan of the Mews given on Plate 2. It is now part of Trafalgar Square.

(iii) The King's Head and The Chequer.

The extreme south-west corner of St. Martin's Lane (now part of the roadway east of the paved area of Trafalgar Square) belonged in the 15th century to Westminster Abbey. In 1493, John Norris, "yeoman of Eybury," obtained a lease of "one messuage with two annexed cottages at Charing Cross opposite the Rowncevall …, which messuage abuts on the wall of the garden of the mews on the north, on St. Martin's Lane on the east, on the highway on the south and on the tenement belonging to the house of the Blessed Mary of Bedelem outside Bishopsgate, London, on the West." At the same time Norris agreed to have a new brewhouse erected there. (fn. 45) The lease was subsequently renewed to John's widow Christian, but the property having been acquired by Henry VIII it was, in 1545–6, granted (fn. 46) to Thomas and James Bacon under the description of "a tenement called le Rose and two cottages situated near Charing Cross."

In 1561, when the sign of the Rose had been changed to that of the Chequer, George Carleton, who had acquired the freehold of the property, brought a suit against the then tenant, Christian Golightly, for dilapidations. (fn. 47) Her tenancy ended soon after but it is interesting to note that the Golightlys were, at some time or other, in possession of practically the whole of the site of Trafalgar Square (John Golightly being keeper of the Mews) and this is probably the reason for the confusion which arose later as to the ownership of the various portions of ground.

In 1573, George Carleton granted to John Yrpe, yeoman, a renewal of his lease of the property which was then described as "the kings hedd wherein Robert Cole Inholder late dwelled, the tenement wherein George Wheler late dwelled and the Ynne caled the Cheqr. wherin the said John Yrpe nowe dwelleth." (fn. 48) By this lease, John Yrpe was authorised to pull down the middle house and use the materials to repair the other two. Carleton soon after sold the property to Robert, Earl of Essex, who, on 18th December, 1581, granted it to the Queen in exchange for certain lands belonging to the bishoprics of Oxford and London. (fn. 49) There was, perhaps, some suggestion that the ground should be added to the area of the Mews, but if so it was never carried out and in 1614, it was included in a big grant of property to William and George Whitmore under the name of "the Lowe Inne alias the Chequer now or late in the tenure of John Yrpe." (fn. 50)

In 1637, John Taylor noted that "the Carriers of Blanvile in Dorcetshire, doe lodge at the chequer neere Charing Crosse, they doe come thither every second thursday." (fn. 51) The Chequer remained in being until the middle of the 18th century though seven small houses were built on the site of the two adjoining houses. (fn. 52) The premises were purchased (fn. 53) in 1729 by Sir Anthony Sturt and his son Humphrey, and were sold by the latter in 1749 to the Earl of Northumberland who wished to add to the stabling accommodation of Northumberland House and widen the road in front of it. (fn. 54) When the property was purchased by the Crown in 1827 for the formation of Trafalgar Square, it consisted of two houses facing St. Martin's Lane (Nos. 148 and 149 in the occupations of Mr. McNab, surgeon and Mr. Cox, tailor), three houses facing Charing Cross, east of Chequer Court (Nos. 1, 2 and 3, in the occupations of Mr. Belcher, linen draper, Mr. Pauli, furrier, and Mr. Dobree, pawnbroker) and the Northumberland Coffee House on the west side of Chequer Court.

(iv) Nos. 5–9, Charing Cross.

The property at Charing Cross owned by Bethlem Hospital has been the subject of much controversy, but from the evidence now available there seems little doubt that it consisted originally only of the ground west of the Chequer Inn marked on the inset plan (dated 1649) as in the occupation of Olave Buck, Isabel Lumsden, William Baker and Robert Hills. It is first mentioned in an inquisition of 1403 when it was stated to be worth 6 marks a year. (fn. 55) In 1545, Peter Mewtys, master of the hospital, granted this property, under the description of "the Stonehouse, with the appurtenances lately erected in three tenements," to Thomas Wood, yeoman, and Joan his wife, for 99 years. (fn. 56) In 1552, Thomas Wood surrendered his patent as keeper of the Mews in favour of John Golightly, (fn. 26) and two years later he made a will bequeathing to his wife "all that my lease of two tenements in the parish of St. Martin, Charing Cross: the one in the tenure of John Golightly, as also the other, in which I now dwell, which tenements I have of the lease made unto me by the late master of the hospital of Our Blessed Lady of Bethlem." The right of the governors of the hospital to the freehold of this piece of ground does not seem to have been ever in dispute, for in the suit of 1643 (see below) Olave Buck "admitted himself to be tenant to the hospital." (fn. 56) Champions of the rights of the hospital have, however, laid claim on its behalf both to the Chequer and to the property to the north and west, which they state were filched by John Golightly and others. As shown above the Chequer belonged originally to Westminster Abbey and cannot have been Bethlem property; the other claim will be dealt with under (v) below.

Figure 3:

Plan showing the property claimed by Bethlem Hospital in 1649

Bethlem Hospital

At the time of the purchase by the Crown (1830) there were five houses on the ground owned by the hospital: No. 5, Charing Cross, was in the occupation of James Wyld, mapseller, No. 6 of Charles Prater, while No. 8 was used by Thomas Bish as a lottery office and No. 9 was sub-let to Frederick Gye and Richard Hughes, tea dealers. (fn. n2)

(v) The Golden Cross and Properties Adjoining.

In 1493, the site of the Chequer was stated to abut "on the wall of the garden of the Mews on the north" (see p. 10) and on the tenement of Bethlem Hospital on the west. This definite statement, made before any dispute arose as to the possessions of the hospital, leaves little room for doubt that (iv) (The Golden Cross and properties adjoining) was originally part of the Mews and crown property and that the royal grants of it made in the 16th and 17th centuries were legal and genuine. One plot measuring 146 feet by 122 feet, and roughly corresponding with the ground shown on the 1649 plan as in the possession of Walter Bridall and Abraham Cartwright, was granted by Edward VI to John Golightly who sold it to Thomas Reve and Antony Rotsey, the latter obtaining a confirmation of the grant from Philip and Mary. (fn. 57) In 1643 the governors of the hospital filed a bill in Chancery to prove that these grants were obtained "by fraud and misrepresentation." (fn. 55) No decree was obtained and the matter was settled by Cartwright and Bridall selling their rights in the property to the hospital in return for a lease.

The ground marked A and B on the 1649 plan was also originally part of the Mews (fn. n3) and was, in the reign of Elizabeth, in the tenure of Christian Golightly. In 1568 a grant of it was made to Hugh Councell and Robert Pystor, (fn. 58) but this grant appears to have lapsed, for the property is entered in the Ministers Accounts for the later years of Elizabeth's reign and early years of James I as "concealed land." In 1608 a further grant of it was made to Thomas Garland and Elizabeth his wife, (fn. 59) from whom it passed to Richard Serle, surgeon, (fn. 60) who is noted as the claimant on the plan of 1649. Serle's daughter, Elizabeth, married Roger Dade of Lincoln's Inn, (fn. 61) and his grand-daughter, Elizabeth Dade, in 1713, married Stephen Haward of the Middle Temple. (fn. 62) The property thus passed into the possession of the Hawards who retained the freehold until it was bought in by the Crown in 1827. (fn. 63)

Figure 4:

Plan of the premises of the Golden Cross, Charing Cross, c. 1830.

Copied from plan in the possession of H.M. Office of Works

The Golden Cross Inn, a plan of which is reproduced on this page, covered part of both the above properties. The main entrance to Charing cross and the west side of the inn occupied the ground marked B on the 1649 plan together with an additional strip of ground from the Mews leased to Sir Edward Sydenham by Charles II in 1670 (fn. 43) and subsequently leased to Edward Aubery. (fn. 43) The greater part of the premises of the inn was, however, on the ground sold (fn. 64) to Bethlem Hospital in 1649 by Walter Bridall and Abraham Cartwright. In 1830, when the hospital properties at Charing Cross were exchanged for ground in Jermyn Street, (fn. 63) the inn was in lease to William Horne. It had an entrance to St. Martin's Lane between Nos. 144 and 145. It was from the Golden Cross that the immortal Mr. Pickwick started on his journey to Rochester and it is of interest to note that Mr. Jingle's story of the lady who lost her head had some foundation in fact, for on 11th April, 1800, as the Chatham and Rochester coach emerged from the gateway of the Golden Cross "a young woman, sitting on the top, threw her head back, to prevent her striking against the beam; but there being so much luggage on the roof of the coach as to hinder her laying herself sufficiently back, it caught her face, and tore the flesh … in a dreadful manner" (fn. 65) —an accident which afterwards proved fatal.

Figure 5:

Old houses on the west side of St. Martin's Lane.

Reproduced from drawing by George Scharf in the Council's collection.

A view of the Charing Cross frontage of the Golden Cross is given on the engraving published by Bowles in 1753 of a view by Canaletto. (fn. n4) A later view just prior to its demolition, from a drawing by T. H. Shepherd, is given on Plate 4b. This view also shows Mr. Bish's lottery office next door but one.

Nos. 142 to 147, St. Martin's Lane, were also sold by the hospital to the Crown in 1830. They were then let to George Boulton. Nos. 137 to 141, St. Martin's Lane, some houses in Frontier Court and Haward and Nixon's premises in the rear occupied the remainder of the ground marked A on the 1649 plan and were sold by Haward's descendants to the Crown in 1827. (fn. 63)


  • n1. The round house had previously been in Hedge Lane (see p. 104).
  • n2. One of the Bethlem houses fronting Charing Cross was known in the second half of the 17th century as the Goat Tavern. It was there that Pepys found the Earl of Sandwich's children when they came to town to see the coronation of King Charles II.
  • n3. This is definitely stated in the early grants.
  • n4. Reproduced as the frontispiece to Vol. XVIII of the Survey.
  • 25. Bray ley and Britton, Westminster Palace and P.R.O. Various Accounts E 101/467/6,7 etc.
  • 26. Cal. of Pat. Rolls.
  • 27. P.R.O., C 47/4/4.
  • 28. Dict. Nat. Biog.
  • 29. B.M. Add. MS. 25459, p. 206.
  • 30. Cal. L. and P. Hy. VIII.
  • 31. Westminster Manor Accounts, P.R.O., E 36/251.
  • 32. Stow, Survey of London, ed. Kingsford.
  • 33. P.R.O., E 351/3326 "dyverse charges done upon the newe buyldings at the mewse."
  • 34. P.R.O., E 101/474/25. "Charges done for and at the muse, 1559."
  • 35. St. Martin-in-the-Fields Vestry Minutes.
  • 36. Cal. of S.P. Dom.
  • 37. Westminster Library Collection of Prints.
  • 38. The City Remembrancia. Analytical Index.
  • 39. Pepys' Diary.
  • 40. Wren Society Trans. XII.
  • 41. Ralph, A critical Review of the Public Buildings, 1734.
  • 42. Noorthouck, History of London.
  • 43. Entry Books of H.M. Commissioners of Woods and Forests, preserved in the Crown Lands Office.
  • 44. Letters of Horace Walpole, ed. Toynbee.
  • 45. Cal. of Westminster Abbey Reg. I, fo. 64b.
  • 46. P.R.O., E 318/73 (Partic. for Grant) 37 Hy. VIII, Middx.
  • 47. P.R.O., C 3/44/76.
  • 48. P.R.O., L.R. 1/43 fo. 110.
  • 49. Ibid., 42 fo. 534.
  • 50. Ibid., 55 fo. 141.
  • 51. John Taylor, The Carriers Cosmographie.
  • 52. Middx. Reg. 1729/n 1/209.
  • 53. Ibid., 1749/11/687.
  • 54. Survey of London, XVIII.
  • 55. Report of the Commissioners on Charities, 1837. Report 32, Part 6.
  • 56. Bethlem Hospital Muniments.
  • 57. P.R.O., L.R. 1/270, fo. 175.
  • 58. P.R.O., C 66/1046.
  • 59. Ibid., 1759/9.
  • 60. P.R.O., C 54/3332/3.
  • 61. Middx. Reg. 1710/1/84.
  • 62. Ibid., 1731/1/114.
  • 63. P.R.O., L.R. 1/271.
  • 64. P.R.O., C 54/3469/14.
  • 65. Annual Register.