Soho Square Area: Portland Estate, Soho Square Garden

Pages 51-53

Survey of London: Volumes 33 and 34, St Anne Soho. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1966.

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Soho Square Garden

The leases of houses in the square granted by Richard Frith and William Pym contained clauses charging the lessees with garden rents of ten shillings per annum. The lease of No. 3, for instance, which was granted in January 1680/1, stated that the object of this rent was 'towards the makeing and keeping in repaire the Rayles, Payles, Fountaine and Garden in the middle of the said Square'. (fn. 2) The statue of Charles II which stood in the centre of the square was carved by Caius Gabriel Cibber in 1681, (fn. 3) and it is therefore probable that the garden had been laid out by about that date.

The two early eighteenth-century engravings reproduced on Plate 68 show that the garden was fenced in with high palisades of wood, having obelisk-terminated posts at each corner and flanking the gates in the middle of each side. Sutton Nicholls shows a narrow border just inside the palisades, separated by a wide path from the grassed area which was divided into quarters by paths meeting in a circle surrounding the basin of Cibber's fountain, with its statue of Charles II raised high above a pedestal. This pedestal is recorded as having been ornamented with groups symbolizing the rivers Thames, Severn, Tyne and Humber. In both views the grass plots are shown fringed with narrow borders of small trees and flowers, and in each corner of the garden stood a stone baluster supporting a faceted sphere.

The sculptor Joseph Nollekens 'often stood for hours together, to see the water run out of the jugs of the old river-gods, into the basin in the middle of the Square; but . . . the water never would run out of their jugs, but when the windmill was going round at the top of Rathboneplace'. (fn. 4) The windmill can be seen in both editions of Sutton Nicholls's view of Soho Square.

According to Strype the garden was in 1720 'a very large and open Place, enclosed with a high Pallisado Pale, the Square within being neatly kept, with Walks and Grass-plots, and in the Midst is the Effigies of King Charles the Second, neatly cut in Stone, to the Life, standing on a Pedestal'. (fn. 5) In 1734, however, Ralph described it as 'a little, contemptible garden . . . and a worse statue, if it be possible in the middle of that. The place, indeed is not so intirely neglected, as many others of the same sort about town, and therefore deserves the less censure, if it is not entitled to praise'. (fn. 6)

The decline in the condition of the garden which had evidently taken place by 1734 may perhaps have been due to the breakdown of the arrangements for its maintenance. The garden rents included in the original leases of houses in the square had been paid to Frith and Pym, both of whom had ceased to have any connexion with the square by the middle of the 1680's. It is not known to whom these rents were subsequently paid—if, indeed, they were paid at all. The reversionary leases which the second Earl (later first Duke) of Portland began to grant in 1713 usually imposed garden rents varying from ten shillings to two pounds per annum per house, (fn. 7) but payment of these rents did not start until after the expiry of the Crown lease to the Earl of St. Albans in 1734.

By 1748 the fence and enclosure had become 'ruinous and decayed'. At a meeting of the inhabitants and their landlord, the second Duke of Portland, held at the Turk's Head tavern in Greek Street on 19 May 1748, Robert Hardcastle, mason, submitted a plan of proposed improvements and alterations. This involved changing the shape of the existing enclosure to an octagon, the erection of an iron railing and gates in place of the old wooden palisade, and the fixture of lamp-irons at the corner angles. In the following months, however, a modified plan was accepted in place of Hardcastle's more ambitious scheme. The new design, prepared by Benjamin Wood, carpenter, retained the existing shape of the garden and provided for new railings and gates with eight lamp-posts, one at each of the four corners and one, to be supported by 'a strong handsome and convenient Scroll of Iron Work', over each of the gates.

A committee was appointed from amongst the residents to supervise this scheme and to execute the necessary contracts. Benjamin Wood was retained as surveyor and Peter Vandercom and his partner Edward Prestage, both masons, were engaged to execute the building work. They agreed to erect a set of iron rails with gates on a brick base with a Portland stone kerb and to put down a pavement outside of Kentish ragstone at a cost of £698. Vandercom and Prestage were eventually paid £720, while William Yates was paid £29 for iron lamps and keys, George Gillingham, bricklayer, 36s. 6d., and Benjamin Wood £23 for drawing up the plans, surveying the work and settling the bills. (fn. 1)

The erection of the new wall and railings was complete by January 1748/9 and in February a contract was made with Humphrey Tarry or Terry for the improvement of the garden at a cost of £52 10s. This involved the removal of all the flower roots, grubbing up all the trees except for the limes, which were allowed to remain, levelling and gravelling the paths but retaining and resowing the four plots with grass seed and Dutch clover. The statue and fountain and the four stone pedestals remained in their previous positions. These improvements were complete by August 1749, except for sowing the grass which was left for a more seasonable time. The changes are apparent in the later edition of Sutton Nicholls's view of Soho Square, published in 1754. The cost of the works was met by a subscription raised from amongst the residents of houses in the square, with an additional £300 subscribed by the ground landlord, the second Duke of Portland. (fn. 8)

The management of the garden remained in the hands of the residents' committee. In about 1790 it was stated that the third Duke of Portland contributed £20 per annum and paid for lighting the lamps. Most of the inhabitants paid eight shillings a year, but 'several do not but the neighbours make up the subscription to about £40 a year', from which the wages of the gardener, £31 per annum, were paid. (fn. 9)

In the 1790's the committee undertook a further improvement scheme. A double row of quicksets was planted within the iron railing, the gravel walks were altered and a number of new trees and shrubs, possibly chosen by Sir Joseph Banks, were planted. These included almond, peach, cherry and rose trees, lilacs and laburnums, honeysuckle, syringas and jessamine. The nurseryman employed to carry out these changes was William Malcolm of Stockwell. In 1796 James Alexander of Wardour Street was the regular gardener. (fn. 9)

By 1803 the fountain was no longer working and the basin had probably been filled in. (fn. 10) A few years later the statue and its attendant figures were described as being 'in a most wretched mutilated state; and the inscriptions on the base of the pedestal quite illegible'. (fn. 11) Between 1790 and 1805 the third Duke of Portland had sold the freehold of all his houses in the square, (fn. 12) and the decline in the condition of the garden in the early nineteenth century was probably caused by this withdrawal of the ground landlord, upon whose contributions the maintenance of the garden had considerably relied. It was probably because the Dukes of Portland as ground landlords had hitherto taken an active share in the upkeep of the garden that no Act of Parliament such as those which governed the maintenance of the gardens of St. James's Square (1726) and Golden Square (1750) had been obtained for the management of Soho Square. Now, with neither a wealthy landlord nor an Act authorizing the collection of a small garden rate, the residents of Soho Square had to manage by themselves. They could still have obtained an Act, as did the inhabitants of Bryanston, Dorset and Montagu Squares in the early nineteenth century, but they never did so.

In 1869 a group of inhabitants unsuccessfully attempted to persuade the fifth Duke of Portland to convey his freehold rights to them (fn. 12) so that they might open the garden to the general public. 'All attempts to gain either an interview on the subject or the surrender of his lordship's rights having proved futile', a meeting of the inhabitants was convened in 1874, and a committee formed. Shortly afterwards Albert Grant, who had lately purchased and improved the garden of Leicester Square and then handed it over to the Metropolitan Board of Works for public use (see page 439), offered to spend £7,000 on the improvement of the garden of Soho Square, and to provide an endowment of £150 per annum for future maintenance. (fn. 13) The Duke, an old man who disliked change, refused to take any action, and the residents themselves resented Grant's interference. (fn. 12)

Nevertheless, some alterations were made, presumably at the expense of the residents. In 1875–6 new railings were erected and the ground inside was laid out with flower beds. The statue of Charles II was removed to the grounds of Frederick Goodall, R.A., at Harrow Weald, and was replaced by the present timbered structure, part tool-shed, part arbour (Plate 71d). These improvements cost £1,200. The architect responsible for the railings, and presumably also for the tool-shed, was S. J. Thacker. (fn. 14) The garden still remained closed to the public, though other unsuccessful attempts were made to open it, notably in 1893 when Thomas Blackwell of Nos. 20 and 21 Soho Square offered to provide £5,000 for maintaining the garden for public use. (fn. 15)

In February 1938 the statue of Charles II was restored to the square, though not to the central position which it had previously occupied. (fn. 16) So far as is known, the Portland family have never relinquished the freehold of the garden, but in April 1951 the Soho Square Garden Committee leased the garden to the Westminster City Council for twenty-one years. The air-raid shelters which had been constructed there during the war of 1939–45 still existed, and the garden was not restored and opened to the public until April 1954. (fn. 17) The present iron railings and gates were provided in 1959 by the Soho Square Garden Committee with the assistance of the Westminster City Council. (fn. 18)


  • 1. Other tradesmen who had submitted tenders included John Wilkins and Charles Juchan, paviours, James Morehouse, Joseph Carr and John Macy, masons, John Wells, smith, and Lovy Perry, iron-founder.
  • 2. P.R.O., C6/291/12.
  • 3. Gunnis.
  • 4. John Thomas Smith, Nollekens and His Times, 1829, vol. I, p. 40.
  • 5. John Strype, A Survey of the Cities of London and Westminster, 1720, vol. II, bk. VI, p. 87.
  • 6. J. Ralph, A Critical Review of the Publick Buildings In and About London and Westminster, 1734, pp. 101–2.
  • 7. Nottingham University, Portland MSS., Soho lease book.
  • 8. Ibid., Portland MSS., Soho Square bundle; E. F. Rimbault, Soho and Its Associations, 1895, pp. 15–20.
  • 9. B.M., Add. MS. 39167 G(2), ff. 143–6.
  • 10. J. P. Malcolm, Londinium Redivivum, 1803, vol. II, p. 345.
  • 11. Rev. Joseph Nightingale, London and Middlesex, 1815, vol. III, part II, pp. 657–8.
  • 12. Nottingham University, Portland MSS., Soho Square bundle.
  • 13. Edward Walford, Old and New London, N.D., vol. III, p. 185.
  • 14. W.P.L., Leicester Square Scrapbook, vol. I, p. 29; The Builder, 8 May 1875, p. 425; 9 Oct. 1875, p. 918; 29 July 1876, p. 746.
  • 15. Report of the Metropolitan Public Garden Association, 1893, p. 24.
  • 16. The Times, 22 Feb. 1938.
  • 17. Westminster City Council Minutes, 24 July 1952, pp. 149–50; 29 April 1954, p. 94.
  • 18. Ibid., 25 June 1959, p. 185; 17 March 1960, p. 45.