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A Short History of London's Garden Squares

1600 to 1650

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The London square evolved as fields around the old walled City of London were converted, first for public recreation and then for housing.

Common land outside the city walls had been used for fairs, markets and sport since medieval times. Local people had rights of way, their animals could graze, and they could spread their washing out to dry. One of these areas, Moor Fields was laid out in 1607 as London's first pleasure park, with paths and squares of grass enclosed by elm trees. Enclosed gardens had long existed in medieval London, but the cloister gardens of convents and monasteries, the Inns of Court and the city livery companies, were mainly private and inward-looking. 

At about the same time as Moor Fields was laid out, the land at Gray's Inn, also originally used for sport, was made into a garden by Francis Bacon. This was later surrounded by buildings. The garden attracted attention at the time because it was relatively public, setting it apart from the secluded cloisters and courts of the City.

Following the example of Moor Fields, in 1618 the Society of Lincoln's Inn began planning to preserve the common land beside the Inn. The Fields had long been used for recreation, sport and even public executions. Houses were built around three sides of the Fields over the next 20 years, and the central space was laid out with gravel walks and areas of grass surrounded by a low wooden fence.

During the Reformation in the previous century, Henry VIII had confiscated monastery land and given it to his supporters. The ancestors of these courtiers, such as the Lords Bedford, Southampton and Portman, were the main developers of the square in Stuart and Georgian London.

The very first square built for people to live in was Covent Garden, completed in 1631. Commissioned by the 4th Earl of Bedford on land next to his mansion, the piazza was designed by the architect Inigo Jones, inspired by examples in France and Italy. The square had shops, a church and exclusive houses on three sides. It was paved, but featured a small tree surrounded by wooden benches at its centre.

In a similar way, the Earl of Leicester was able to build his own private house on the common fields of St Martin in the 1630s and lease the remainder for building, on the condition that he laid out some of the land with walks and trees for continuing public use. By 1670, houses surrounded the open space, which later became known as Leicester Square.

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