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A Short History of London's Garden Squares

1650 to 1700

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The Great Plague of 1665 killed many Londoners, while the Great Fire the following year made more than 100,000 homeless. After this, wealthy Londoners did not want to return to the cramped, dangerous conditions of the old city, and were attracted by the healthier, more spacious way of life offered by landowners outside the City walls.

This was the start of a speculative building boom which lcaid the foundations for modern London. Landowners leased land to builders, usually for 99 years at a low ground rent. When the lease was up, the houses became the property of the landlord again.

The squares were London's first suburbs. Each estate was planned as a self-contained community with a square of grand houses at its heart, a church and a market-place, surrounded by a series of increasingly inexpensive streets.

The first square to be called by the name, was Bloomsbury Square, laid out in the 1660s by the 4th Earl of Southampton, who leased three sides of the forecourt to his London residence for building, before escaping from the plague. By the end of the century St James's, Charterhouse, Golden, Grosvenor, Red Lion and Kensington Squares were all established.

The earliest squares were little more than open grass, surrounded by timber fences and gravelled areas for walking. Lincoln's Inn Fields and Leicester Fields were not converted from turf to gardens until early in the following century.

The first square to have a properly laid out garden at its centre was probably Soho Square, built in 1681 by the Earl of Macclesfield. It was laid out as a pleasure ground, with ornamental flowers, shrubs and trees. At the centre was a statue of Charles II, carved by Caius Gabriel Cibber.


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