The Garden Guide

Book: London Parks and Gardens, 1907
Chapter: Chapter 9 Squares

St. James's Square

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St. James's Square is older than any of the squares already glanced at, having been built in the time of Charles II. It was known as Pall Mall Field or Close, originally part of St. James's Fields, and the actual site of the Square was a meadow used by those attached to the Court as a sort of recreation ground. Henry Jermyn, Earl of St. Albans, leased it in 1665 from Charles II., and began to plan the Square or "Piazza," as it was called at first. The deadly year of the Plague, followed by the Great Fire, delayed the building, and the houses were not finished and lived in till 1676. No. 6 in the Square, belonging to the Marquess of Bristol, has been in his family since that time. Every one of the fine old houses has its story of history and romance. Here Charles II. was frequently seen visiting Moll Davis, Sir Cyril Wyche, and the Earl of Ranelagh. The Earl of Romney, and the Duke of Ormond, and Count Tallard the French Ambassador, are names connected with the Square in William III.'s time, and Josiah Wedgwood lived at No. 7. But these and many other historical personages did not look from their windows on to a well-ordered garden, and the Court beauties did not wander with their admirers under the spreading trees. The centre of the Square was left open, and merely like a field. The chief use to which the space seems to have been put was for displays of fireworks. One of the great occasions for these was after the Peace of Ryswick, but unfortunately they were not always very successful. An eye-witness, writing to Sir Christopher Hatton, says of Sir Martin Beckman, who had the management of them, that he "hath got the curses of a good many and the praises of nobody." The open space eventually became so untidy that the residents in 1726 petitioned Parliament to allow them to levy a special rate to "cleanse, adorn, and beautify the Square," as "the ground hath for some years past lain, and doth now lie, rude and in great disorder, contrary to the design of King Charles II., who granted the soil for erecting capital buildings." So badly used was it that even a coach-builder had erected a shed in the middle of it, in which to store his timber. Strong measures were taken, and any one "annoying the Square" after May 1, 1726, was to be fined 20s., and any one encroaching on it, �50. No hackney coach was allowed to ply there, and unless a coachman, after setting down his fare, immediately drove out of the Square, he was to be fined 10s. The whole place was levelled and paved, and a round basin of water, which was intended to have a fountain in it, and never did, was dug in the centre. Round it ran an octagon railing with stone obelisks, surmounted with lamps at each angle. A road of flat paving stones with posts went round the Square in front of the houses; the rest was paved with cobble stones. As early as 1697 it was proposed to place a statue of William III, and figures emblematical of his victories, in the Square, but nothing was done. In 1721 the Chevalier de David tried to get up a subscription for a sum of �2500 for a statute of George I. to be done by himself and set up, but, as he only collected �100 towards it, that scheme also fell through. Once more an effort was made which bore tardy fruit, for in 1724 Samuel Travers bequeathed a sum of money by will "to purchase and erect an equestrian statue in brass to the glorious memory of my master, King William III." Somehow this was not carried out at the time, but in 1806 the money appeared in a list of unclaimed dividends, and John Bacon the younger was given the commission to model the statue, which was cast in bronze at the artist's own studio in Newman Street, and put up in the centre of the pond. Thus it remained until towards the middle of last century the stagnant pool was drained. In the 1780 riots the mob carried off the keys of Newgate and flung them into this basin, where years afterwards they were found. It was 150 feet in diameter, and 6 or 7 feet deep. When the pond was drained, the garden was planted in the form it now is, and the statue left standing in the centre. St. James's is still one of the finest residential squares in London, and the old rhyme, picturing the attractions in store for the lady of quality who became a duchess and lived in the Square. might have been written in the twentieth instead of the eighteenth century. "She shall have all that's fine and fair, And the best of silk and satin shall wear; And ride in a coach to take the air, And have a house in St. James's Square."