A Georgian Square and Garden
Mecklenburgh Square and its garden were part of the Foundling Estate, a residential development of 1792 — 1825 on ﬁelds surrounding and owned by the Foundling Hospital. The Square was named in honour of King George IIl’s Queen, Charlotte of Mecklenburgh-Strelitz. It was begun in 1804, but for various reasons was not completed until 1825. The garden was made up and planted in 1809/10.
The Foundling Hospital
The Hospital occupied the site of the present green all-weather playground to the west of the Square from 1745 — 1926. The dogged determination of an open-hearted, plain-speaking old mariner and shipwright called Thomas Coram was responsible for its foundation. When he retired from the north Atlantic trade in 1719, he was shocked and distressed to ﬁnd infants abandoned in the streets of London, or murdered and ﬂung on dunghills. He knew that their mothers were either to poor to be able to feed another hungry mouth, or too likely to be cast out of respectable society and the chance to earn a living because the children were illegitimate.
Journalist Joseph Addison had already written about foundling hospitals in the more enlightened cities of Europe, where mothers unable to cope could take their children instead of abandoning them. Thomas Coram set about persuading Londoners to do the same. He needed a sufﬁcient number of Persons of Quality and Distinction willing to support his cause and sign a petition he could present to the King in order to obtain a charter for his hospital. It took him seventeen persevering years, but in the end he succeeded. The charter was granted in 1739.
A temporary Hospital was opened in 1741 in a house in Hatton Garden. A site was then found for a permanent building in Lamb’s Conduit Fields, immediately north of Great Ormond Street. At the time Great Ormond Street formed the northernmost limit of London, and was a very fashionable address. The Earl of Salisbury owned 56 acres of land there which he was willing to sell, but only if the Hospital governors bought all of it, not just the part they required for their Hospital. In the end the governors agreed, thereby acquiring extra ﬁelds that would eventually be turned into the residential estate.
Hospital governor Theodore Jacobsen produced a serviceable, economical design for the building, of brick with two wings separated by a chapel. Building began in l742. The west wing was opened in 1745, the east wing and chapel were completed in 1752. The ﬁnished Hospital could provide for about 400 children.
Brick earth and all that
London’s good building land was River Terrace gravel, a mixture of gravel and sand deposited on top of heavy London Clay by the river Thames when it was much wider and shallower than it is today. There were three terraces; it is the Middle Terrace that concerns us here.
The presence of River Terrace gravel shaped the growth of early London. Great Ormond Street was built on the northern limit of the Middle Terrace at the beginning of the 18th century. At this point London’s northward expansion halted (see map), and development in the mid-18″‘ century was to the west, on the good building land around St James’s and Oxford Street.
The Middle Terrace was fringed by a further deposit of a loamier soil called brick earth, so named because it made excellent bricks. Deposits of brick earth were particularly marked near the tributaries of the Thames, such as the river Fleet. The Fleet was not far from the Foundling Hospital’s Lamb’s Conduit Fields, which had as their eastern boundary Gray’s Inn Lane (now Road), a track running along the top of the river’s west bank. There was a notable deposit of brickearth in Lamb’s Conduit Fields near Gray’s Inn Lane, consequently the raw material for building the Hospital was already on site.
A brick manufactory
Thomas Smith was awarded the contract for making bricks for the new Foundling Hospital. For the ﬁrst 400,000 bricks, his workers used the ﬁeld to the east of the proposed Hospital wall, where Mecklenburgh Square now stands. For the next decade, the future Mecklenburgh Square was a brick manufactory. ‘
They dug out the brickearth with picks and shovels. They prepared it, which included mixing it with ashes from the City’s rubbish heaps. This practice dated from just after the Great Fire, when it was noticed that the earth from ash-covered ﬁelds adjacent to the City provided bricks that burnt more thoroughly, and used less fuel, than bricks made from ash-free earth. They put it through pugmills, primitive blenders turned by horses.
Moulding teams then took over and shaped the blend into bricks. London’s moulding teams used a characteristic base to their moulds called a stock-board, hence the bricks of most eighteenth century London buildings are ‘London stocks.’ Finally the bricks were burnt in clamps, unpleasantly smoky piles of bricks which Mr Smith was required to conﬁne to the northeast comer of the ﬁeld.
The Foundling Estate
The Hospital’s ﬁnances were in sorry state in the later 18th century. The Hospital ﬁelds brought in a small income, but this could be greatly increased by ground rents if the land were let for building. By the late 1780s the governors had decided to turn all their ﬁelds into a residential estate. First they had to draw up a plan of the streets and building plots for houses, then interest speculative builders in taking leases on the plots and building the houses.
The Estate plan had the Hospital itself as the high point. The chief features were a main road across the estate passing the Hospital’s front gates, and two large squares, one on each side of the Hospital, to provide it with a digniﬁed setting.
The Squares were named after Charlotte of Mecklenburgh-Strelitz, wife of the reigning King George III, and his daughter-in-law Caroline of Brunswick. The main road, Guilford Street, was named after the Hospital’s President and former Prime Minister Lord North, Earl of Guildford. Somehow a discrepancy in spelling crept in, but by the time this was pointed out the street name was established usage, and no change was made.
The Squares were planned to have buildings on three sides, houses of the first and second class only. There was no building on the fourth, the side adjacent to the Hospital. Instead, the square gardens extended right up to the wall of the Hospital grounds. In this way the foundling children playing there would still be surrounded by plenty of open space and greenery, even if no longer in the country.
The east ﬁeld between the Hospital wall and Gray’s Inn Lane was the last part of the estate to be developed. Houses crept up Caroline Place (now Mecklenburgh Place) from Guilford Street towards the Square from 1800. In 1804 builder Benjamin Homby began work on the comer house, No.1, Mecklenburgh Square.
The Building Committee had got into difﬁculties on the west side of the estate when trying to save money by allowing the builders to make up their own sewers. They did not repeat their mistake here. Mr Homby was contracted to build good sewers ﬁrst on the southside and then on the east side of the square. The houses on the south side, Nos 1-10, were completed by 1810.
No original houses remain. They were badly damaged in WWII, and replaced by the north wing of London House, itself now a listed building by architect Sir Herbert Baker.
The Hospital governors were concerned that Mecklenburgh Square with its ﬁrst class houses would not attract the well-to-do families they wanted to buy and occupy them. Fashionable London had moved west to St James’s, and the Hospital itself cut off the Square from easy communication with the west end. They commissioned their surveyor Joseph Kay to produce a design for the east side that was not just plain brick and would provide added attraction.
Kay used the ornamental cement known as stucco to design a palace facade (one which, if you half close your eyes and don’t inspect too carefully, looks like a single splendid palace instead of a row of separate houses), with masticated stucco at ground floor level and three decorative stucco blocks separated by plain brick above. The governors were delighted, builders were found to take the leases, and the east side was completed between 1810-20.
WWII took its toll. No. 15 was gutted by incendiaries and rebuilt in 1964. Nos 27-34 were bombed ﬂat. Together with 26, they were rebuilt as a single modem block of ﬂats, but with the facade restored, in 1963. The rest are the original houses.
There were two main reasons for delay in building the north side. The ﬁrst was the perceived need for a road linking the north side with Brunswick Square. Unfortunately this would reveal two burial grounds next to the Hospital land and the doleful processions that continuously came and went. As late as 1811 the governors asked Joseph Kay to try again to ﬁnd a design that included a screening terrace of houses and the road while not compromising the privacy of the Hospital’s own buildings. It was impossible, in the end there was no road.
The other problem was a governor and member of the Building Committee who wanted the end plot nearest the Hospital for himself. An enterprising young builder Thomas Cubitt made an offer for the whole terrace, and there was a lot of stalling around, but in the end, the govemor got his plot. There was a fuss because normally Hospital affairs were conducted with transparent probity. This was felt not to have been quite right. And the Square missed having the earliest Cubitt terrace in London.
WWII again. Except for No. 37, Nos 35—42 were either gutted or badly damaged. They were replaced in 1957 by William Goodenough House. Nos 43-47 are original.
By 1809 Mr Benjamin Hornby had completed No 1 Mecklenburgh Square, and No 3 was nearing completion. Mr Hornby was an angry man. When the original building plot leases were arranged in 1796, the Foundling Estate had said that the Square would be made up in ﬁve years. Nothing had been done. How was he to sell houses in a wasteland? The Building Committee tumed from its problems on the west side of the estate to Mecklenburgh Square and resolved that the ‘Brickwork of the Iron Railing of the Intended Square be erected forthwith.’ Mr Hornby was given the task of getting things started.
Forming and levelling.
The areas behind the railings of London’s Georgian townhouses are misleadingly deep. The foundations have not been dug out to that extent, they are quite shallow. The apparent depth is because the pavements, streets and gardens if any in front of the houses have been raised up several feet. Back gardens usually remain at the original ground level. This required a great deal of shifting of earth. Workmen employed by the Trustees of the New Road from Paddington to Islington (then a bypass out in the ﬁelds, now Marylebone, Euston and Pentonville Roads) were already on the east of the site, digging out a deposit of gravel. An arrangement was made with the foreman Mr Smith for the ﬁrst stage of earth shifting. He was paid Cash for Digging and Wheeling Brick Earth, Ballast &c, by June 28 1809, £380.l3.3.
Mr Homby’s men took over, ‘digging and wheeling Brick Earth and gravel, separating and sifting the same, moving Gravel into Area of Square & levelling and forming the Walks. The bill for £499 does not appear on the ﬁnal Square accounts. It was offset by sales of gravel, or charged to the sewer. Sewer charges were passed on to house builders who leased plots and were not put to the trouble of building their own.
The layout of the garden paths remains almost as it was in 1810, although the central area with its barbeques has been enlarged.
The Stone Kirb.
Mr Homby also saw to the brick foundation of the stone kirb surrounding the garden:
The Iron Railing.
Came from Messrs Neile, Fowler, Jones, Files & Co., of the King’s Arms Iron Works, Cupar Bridge, Lambeth. They were Smiths, Anchor Smiths and Founders to His Majesty’s Board of Ordnance, HM Corporation of London, East India Company, &C. They supplied gates, pallisades and all other wrought and iron work ‘in the completest Manner, and at the shortest Notice.’ The bill dated August 1810 was for:
Extras? Did someone forget the need for workmen’s gates? Once installed, Mr Helling did ‘Painter’s work to Railing &c,’ three times in Oil at 10 pence a yard.
Sadly the iron railings were cut down in 1942 as part of the WWII war effort (they were never used). After decades of vainly hoping someday to be able to afford a replacement, the present high privet hedge was planted. The stone kirb is still there, outside the hedge, where railing stumps and stump holes may be seen.
On the 6th of May 1810 Mr Smith of Bedford Nursery sent in his bill, together with his original planting list. He wrote:
Having planted as much of Mecklenburgh Square as the season could admit of l have if meet your approbation to sollicit the payment of Eighty Pounds being the cost of labour, Plants, Turf, Grass ﬂower seeds, sowed thereon.
Planting list: NB Italics = illegible or guess. No amendments made. Prices of individual items were also given.
Interim period and cost of the garden.
Normally the garden would have been handed over to the estate’s Paving Commission (a group of residents elected to see to the paving, lighting, watering and watching of the estate’s streets, and the removal of rubbish) as soon as it was completed. Because the Square took so long to complete, the handover was delayed until 1816. At the handover, the cost of setting up the garden was given as £1817.0.2.
To use the garden, Square residents had to pay an annual subscription, which was used to cover garden maintenance. On payment, subscribers were issued with a key. In 1813, the subscription was £2.2.0. Initially residents of nearby estate streets were allowed to subscribe, but this was discontinued after the Square acquired enough subscribers of its own to cover the garden’s maintenance costs.
By 1814 the need for a few rules was felt. The rules already in use in Brunswick Square were adopted, and ‘fairly painted on a Board and ﬁxed at the Southern entrance.’
‘By order of the Committee appointed to superintend the Management of the Square, none but Subscribers and their Families are to be permitted to walk in the Garden or Area of the Square unless in Company with Subscribers.
The Female servants of Subscribers are not to be admitted unless with some part of the Family, and are not to let in, or hand her Key to the Servants or Children of non-Subscribers.
Male Servants are not to be admitted under any pretence whatsoever.
No Dogs are to be taken in by any Person.
It is particularly requested that the Flowers and Shrubs may not be plucked or injured, and that every person going in and out will take care to lock the Gate.’
The Garden Committee.
After it took over in 1816, the Paving Commission set up a committee of governors and residents to manage the garden and make the day-to-day decisions on maintenance. A residents’ committee still runs the garden, its members elected from and by the Square’s permanent residents at an Annual General Meeting held every June.
The Heathcote Street gate and lodge.
Throughout the decade 1810-20 the land north and east of the garden was either field or building-site. Subscribers found themselves ‘exposed to insult’ by ill-mannered persons invading from Gray’s Inn Lane. A Beadle was appointed to patrol the east side of the Estate during the day (cost of his hat £2.15.0). In 1814, newly laid out Heathcote Street was provided with a gate across it, and a lodge and lodgekeeper, on the Estate boundary with Gray’s Inn Lane. The gate had to come down in 1895, when gated streets were no longer permitted. A metal plate in the pavement now marks the spot.
Shed — Pavilion – Summer House.
‘It appearing desirable that the Gardner should have a secure place to lock up his Tools, Seeds &c &c in the Square’ observed the Committee’s minutes of April 1814:
Resolved That Mr Kay be desired to furnish the Committee with a Sketch of an ornamental Shed – which will at once suit the Gardener, and afford Sitting, Shelter and Shade for the Subscribers.’
The Hospital’s General Committee authorised the provision of ‘such covered seat for the Centre of the Square as they might think proper,’ but estimates were not received until late summer, the number of Subscribers was fewer than was hoped, and nothing was done that year.
By April 1815 there were 42 Subscribers, and the Paving Commission’s surveyor Mr Wright produced a Plan combining Tool-house and covered Seat in one, at a cost of £85. Estate surveyor Mr Kay approved, but ‘suggested the propriety of covering the Tool-house in the Centre of the Pavilion for the Area of Mecklenburgh Square with milled Lead instead of cloth.’
The roof of such a building is often a problem, and this appears to have been no exception. On the 15”‘ June 1828 it was:
Resolved unanimously that the Summer House in the Centre of the Garden Area be repaired with a Copper Covering of 16 oz to the foot agreeably to an Estimate delivered by Messrs Cubitt of £40.15 — which includes a few repairs to the Wood Work, but not the Painting…
The Caroline Place Well.
In the late 1990s a forgotten well was discovered, next to the Hospital wall at the junction of Mecklenburgh (formerly Caroline) Place and Mecklenburgh Square. The New River Company provided a domestic water supply to the estate, with its mains under Guilford Street. The Estate’s wells were used principally to provided water for watering the streets in the summer months, a responsibility of its Paving Commissioners.
The Caroline place well was dug in 1804, and supplied with a pump engine removed from a well in the Colonnade, which had not been sufficiently powerful for the needs of that end of the estate (geology may have been against it too).
AUGUST 18th 1805
Ordered that a Kirb of York Stone inclose the Pump in Caroline Place to be forthwith laid, and a receiving Stone Bason made to the Pump, under the direction of the Paving Committee; and that the said Committee be requested to agree with a Smith to place an lron Railway (with an lron Gate and Lock) thereon, similar to that in Brunswick Square, and provide such a number of keys for the Gate as the Committee shall think necessary
April 24th 1806
“Henry Hammett having agreed at the last Board Day to provide at his own expence a sufficient number of hands for watering Guilford Street Landsowne Place Caroline Place Guilford Place and Lamb’s Conduit Place with a Horse and Cart and Water Tub together with Scoops Shields Brooms Stop pls And all other implements used on such occasions and to raise the water from the Pumps in the Colonnade and Caroline Place and sufficiently to spread and water the said places every weekday in the Morning……..
A thank you to Coram Family.
Coram Family and in particular Ms Rachael Corms kindly gave permission to quote from the Foundling Hospital Archives.
Coram Family is the Foundling Hospital in its 21st century guise, continuing the long tradition of pioneering and innovative work with vulnerable children and young people. Its premises are next door at 49 Mecklenburgh Square and occupy the northern part of the former Foundling Hospital grounds.