The Blitz had left much of Nelson Square and the surrounding area badly damaged. The architect’s department of London County Council made meticulous maps (link to Guardian article ) of the bomb damage and most of Nelson Square is marked as having “total destruction” or at least “blast damage, non structural”.
In the aerial photos from 1947 to 1950 most of the damage building stock has been cleared away (Britain from Above photos), but a few terraces are still seen standing. (Click on the images to see relevant page on the Britain from Above website. Registering is free, and after that you can zoom into the photos for greater detail!)
London had however a huge housing shortage after the war and almost immediately Southwark Council made plans to redevelop the Square. In the National Archives we find maps connected to “The Southwark (Nelson Square) housing confirmation” and the materials for the Compulsory purchase orders, dating from 1946 to 1954.
In June 1950 South London Press reports about delays in rebuilding Nelson Square because of “change in plans”. The article states that buildings built for aristocracy in the 18th Century will have to be cleared to make way for 250 flats. Also a modern community centre to replace the Women’s University Settlement was part of the initial plans.
SLP reports however that significant changes had to be made for the original plans and that works could not begin during 1950 as planned.
Things would however not move forward until much later. In 1951 South London Press reports of the purchase of Surrey Methodist Chapel for £30,000 (photo from the paper). This may well have been one of the unsolved legal issues that delayed the plans.
In February 1951 the new plans are finally announced. SLP paints a picture, which was probably how 100% Labour-controlled Southwark Metropolitan Borough wanted to market the plans: “Where Georgian dandies once strolled with their silver-knobbed canes, while a beadle chased urchins from their path, will rise streamlined, sun-trap homes for 1,300 Southwark people”.
These plans were the beginning of the three blocks of flats now surrounding the square. First one to be built would be Rowland Hill House to the north, Applegarth House to the east would follow and Vaughan House to the west would complete the plans at this stage.
The SLP article mentions 8 houses that still had to be demolished. These were in the North-Eastern corner of the Square, including No. 26 where Shelley once lodged. The plaque, which can be seen in photos held by London Metropolitan Archive, is reported “to be the cornerstone of a block of flats”.
A few weeks later SLP publishes an architects drawing of the plans, where the current blocks can clearly be seen. It is also announced, that the plans are drawn by a renowned London architects Sydney Clough, Son and Partners
The community centre is still part of the plans here, but as we can see it was never built. The houses in 44-47 housing the Settlement were left standing, but did not get listed by English Heritage until 1972 (link to the listed buildings register )
The article also mentions plans for a nursery in the Square, and the Square is still mentioned as a site for a nursery as late as 1976 according to maps held in the National Archives. It’s not obvious however, where the nursery was planned exactly.
It would seem the whole southern edge of the Square was left undeveloped until later. Building of Helen Gladstone House was started in 1963 after the rest of the buildings had been long finished. Using the same plans as the nearby Styles House these two blocks were finished 1964 and 1965.
The 1931 London Squares Act prevented Southwark from building on the actual green, and the new design then eventually echoed the original Square that started life almost 150 years earlier. Only now the people moving in would be local working class people, in what the SLP called “skyscrapers”.
The Nelson Square Gardens blocks represent a good and well-preserved example of post-war rebuilding architecture in London. They were designed with all the modern facilities by a reputable London architects practice.