Opening of the Square for the public 1904

Once Nelson Square had been built, it would seem that the park itself went into decline. It was a private garden for the well-to-to residents around the Square, but apparently nobody was looking after the green in the middle.

The park was then an oval shape, with very little growing on it apart from seven old plane trees. Some reports mention large mushrooms growing in the Square, though.

On 13 July, 1897 Southwark Council sought parliamentary powers to remove a gate in Nelson Square, Blackfriars. Nothing would however be done, before the cost of maintaining the proposed public park was considered.

It was established that the freehold of the land belonged to Viscount Halifax, who agreed to transfer the Square to public ownership without any major cost.

So on 1 August, 1899 the Council agreed to take on the care of the Square as a public park, just as long an agreement could be reached with the occupiers of the houses facing the square on the future maintenance.

After lengthy negotiations a meeting held on 8 July, 1902 agreed that the park would be opened as a public park and the costs would be divided between the occupiers of the houses in the square and the Council. Also the meeting urged that the seven plane trees would be kept, and that the running of the Square would be given over to the London County Council.

In 1903 Southwark Council eventually agreed to pay a sum of £900 towards the upkeep of the Square, and it transferred to the London County Council in June, 1903.

The enclosure was reported to be in a neglected state, with the railings beyond repair and all trees and shrubberies, apart from the seven plane trees, were more or less worthless.

Programme for the 1904 opening. London Metropolitan Archives City of London
Programme for the 1904 opening. London Metropolitan Archives City of London

The Square was then converted into a parallelogram, and a gravelled pathway was installed around the seven plane trees. The surroundings were turfed and a substantial wrought-iron railing was erected. Some seats were provided, including circular ones around the plane trees.

In the middle a handsome drinking fountain was erected, donated by the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association. An original cast-iron pump, that had stood in the original Square, was now located in the south-east corner. According to an inscription it was erected by public subscription in 1821.

A formal opening of the Square was then scheduled for 6 February, 1904. Viscount Halifax did not attend himself, but send his son to represent him. This son would become a noted Conservative politician, Edward Wood, 1st Earl of Halifax. He would go on to hold several senior ministerial posts in the 1930s.

In the opening speeches it was noted, that a new public park was a welcome addition to Southwark. With an area of 12,000 acres and a population of 200,000, the borough only had 107.8 acres of open space.

The speeches also noted that the Square had once been a great spot for botanists, and a circus and bear baiting in the area were also mentioned.

Nelson Square. Southwark Local History library
Nelson Square. Southwark Local History library
Nelson Square ca. 1907. Southwark Local History Library
Nelson Square ca. 1907. Southwark Local History Library

Very little remains of what was Nelson Square in 1904. Six of the seven plane trees survive, it is unsure when one was lost. The eastern end of the Square has later been transformed into a playground, and the railings have been changed several times over.

Pump that used to stand in Nelson Square. Survey of London/British history Online
Pump that used to stand in Nelson Square. Survey of London/British history Online

The Survey of London of the area from 1950 mentions the original 1821 pump, and says it would then be placed in the churchyard of St. Mary Newington. However it no longer is to be found there and its fate is unknown. Also the 1904 fountain, which would appear to have a statue on top of it, has since disappeared as well as a later bandstand.

The 1916 map below shows the fountain near the western gate to the Square, as does the photo with the children at the gate (above), but one of the photos would suggest it was in the middle. Maybe it has been moved at least once? The maps and photos would suggest, that the fountain was first erected in the middle of the Square, but was moved quite soon to the western gate and a bandstand was built in the middle.

1916 map
1916 map

Below: contemporary newspaper articles on the opening of the Square (click for larger images). NSGCA archives.

Nelson Square. Southwark Local History library
Nelson Square. Southwark Local History library
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