The Context for the Square
Until the later 18th century the parish of Christ Church was rather cut off from surrounding districts, and also from north of the Thames. Old London Bridge was the only bridge in central London until Westminster Bridge was opened in 1750. Blackfriars Bridge was the next bridge to be opened, in 1769, and Great Surrey Street (today’s Blackfriars Road) was laid out by 1771, ending as it does now at St. George’s Circus. Previously, the only east-west route in Christ Church Parish was the meandering road behind the riverfront, which went from Bankside to Upper Ground and then to Narrow Wall, serving the riverside wharves and factories. Inland, there was the Green Walk, which consisted of today’s Hopton Street (once Holland Street), then Burrell Street (old Church Street), and finally Colombo Street (formerly Collingwood Street). The last of these once extended in a long north-south stretch to open land, but then into Great Charlotte Street (now part of The Cut) when that road was laid out. This route is now interrupted, and the southern portion is now a completely separate road called Joan Street.
The Building of the Square
The new bridge and its approach road transformed matters. The new Great Surrey Street soon saw the building of terraces of houses, of which those south of The Ring Public House are survivors. Side-streets then appeared, but the southern end of the parish (adjoining St, George’s Fields) came last. The site of Nelson Square belonged to the Lindley Wood family from Yorkshire, whose descendants acquired the Viscountcy and later the Earldom of Halifax. Sir Francis Lindley Wood, the second Baronet (1771-1846), owned the land at the time of the development. The square was not the first plan for the land, for a proposal for a circus was made in about 1785. The actual square was built from about 1808 to 1814. William Faden’s revision in 1813 of Horwood’s map has the label, ‘Nelson Square so to be called when built on’, which was possibly a label he drafted for the previous edition. Relatively few houses are shown in 1813, only on the west side and to the north-west. The whole square appears on the map of the parish in 1821.
Design and Details
It was a substantial Georgian square with an oval garden. Samuel Pepys Cockerell was likely to have been the overall designer. The houses were not uniform, however. They were brick-built, with some faced in stucco on the ground floor. Their heights varied and their doorways differed. There were many iron balconies at first-floor level, and railings more or less throughout. Despite the lack of symmetry, it was a worthy and pleasing late Georgian development, and certainly one of Southwark’s architectural showpieces.
William Hansard, the builder of some of the houses, lived at No. 1 for some years. Percy Bysshe Shelley, the poet, lived at No. 26 in 1814-15, where a plaque was fixed to the facade.