When the Square was built, it would seem to have been attracting a reasonably well-to-do population. Booth’s famous poverty maps from late 19th century have Nelson Square and the surrounding parts in Blackfriars Road classified as “Middle class, well-to-do” and “Upper-middle and upper classes, wealthy.”
Immediately outside the square we find blocks of blue, indicating poverty.
Slums and Impoverishment
In the nineteenth century, Nelson Square although inhabited by middle class people, was surrounded by impoverishment and slums.
Few slum dwellers left a record of their lives. However in 1873, just after the introduction of schooling for all five to ten year olds, Elizabeth Miriam Burgwin at the age of 23 became Head Teacher of one of London’s first elementary schools Orange Street in – now Copperfield Street (prior to the cottages erected there later and still existing). Orange Street school is now occupied by the Jerwood Arts Centre. At that time she found that the children of the surrounding impoverished homes were too weak to concentrate.
In 1886 she recalled how upon starting classes the children were ‘so weakly and so restless…that if I did succeed in getting them to attend they slept…I called in a doctor to talk about the children…and he said, “well they are decidedly hungry.”’
From 1874 Burgwin began to provide free dinners for the children. The doctor’s diagnosis meant Burgwin felt obliged from as early as 1874 to ‘have provided dinners for them quite free.’
In such conditions infant mortality rates remained high. In the St Saviour’s area in 1860 around 50% of children died before the age of five.
The building of Orange Street School itself led to the poorest housing being demolished. At the time of building, the architect planned an open railing around the school but noted that this had to be ‘substituted by a high brick wall as a species of boundary in so rough a neighbourhood.’
In the mid-19th century as industry displaced housing the population grew as more jobs were available. Houses were grossly overcrowded and the area between Union Street and Orange Street was one of the most overcrowded. An 1883 report from St Alphege’s described these areas:
‘Here the costermongers, tramps and thieves dwell in close, ill built, pestilential courts, in filth, squalor and degradation. Their little homes are so closely huddled together that scarcely three feet of yard space is left at the back.’
Some proper slums are reported to have existed very near Nelson Square, for example in Ewer Street.
Click to read more on Southwark slums: Victorianlondon.org
Part of the poverty map:
It would seem probable, that the well-heeled character of the square deteriorated on the way to World War II. Some of the photos show signs for “Rooms to let”, which would indicate that the houses no longer were single-family dwellings.
Houses numbered 1 to 6 (west side of the square, next to where the road entrance to the square was then, now where Vaughan House stands) had disappeared by the 1930s and had been converted to industrial use. Some maps mark this as ‘motor works’, others as “leather manufacturers”.
Local pubs and businesses before the war
In the 1934 and 1948 Post Office directory we find several pubs and hostelries as well as other businesses operating in and around the square:
64 Nelson Square, Lord Nelson (a predecessor to the current pub of the same name in Rowland Hill House)
225 Union Street: Union Jack (survives)
243 Union Street: Frank Evans dining rooms
245 Union Street: Greengrocers
263 Union Street: Queen’s Head (Survived the war, but closed in 1941would be in the forecourt to Rowland Hill House)
275 Royal Hotel for ladies
173 Blackfriars Road: Old King’s Head (later Imbibe bar, demolished in 2013-14)
176 Blackfriars Road: Sons of Temperance building (survives, now a listed building)
178 Blackfriars Road: library
189 Blackfriars Road: Surrey Methodist Chapel (below)
196 Blackfriars Road: Food product. This is the corner shop, where a sign of a Dog and Pot had stood for an ironmongers’ earlier.
197 Blackfriars Road: The Ring (now Palestra)
Most of the building stock in and around the Square was destroyed and damaged by enemy bombs in 1940-41, but it would seem that some of the remaining buildings were still in use before the site was cleared for the new council blocks in the early 1950s.
When the redevelopment was announced, it was made clear that the Square would now be given to ordinary working people of the borough and the well-off character that once was obvious was eradicated. South London Press used very colourful language to describe the past of Nelson Square in 1951: “10-storey flats on dandies’ parade. Where Georgian dandies once strolled with their silver–knobbed canes, while a beadle chased urchins from their path…” “The new square would be unrecognisable to the rich merchants, who found it fashionable in the 18th century.”
Compulsory purchase orders were set in motion immediately after the war – little is known where the pre-war residents of Nelson Square ended up.
Only 4 of the original houses survive in the square today. When compared to the older photo above, we can see that the part of the terrace closest to the camera was destroyed.
To imagine what the Square could look like now, had it not been destroyed, maybe nearby West Square could serve as a contemporary example. In the recent photos below we can see how, despite some new development, West Square remains much in an appearance how Nelson Square once was. Whether Nelson Square would have survived the council slum clearances, that had been started before the war, and continued in the 1950s, or the council planners in the 1970s, if the bombing hadn’t mostly cleared the area, is a different speculation.
But with the current housing prices combined with the Tory government’s recent Housing Act may well force the Square return as an exclusive residence for well-off people like it used to be, with the post-war working class communities in and around Nelson Square broken up.