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History of Nevern Square

Chronology

1865-9Metropolitan District Railway station built
1872Town planning application to develop Nevern Square
1880Lord Kensington (the owner of the Edwardes estate) signs contract with builder Robert Whitaker
1880-4Robert Whitaker builds east, north and south sides of Square. Dies January 1885.
1885-6George Whitaker builds west side of square. The Garden is laid out simultaneously with the construction of the houses.
1944North gate of Garden and houses at 1 and 51-57 destroyed or severely damaged by a flying bomb.
1948-50Numbers 1 and 51 rebuilt.
1949Numbers 56 and 57 rebuilt.
1958-9Numbers 52-55 rebuilt.
1974Nevern Square Garden Limited formed to purchase the land occupied by the Garden from the private owner.
1978Kensington Improvement Act of 1851 applied to Nevern Square.
1979New Garden railings installed, replacing those removed during World War II.
1985Nevern Square designated as Conservation Area.
1995Nevern Square Residents Association formed.
1997Nevern Square Conservation Area further extended.
2005Replica Victorian gate constructed to replace the North gate destroyed in 1944.

 

Rural Earl's Court

It seems difficult to imagine now, but up to a hundred and fifty years ago Earl's Court was a rural area, covered with green fields and market gardens. For over five hundred years the land, part of the ancient manor of Kensington, was owned by the De Vere family, Earls of Oxford, descendants of Aubrey De Vere, who followed William the Conqueror to England in 1066. The Earl held his Manorial Court where Old Manor Yard is now, just by the Underground station. Hence the name Earl's Court.

In about 1604, the manor was purchased by Sir Walter Cope, Lord of the Manor of Kensington. Through a series of marriages, the estate passed to the Edwardes, a Welsh family, who continued to own it until 1901, when it was sold and broken up. Because their home county was Pembrokeshire in west Wales, when the Earl's Court area was developed the Edwardes chose the names of Welsh villages - Nevern, Penywern, Philbeach, Trebovir, Templeton - for many of the new streets and squares. If you look at a detailed map of Pembrokeshire, you can find these places on it.

 

The urbanisation of the Earl's Court Area

Cary's map of 1787 gives an idea of what the area was like at the end of the eighteenth century. As well as the manor house, the few buildings existing at that time included a brewhouse near the present 185 Earl's Court Road and a tavern, The White Hart, to the west of Hogarth Road, a thought which may cheer the heads of present-day pubgoers Daw's maps of 1848, 1852, 1863 and 1879 show how development proceeded. ln 1863 there were houses, or building plots, to the north of Pembroke Road, in Earl's Court Village and in Earl's Court Gardens and along Richmond Road (now Old Brompton Road). At that time virtually all the area to the west of Earl's Court Road up to the Kensington Canal was still agricultural land.

The construction of the Metropolitan District Railway station, in 1865-9, was a catalyst for development. In the quarter century after 1867 Earl's Court was transformed into a densely populated suburb with 1,200 houses and two churches. Eardley Crescent and Kempsford Gardens were built between 1867 and 1873, building begain in Earl's Court Square and Longridge Road in 1873, in Nevern Place in 1874, in Trebovir Road and Philbeach Gardens in 1876. Nevern Square was one of the last bits to be developed. In Daw's map of 1879, while most of the rest of the area is shown as built up Nevern Square appears as an empty space, although it has already acquired its name.

 

The development of Nevern Square

In July 1877 Martin Stutely and Daniel Cubitt Nichols, on behalf of Lord Kensington (the head of the Edwardes family), applied to the Metropolitan Board of Works for permission to modify the original town-planning scheme of 1872, which envisaged a simple grid of streets, replacing it with an enclosed garden square to be called Nevern Square. The new plan was approved, but it was not until 1880 that a contract was signed with the builder Robert Whitaker. The designs for the square were drawn up by Walter Graves, an architect in his early thirties. An advertisement for houses in Nevern Square, dating from c. 1880, gives a good idea of the original conception of the square and garden. Whitaker began building the east side in 1880, the north in 1881 and the south in 1883. The square garden was formed at an early stage of building, and in January 1883 tenders were invited for the erection of the surrounding iron railings and gateways to Graves's design. The developers accepted the lowest estimate, of £525, from Wells and Company. The occupants of the houses paid an annual rental of two guineas for the maintenance of the garden. In January 1885, shortly after he had started building the last, west side of the square, Whitaker died. His widow, Elizabeth Ann Whitaker, who continued to live at No. 3 Nevern Square, handed over the construction of the west side to a George Whitaker of Hammersmith, presumably a relative. The appearance of the west side of the square differs substantially from the other sides, and it seems likely that Whitaker modified Walter Graves's original design. Construction of the square was completed in 1886.

 

The architectural features of the square

The square is built in a style known as "Domestic Revival", which is quite different from that of the nearby streets. This style had been pioneered in the 1870s by architects such as J.J. Stevenson and Norman Shaw, for example in Palace Gate and Queen's Gate. Various features are derived from English and Flemish houses of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, hence the use of the term "Revival". The houses are built of exposed brick, rather than stucco, using contrasting yellow and red bricks. Apart from the patterns in the brick colours, the ornamental features include pediments of moulded brick at first and second floor level and continuous balconies at first-floor level with delicately patterned iron railings, which are echoed in the railings at street level. The West side of the square is slightly different from the others: there are square openings above the porch arches, which make them appear bulkier; the brackets beneath the balconies are larger; in the upper storeys thin pilaster strips divide the elevation of each house into regular bays; and the windows have small stone or cement keystones. The overall effect is to make the facades look heavier and less delicate.

It is interesting to compare Walter Graves's design for No. 5 Nevern Square with the actual house, and with a house on the West side.

Sadly, over the years the brick facades of some of the houses have been painted over, in some cases in unattractive "brick" colours or, even worse, in mushroom or white. Also some of the railings have acquired gold or silver-coloured details. One of the beauties of the square is its stylistic harmony; it is to be hoped that from now on everything will be done to preserve this, and if possible, to remedy the mistakes of past years.

 

The cost of houses in Nevern Square

Given the cost of houses today, it is intriguing to know what they originally cost. The owners of the land leased it to Robert Whitaker on a ninety-nine year term, at a total ground rent of £1,618 per annum. Much of the ground area (six acres in total) is occupied by the communal garden, and consequently the average ground rent per house was £25. The houses were available for sale or for rent. In 1881, No. 1 Nevern Square, a large corner house, sold for £2,500; Robert Whitaker's asking price for the smaller houses was lower, at £2,200. In 1887 George Whitaker sold six houses on the west side for £9,875; an average of £1,646 each. Initially the rents ranged from £150 to £180 for houses in the middle of terraces to as much as £250 to £275 for corner houses. From 1888 rents began to fall drastically, to as low as £100 per annum. Mrs. Whitaker continued to own and let many of the properties on the east, north and south sides of the square, but had inherited from her husband a hefty mortgage (£32,000 in 1898). Eventually rents fell so low that in 1906 she defaulted on the mortgage payments and her creditors repossessed the houses. One of the consequences of this fall in rents was that in the 1890s builders and developers tended to give up building large family homes and construct blocks of flats instead. If you look at the location of the mansion blocks near Nevern Square (e.g. Nevern Mansions and Kensington Mansions) you can see that they correspond with the areas that were the last to be developed.

 

The first inhabitants of Nevern Square

In general, the houses seem to have attracted occupants as soon as they were completed. The 1891 Census offers a fascinating portrait of the inhabitants. The linked table indicates for each house how many people lived there and the age, profession and place of birth of the head of the household. Only two of the houses were empty. All the houses appear to have been inhabited by a single household, although a few have a suspiciously large number of "visitors". Most of the householders were born in other parts of the U.K., or in the Colonies, as one might expect, given that it was a new residential area. The most common professions are army and navy officers (mostly retired), merchants, engineers, and civil servants. There are severals widows "living on own means". Quite a few houses are occupied only by caretakers or servants; presumably the owners also had homes outside London. Some of the houses were inhabited by a large number of people, in general because of the presence of sons and daughters and servants. The total number of inhabitants registered is 406 of whom only 95 are men and 311 are women. The preponderance of females is due to the number of unmarried daughters and other female relatives and the many female servants. From 1901 to 1918 the author Compton Mackenzie (1883-1972) and his sister, actress Fay Compton (1894-1978) lived at No. 1 Nevern Square.

 

The inter-war period

The houses in Nevern Square were originally designed to be single-family homes, as is quite clear from the designations of the rooms in the builder's advertisement of 1880. However, it was not long before they began to be divided up into smaller units, or adapted for other purposes. By the early decades of the twentieth century several of the houses had already been converted into boarding houses; in 1910 there were three officially listed in The Post Office Directory, and by 1920 there were four boarding houses, two "residential chambers" and one "Home of Health".

 

The Second World War and its aftermath

The northern part of Nevern Square was badly damaged by bombing in the Second World War, as can be seen from the bombing map of the area. At 16.23 on Sunday the 23rd of July 1944 a flying bomb (the equivalent of today's missiles) fired from the French coast landed more or less where the North gate of the square stands today. One person was killed, 16 serious cases were sent to hospital and 85 people suffered minor injuries. Full details of the bombing are given in the report on "Incident 13". It seems very probable that this bomb caused the large gash in the plane tree at the north end of the garden lawn.

Besides destroying the north gate of the Garden, the bomb caused severe damage to the houses at the north end of the square. Nos. 1, 51 and 52-55 had to be totally rebuilt and Nos. 56 and 57 were so substantially reconstructed as to have been in effect rebuilt. The replacement houses were designed to harmonise with the existing buildings, matching them in scale, colour and texture. Nos. 1 and 51 were rebuilt in 1948-50 to the designs of a firm of local architects, Llewellyn Smith and Waters. Nos 56 and 57 were rebuilt in 1949; Nos 52-55 were added in 1958-9, following the design already carried out at nos. 56-57.

 

The replacement of the Garden railings and North gate

The original Garden railings were removed in the early stages of the war, when it was thought that the metal could be recycled for other uses. Thus by the end of the war the garden had no railings and had lost its north gate. As an immediate remedy, a utilitarian north gate was installed (see photo) and the garden was fenced round with netting.

It was not until 1979 that the money was raised to put back the railings; this operation was financed by a gift of £1,000 and an interest-free loan of £10,000 from the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

The "modern" north gate remained for many years, but was finally replaced with a superb replica based on the other Victorian gates, inaugurated at 16.23 on July 23rd 2005, exactly sixty-one years after the original gate was destroyed. The construction of the new gate and piers was financed with the "planning gain" derived from the development project for numbers 29-31 Nevern Place.

 

The purchase of the Garden by local residents

Up till 1974 the ownership of the Garden (that is the land on which it stands) remained in the hands of a single private owner. The owner, wishing to realise the capital value of the land, announced his intention of selling it. At this point a group of local residents, fearing that the Garden could be transformed into an underground car park or put to other equally unsuitable uses, banded together and raised the money necessary to buy the land (£3,500), forming a non-profit making Company (Nevern Square Garden Limited) which now owns the Garden. These heroic garden saviours included Terry Powers, Cecilia Wright, Pamela Salem, Patricia Godfrey-Lewis, and Mr. J. Burridge (owner of the famous racehorse Desert Orchid). There remained the problem of how to finance the maintenance of the Garden. Initially this was solved by collecting subscriptions from those of the residents who wanted to use it. In this phase much of the actual gardening work was done by the residents themselves, each person taking responsibility for a particular section of the beds (which produced some quite interesting planting!). Feeling that it was desirable to put the Garden on a sounder financial footing, in 1978 the Directors of the Company succeeded in getting the Kensington Improvement Act of 1851 applied to Nevern Square. This meant that thereafter all the residents of properties which overlook the Garden were required to pay an obligatory Garden Rate (or levy), which is collected by the Borough together with the Council Tax, thus ensuring a regular income for the maintenance of the Garden. The amount of the levy is proposed each year by the Garden Committee and approved by the residents at the AGM. In 1983 the Garden Bye-laws, drawn up on the basis of a previous "Code of Conduct" and comparisons with the Bye-laws of other garden squares, were officially approved by the Crown Court.

Earl's Court goes international

In the 1950s, 60s and 70s the Earl's Court area was home to many non-English residents. First came Polish refugees, during and immediately after the War. Then there was an influx of students from the former colonies. The establishment of the Overseas Visitors Club, initially in Templeton Place and later in Nevern Place, attracted South Africans, Rhodesians and Australians. The nickname "Kangaroo Alley" dates from this era. Then at the end of the 1960s there came a new wave of Arab, Iranian and Filipino migrants. Short-term residents and those seeking a first foothold in London were attracted by the presence of many cheap hotels, hostels and bedsits. Over the last three decades this situation has gradually changed. The area retains a decidedly international flavour, but the quality of the housing stock and the hotels has improved enormously, the bedsits and hostels have been converted into flats, and there is now a much higher proportion of long-term residents.

 

The Nevern Square Conservation Area

In 1978 Kensington and Chelsea Council set up the Earl's Court Study to carry out a detailed survey of the area and make recommendations. One of the conclusions of this study was that it would be desirable to foster the use of Nevern Square for residential purposes, rather than for hotels and hostels, of which there was a considerable number in the area at that time. In subsequent years a number of properties were converted back to residential use, and in 1985 Nevern Square and some of the surrounding streets were designated as a Conservation Area, which was further extended in February 1997. The Conservation Areas Proposals Statement for Nevern Square and Philbeach, published by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in 1998, gives a detailed description of the area, drawing attention to all the features of particular architectural and historical interest. In 1995 the Nevern Square Residents Association was formed to defend the integrity of the area and it remains active in signalling to the Borough Council any problems which require attention.

 

Garden renovation

In the mid-1990s the Garden went through a difficult moment: several long-standing Members of the Garden Committee resigned, a loss of accumulated experience as well as of voluntary manpower; the financial reserves of the Garden were severely depleted; and the garden shed, the benches, and some of the play equipment were quite dilapidated. Partly as a consequence of this situation, from 1998 onwards the Committee acquired several new members who, coming fresh to the task, set to work to tackle these various problems. In the course of the last ten years the Committee has gradually renovated and improved the planting, the hard landscaping and the garden equipment. The Victorian piers and gates were restored (with the aid of a grant from the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea) and a new, replica Victorian gate was constructed at the north end; the Victorian edging to the beds was completed and cemented in and a new edging were installed around the lawn; paved brick bases were laid under the benches; old and damaged play equipment was taken out and a new climbing frame was installed; new notice boards were put up; the benches and tables were repaired or replaced; a dilapidated garden shed was replaced with a new one; a programme of tree surgery was carried out; and the planting was gradually - but gently - modified and improved.

Looking back on the history of Nevern Square Garden, in particular the period since 1945, if there is any lesson to be drawn from it, it is that without the active involvement of local residents, contributing their interest, support and hard work, the Garden cannot be properly cared for and protected. It will be up to each successive generation of residents to ensure that this is done.

Sources

Richard Tames. Earl's Court and Brompton Past. Historical Publications, London, 2000. Survey of London. Vol XLII Southern Kensington: Kensington Square to Earl's Court. General Editor Hermione Hobhouse. The Athlone Press, 1986. The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Nevern Square and Philbeach: Conservation Areas Proposals Statement. London, 1998. 1891 Population Census. Post Office London Directory. Nevern Square Garden Committee documents.