An actress on the village green

SHE SITS THERE MOTIONLESS, day after day and year after year, watching the traffic on Westway either rushing past or crawling along in a traffic jam. In her heyday, before being captured in stone, instead of the noise of motor vehicles, she would have enjoyed the sound of the applause given by audiences in dimly lit theatres. She was the actress Mrs Sarah Siddons (1755-1831), and her carved stone statue stands facing the elevated Westway in Paddington Green, just west of the Edgware Road.

Mrs Siddons

Paddington Green used to be part of an expanse of ancient wasteland located in an area now bounded by the Regents Canal, the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal, and Edgware Road, but now much of this wasteland has been built upon. Writing in 1867, John Timbs noted:

“Paddington Green, now inclosed and iron-bound, was the green of the villagers, shown in all its rural beauty in prints of 1750 and 1783. Upon a portion of it were built the Almshouses, in 1714; their neat little flower-gardens have disappeared. South of the green is the new Vestry -hall. At Dudley Grove was modelled and cast, by Matthew Cotes Wyatt, the colossal bronze statue of the Duke of Wellington … it is thirty feet high, and was conveyed from the foundry, upon a car, drawn by 29 horses, Sept. 29, 1846, to Hyde Park Corner.”

Dudley Grove was in Paddington. What is now left of the wasteland consists of St Mary’s churchyard and next to it a small grassy area, still known as ‘Paddington Green’, and marked as such on a map drawn in 1815. It contains the statue of Mrs Siddons. The first written record of the Green is dated 1549. The Green contained a mediaeval chapel, now long-since gone. It has been replaced by St Mary’s Church, which was built in the Georgian style, in 1788. It was designed by John Plaw (1745-1820), who emigrated from London to the North American Colony of Prince Edward Island in 1807. His church in Paddington was later modified in the 19th century but restored to its original shape (a Greek Cross in plan) in 1970 under the guidance of the architect Raymond Erith (1904-1973), amongst whose other creations was the current form of the Jack Straws Castle pub in Hampstead.

The present church is the third in the area, which was halfway between the ancient villages of Paddington and Lilestone. The old Manor of Lilestone (or ‘Lilystone’) included the present Lisson Grove and extended as far as Hampstead. The earliest church was taken down in about 1678. The second church, which replaced it, can be seen in old drawings. It was a simple edifice with a single aisle and a small bell tower at one end. Edward Walford, writing in the 1880s, described it as:

“… not unlike the type of country churches in Sussex…”

The poet and preacher John Donne (1572-1631) preached his first sermon in the first church in 1615 and the painter William Hogarth (1697-1764) was married to Jane Thornhill (c1709-1789) in the second in 1729 without her parents’ knowledge.

Next to the western end of the church there is a single-storied rectangular, brick building decorated with trompe-l’oeil grisailles, one of which depicts Mrs Siddons. Today, this houses the Phileas Fox Nursery School. Built on the site of the old, now demolished, vestry hall (parish council meeting place), this building, the  church hall,  in a late Georgian style was designed by John Quinlan Terry (born 1937), an architect of the ‘New Classical’ style favoured by Prince Charles, and built in 1978-81.

Apart from the statue of Mrs Siddons on Paddington Green, most of it is surrounded by buildings or roads built either at the end of the 19th century or long after. At the eastern side of the Green there is what looks like a pair of either early 19th or possibly 18th century houses. The reason Mrs Siddons is commemorated on the Green is that she is buried in the adjoining St Mary’s Churchyard. Her gravestone is contained within a cast-iron enclosure that looks like a small cage. For some time, the actress lived in Paddington in a house which used to stand in the area around Westbourne Green, which is near the current Westbourne Park Underground station.  

Mrs Siddons was highly acclaimed as an actress by many. The critic James Henry Leigh Hunt (1784-1859) had reservations as he remarked in his autobiography:

“Want of genius could not be imputed to his sister, Mrs Siddons. I did not see her, I believe, in her best days; but she must always have been a somewhat masculine beauty; and she had no love in her, apart from other passions. She was a mistress, however, of lofty, of queenly, and of appalling tragic effect. Nevertheless, I could not but think that something of too much art was apparent even in Mrs Siddons; and she failed in the highest points of refinement.”

Although the poet and playwright Joanna Baillie (1762-1851), shared Hunt’s opinion about her, others held her in higher regard.

The statue of Mrs Siddon in Paddington Green was sculpted by the French sculptor Léon-Joseph Chavalliaud (1858-1919). In the 1880s, he moved to London from France and lived south of the Thames in Brixton. His Mrs Siddons, based on a portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, was unveiled by the actor Sir Henry Irving (1838-1905) in 1897. It was the first statue of a woman, who was not royal, to be put up in London.

Paddington Green, like its close neighbour Paddington Station, figures in the history of London’s transportation. For, it was from here that the coachbuilder George Shillibeer (1797-1866) ran London’s first omnibus service to The Bank of England in 1829. He had got the idea from Paris, where he had been asked to design carriages that could carry up to 24 passengers at any one time.

The Paddington Green police station building stands a few yards east of Paddington Green. Constructed in 1971, this used to provide local policing services as well as an interrogation centre for terrorist suspects. Suspects accused of terrorist activities were brought here for questioning from all over the UK. Although it was refurbished in 2009, the station was closed in 2018. The building’s future is in the hands of property developers, who plan to build new housing on its site.  

Until the beginning of the 19th century, Paddington Green was a bucolic environment on the edge of what was then London. Now, surrounded by buildings and highways, it is a green but noisy oasis in a highly urbanised area.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s