An almost secret garden

ONE COULD EASILY MISS it whilst walking around the Inner Circle at London’s Regent’s Park. Had I not noticed a couple of people emerging from the discreet gap in a fence, I would have dismissed this as one of the numerous private entrances on the outer circumference of the Inner Circle. The gap in the fencing is near the northernmost point on the circular road. A small notice, framed by vegetation, within the gap in the fencing gives a short history of The Garden of St John’s Lodge. Follow the pathway away from the road, take a left turn and walk between two manicured hedges and then turn right, and you enter a lovely formal garden replete with a pond, several sculptures, and a lawn that gives a fine view of one side of St John’s Lodge. Brave the slippery mud and explore the various separate parts of this almost secret garden. You will not be disappointed.

St John’s Lodge was the first ‘villa’ to be built in Regent’s Park. Completed between 1817 and 1818 (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1277478), it was designed by John Raffield (1749-1828), who had worked for the Adam brothers before setting up his own architectural practice. It was later modified and enlarged both by Decimus Burton and Charles Barry. The house was built for the politician Charles Augustus Tulk (1786-1849).  Subsequent owners of the private residence have included Lord Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington (1769-1852) who served in India; John Crichton-Stuart, 3rd Marquess of Bute (‘Bute’;1847-1900), whose heart was buried at The Mount of Olives in Jerusalem; and Baron Sir Isaac Lyon Goldsmid (1778-1859). It was Wellesley who employed Decimus Burton to enlarge the house in 1831-32.

Goldsmid was a philanthropist and one of the leading personalities in the emancipation of British Jews. He made his fortune as a partner in the bullion brokers firm of Mocatta & Goldsmid (founded as ‘Mocatta Bullion’ in 1684), brokers for both The Bank of England and The East India Company. It was due partly to Goldsmid that my alma-mater, University College (London), was able to come into existence. Albert Hyamson, author of “A History of the Jews in England” wrote that:

“University College, London … was established in 1826, largely by the efforts and through the munificence of Isaac Lyon Goldsmid …”

Goldsmid paid for the land on which the university was later built.

In connection with Jewish emancipation, the online Jewish Encyclopaedia (www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/6765-goldsmid) writes of Goldsmid:

“The main effort of his life was made in the cause of Jewish emancipation. He was the first English Jew who took up the question, and he enlisted in its advocacy the leading Whig statesmen of the time. Soon after the passing of the Act of 1829, which removed the civil disabilities of the Roman Catholics, he secured the powerful aid of Lord Holland, the Marquis of Lansdowne, the Duke of Sussex, and other eminent members of the Liberal party, and then induced Robert Grant to introduce in the House of Commons a similar measure for the Jews. During more than two years from the time when Jewish emancipation was first debated in Parliament, Goldsmid gave little heed to his ordinary business, devoting himself almost exclusively to the advancement of the cause.”

In 1841, Goldsmid became the first Jewish person, who had not converted to Christianity, to become a Jewish baronet.  His son, Sir Francis Henry Goldsmid (1808-1878), worked with him for Jewish emancipation and was the first Jewish barrister in England, having been called to the Bar at Lincolns Inn.

Clearly, St John’s Lodge has had some noteworthy residents. Of these, it was Bute who commissioned the Scottish Arts and Crafts architect and landscape designer Robert Weir Schultz (1860-1951) create a garden “… fit for meditation”. Bute at St John’s Lodge, which he acquired in 1888, was one of Schultz’s first major clients (http://www.scottisharchitects.org.uk/architect_full.php?id=200199). Bute had taken an interest in Schultz’s studies, having financed his visit to the British School at Athens in the late 1880s. The garden was created in the early 1890s. It was refurbished and some of its original features restored in 1994, but it has been open to the public since 1928 (https://londongardenstrust.org/conservation/inventory/site-record/?ID=WST108).

Apart from its vegetation, the garden features sculptures, a pond, and a giant urn. The sculptures include “Goatherds daughter” by Charles L Hartwell (1873-1951); “Hylas and the Nymph” by Henry Pegram (1862-1937); an “Awakening” by Unus Safardiar (born 1968), commemorating Anne Lydia Evans (1929-99), a local medical practitioner. There are two stone piers, one on each side of a lawn, bordered by scalloped hedges,  leading up to the house. Each of these is topped with a stone cherub holding a fading painted stone shield, the coat-of-arms of Crichton-Stuart. These were made by William Goscombe John (1860-1952).

St John’s Lodge remained in private ownership until World War I, when it became a hospital for disabled officers and then became the HQ of St Dunstans (now known as ‘Blind Veterans UK’) with its workshops from 1921 to 1937. Then, it became the headquarters of the Institute of Archaeology from 1937 to 1959. In 1959 it was occupied by Bedford College (now ‘Regent’s University’).  It was vacated and since 1994, it has been leased for private residence to the Royal Family of Brunei.

Had I walked past the small passage leading off the Inner Circle,  I would have missed experiencing the almost hidden, delightful garden of St John’s Lodge, which is a building that has housed persons who have influenced the history of Britain significantly. We visited the garden in late December when few plants were in flower. We hope to return a few months later when not only the garden will be filled with blooms as will the nearby Queen Mary’s Rose Gardens within the Inner Circle.

Secret garden

MUCH OF GREATER LONDON is green space, which has not been built on. According to one source of information, Greenspace Information for Greater London CIC (‘GiGL’; http://www.gigl.org.uk):

“Roughly 47% of Greater London is ‘green’; 33% of London is natural habitats within open space according to surveyed habitat information and an additional 14% is estimated to be vegetated private, domestic garden land.”

Of this ‘green space’, much is accessible to the public either free of charge (e.g. Regents Park) or for a fee (e.g. Kew Gardens). This piece is about an example of a type of green space in London that is open to a select few. I am referring to many of the gardens in London squares that are or were surrounded by residential buildings. Some of these (e.g. Gordon Square in Bloomsbury) have been taken over by local councils and are now open to the public in general. However, many of these garden squares contain gardens that may only be entered by people who are eligible to be able to pay a fee for a key to unlock them. Some of the squares confine those eligible for keys to residents in the square or in neighbouring streets. I know of one privately owned garden, that within Princes Square near Bayswater, which is open to anyone who can afford the annual fee. This square garden, being privately owned, is dependent for membership fees to ensure its maintenance. Those eligible to use the gardens within squares, whether privately or partially privately maintained, can be expected to pay something towards the maintenance of these often-beautiful local amenities.

Recently, a friend admitted us to the garden of Norland Square in Kensington. Like many of these limited access gardens, it is surrounded by formidable cast-iron railings. These railings were removed during the Second World War when metals required for war materials were in short supply. They were only replaced in 2007. Like most of these squares, the passer-by cannot see much within the garden beyond the railings because of hedges and other vegetation grown just within them to preserve the privacy of those using the garden. So, being allowed to enter Norland Square provided us a rare opportunity to examine the interior of one of these ‘secret’ gardens.

Norland Square takes its name from the Norland Estate, 52 acres of land bounded to the south by Holland Park Avenue, on the east by roads now named ‘Pottery Lane’ and ‘Portland Road’, on the west  by the boundaries of the parishes of Kensington and Hammersmith (www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol37/pp276-297). The northern edge of the estate was roughly 200 yards north of the present Wilsham Street. The estate passed through several owners in the 18th century. They lived in a mansion, demolished long ago, which used to stand close to the present number 130 Holland Park Avenue. The name ‘Norland’ was used as early as 1599 to describe the ‘Northlands’, the land in the northern part of the Parish of Kensington (north of the present Holland Park Avenue), which includes the estate (www.rbkc.gov.uk/sites/default/files/atoms/files/Norland%20CAPS.pdf).

Writing in 1878, Edward Walford, author of a series of books called “Old and New London”, noted that during the reign of William IV, the then well-wooded estate belonged to one of the Drummonds, a family of bankers of Charing Cross. Prior to these occupants, the first to live in the former Norland House was Thomas Marquois (died 1802), ‘Professor of Artillery and Fortification’, who used the building as an academy to teach both civil and military subjects to sons of the gentry, who were hoping to join the British Army. According to the website about the Norland Estate mentioned above:

“Board and lodging, plus instruction in Greek, Latin, French, writing and arithmetic could be had for thirty guineas a year, but fortification, mathematics, navigation, drawing, geography, dancing, fencing and riding were all charged as extras. Marquois’ prospectus contains a plan of the academy and its grounds, which were indeed very well suited to his purposes. Besides the house itself there were stables, a manege or riding house, a fives court, a cricket ground, gravelled drives for hack riding, and an artificial ‘mount’ from which the various activities of the pupils could be kept under constant review.”

Marquois relinquished the property after only four years in 1765.

In 1825, fire destroyed Norland House. In 1838, Benjamin Lewis Vulliamy (1780-1854), clockmaker to the Crown, who then owned the Norland Estate, sold it and the ruins of the mansion to a solicitor Charles Richardson, who raised money to develop the estate for building purposes. The layout and design of the southern part of the estate, including Norland Square, was carried out by the architect Robert Cantwell (c1793-1859). The houses on Norland Square were leased to their first occupiers by Charles Richardson in 1842 and 1843.

Except for Norland Square Mansions on the south-west corner of the square, which has a few features slightly suggestive of art-deco style, the other houses surrounding the square are those built in the early 1840s. The mansion block occupies numbers 53 to 57 Norland Square. Interestingly, these plots do not figure in a list of the original lessees of the other plots in the square. Number 52, which neighbours the mansion block was leased to Robert Cantwell in 1842. A detailed map surveyed in 1865 shows that where Norland Square Mansions stands today, there were no houses but instead a garden extending between number 52 and a house, now no longer standing, on the corner of the square and Holland Park Avenue (then named ‘Uxbridge Road’). On a map dated 1913, the position of the mansion block was occupied by a school. This same building, which has a different ground plan to the current block of flats was still present on a detailed map surveyed in 1938. So, it would be reasonable to say that the mansion block was built after 1938.

Getting back to the present, we found that the ‘secret garden’ in the centre of Norland Square is both attractive and well-maintained. In addition to an extensive lawn furnished with occasional wooden benches and a table, there are plenty of shrubs and trees. There is a small well-equipped children’s play area at one end of the garden and tennis courts at the opposite end. While we spent time in the garden, a couple of elderly women were taking their daily walk around it and a young lady was exercising her dog. Areas like this are invaluable during periods of ‘lockdown’ during the current covid19 pandemic, offering lucky city-dwellers a welcome respite from being ‘confined to barracks’ and if they are fortunate to have a garden, they provide a much larger open space to ‘take the air’ than their own smaller patches. We were both grateful and happy to have been able to see and experience what is usually hidden from us by iron railings and curtains of dense vegetation.