Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
Just east of Blackfriars Road, Nelson Square is a small square of mostly local authority housing surrounding a public garden. The original houses and central garden were laid out around 1807, two years after Admiral Nelson died at the Battle of Trafalgar. The area to the south of Blackfriars Bridge had been developed since the bridge had opened in 1769 and appealed to the middle classes who worked in the City and Fleet Street as it was just a short walk or ride away.
Nelson Square was built on land that belonged to Sir Francis Lindley Wood, ancestor of Lord Halifax. 62 terraced houses of three, four or five storeys with ornamental ironwork were built surrounding a private square for use by the residents only. There was a public house, named the Lord Nelson. The most famous resident of the Square was Percy Bysshe Shelley who lodged at no. 26 for a few months at the end of 1814 and the beginning of the following year.
As the population of London increased dramatically during the 19th century and the building of the railways made commuting easier, many of the wealthier residents moved out to the suburbs. Many of the houses were sub-divided into tenements and the investigator for the Charles Booth Poverty Maps at the end of the 19th century recorded that employment of servants in Nelson Square was only seasonal. Nevertheless, Nelson Square’s decline was only relative and was classed as “Fairly comfortable. Good ordinary earnings” whereas many of the surrounding streets were classified as poor or very poor. Charles Booth classified Southwark as the second poorest area in London.
In 1887, the Women’s University Settlement, part of the Settlement Movement where graduates from universities moved into and lived in poor areas to help alleviate the suffering of the poor, began their operations from no. 44 Nelson Square. They aimed to promote the welfare of the poor “more especially of the women and children, by devising and advancing schemes which tend to elevate them, and giving them additional opportunities for education and recreation.” Activities included organising mothers’ meetings, musical drill classes for factory girls, holding evening classes for manual workers and running apprenticeships for the disabled. They also assisted Octavia Hill in collecting rents and advising tenants of the properties she managed in the area. The WUS soon outgrew their premises and additionally acquired the freeholds of numbers 45 and 46 Nelson Square.
In 1897, the LCC wanted to remove a gate from the square to ease traffic flow. At the same time, prompted by the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association, they thought it would be a good idea to lay out the central gardens as a public open space. The owner of the freehold was Viscount Halifax who agreed to transfer the land free of charge for use as a public open space which would be maintained by the LCC. They negotiated with the owners and occupiers of the houses surrounding the square who, on certain conditions, agreed to surrender their rights to the garden. One of those conditions was to preserve the seven plane trees within the square. The garden was transferred to the LCC in 1903.
The garden was in a neglected state. The boundary railings were so dilapidated to be beyond repair, and the distinction between walks and grass areas nearly obliterated, and with the exception of the seven plane trees, few shrubs and trees worth saving. The garden, originally oval-shaped, was relaid as a rectangle, thereby increasing the area, and a cast iron drinking fountain, donated by the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association, was installed at the centre. The garden opened to the public in 1904, and later a bandstand was erected.
The square suffered badly from bomb damage in World War II. Most of the square was acquired by Southwark Borough Council who demolished most of the Victorian houses and built mid level housing. The only Victorian houses to remain are numbers 44-47, the houses that belonged to the Women’s University Settlement. These houses too were badly damaged during the war but the Settlement continued to work out of them. The Settlement changed its name to the Blackfriars Settlement in 1961 to reflect the change in society and the change in their work, and moved to premises in Rushworth Street where they are still active.
The gardens are maintained by a local gardening club working with Bankside Open Spaces Trust. There is a playground and a rose garden along the side. Sadly, of the seven plane trees residents considered saving over 100 years ago, only six now remain, grown tall and magnificent. A small football court has been installed on the site of the seventh.
October 2016: For a more in depth look at Nelson's Square history, the Nelson Square Community Gardens Association has launched a website devoted to the Square's history.