The Lost Squares Of Stepney
William Palin evokes the lost glories of two of the East End’s forgotten architectural wonders, Wellclose Sq and Swedenborg Sq.
“The devastation of the square was pitiful to see. I only saw one man all the time I paced the square, and he had one foot in the grave. The April evening was chill and the sky overcast, but a blackbird warbled in the plane trees, introducing impromptu variations and evidently trying to keep his courage up. The half dozen Georgian terraced houses left on the north side looked indescribably weary and exhausted, their bricks crumbling and their stucco returning to sand. Grass was coming up on the pavement.”
When Geoffrey Fletcher ventured off Cable St into Wellclose Sq in the spring of 1968, he stumbled upon an eerie scene. Earmarked for redevelopment and languishing under a Compulsory Purchase Order, the entire square – the oldest and most historically important in East London – was about to disappear. Its destruction, together with Swedenborg (originally Princes) Sq, a smaller neighbour to the east, erased two and a half centuries of history and ripped the heart out of this remarkable enclave of forgotten London.
The growth of the eastern suburb of London during the seventeenth century was a phenomenon. Even before the development boom which followed the Great Fire, busy hamlets had grown up outside the City’s eastern boundary and along the northern banks of the Thames where thriving communities serviced, and profited from, growing river trade.
Detail of John Rocque’s Map of London (1746) showing Wellclose Sq and Princes Sq.
One speculator who recognised the potential for profit east of the City was the notorious Nicholas Barbon who is said to have laid out a staggering £200,000 in building in London after the Great Fire. In 1682, Barbon leased the Liberty of Wellclose (or Well Close) – a parcel of land north of Wapping – from the Crown. Barbon intended his new development on the Wellclose to appeal to the well-to-do members of the East End’s maritime community. Following the Great Fire, the riverside neighbourhoods had been swelled by the influx of new immigrants profiting from the rebuilding of the city.
The huge demand for timber created a lucrative trade for the Scandinavians, and the Norwegians (Danish subjects until 1814) were said to have “warmed them selves comfortably by the Fire of London.” Anglo-Danish connections had been strengthened by the marriage in 1683 of Princess Anne (later Queen Anne) to Prince Georg of Denmark and it was Georg’s father, King Christian V, who supplied the most of the funds for the construction of the new Danish Church at Wellclose Sq.
Danish-Norwegian Church in Wellclose Sq engraved by Johannes Kip in 1796.
The architect was the Danish sculptor Caius Gabriel Cibber. Cibber (the son of the King of Denmark’s cabinet-maker) had trained in Italy and had worked for Wren at St Paul’s. He is perhaps best known for his figures of ‘Raving’ and ‘Melancholy Madness’ made for the entrance to Bethlehem Hospital. Cibber’s new Danish Church at Wellclose Sq was completed in 1696. It was baroque in style, in the manner of Wren’s City churches and, its interior was distinguished by a vaulted ceiling with a distinctive circular central boss fringed with ornament.
The Old Court House, Wellclose Sq (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)
A number of the original seventeenth-century houses on the south side of the square survived until the nineteen sixties and photographs show them to be of good quality, with well-proportioned panelled rooms, and staircases with twisted balusters. Yet, other than the church, the most important and beautiful building in the square was the Old Court House, on the corner of Neptune St, built after 1687 as the seat of Justice for the four Tower Liberties. Its fine staircase and rooms of bolection panelling, identify it as part of Barbon’s first development. One of the prison cells from the building was later re-assembled and is now on display at the Museum of London.
The former Danish Embassy, c.1930. (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)
Other buildings of note in the square included Nos 20 & 21 on the west side which once housed the Danish Embassy. The two charming sculpted reliefs featuring putti practising the arts and sciences were removed to the Norwegian Embassy in Belgravia in the nineteen sixties. Also on the west side, stood two extraordinary relics of eighteenth-century maritime London. At the corner of Stable Yard was No.26, a timber framed weather-boarded house, complete with Venetian window, and, in the yard behind, there was a five-bay boarded house which in appearance recalled a North American East Coast colonial mansion.
At the corner of Stable Yard, Wellclose Sq. (London & Middlesex Archaeological Society, Bishopsgate Institute)
By the early nineteenth-century, the square was losing its respectability as a consequence of its proximity to the docks and the gradual industrialisation of the East End. The enclosure of the docks meant that seamen could leave ship during the unloading and loading of cargo. “Houses of ill-fame are swarming,” complained a contemporary Wesleyan missionary, “the neighbourhood teems with lazy, idle, drunken lustful men, and degraded, brutalised hell-branded women, some alas! girls in their early teens.”
As the numbers of lodging houses, pawn shops, pubs, and music halls multiplied, so did the sugar refineries. These refineries (or ‘bakeries’) had first appeared in the area in the seventeen-sixties. Manned mainly by poor German immigrants and belching sickly fumes into air, they did not help to improve the desirability of the neighbourhood. By the eighteen-fifties, there were at least five refineries operating around the square.
In 1816, the church was handed to trustees for charitable uses in aid of Danish and Norwegian seamen in London and, in 1856, the church became a mission under the control of St George-in-the-East only to be demolished and replaced by the new St Paul’s School in 1870.
The early success of Wellclose Sq inspired another Scandinavian community to undertake a similar development. Princes Sq (renamed Swedenborg Sq in 1938 after Emmanuel Swedenborg, who was interred there in 1772) was laid out in the seventeen-twenties by the Swedish community. It featured a plainer version of the Danish church, also positioned at the centre of the square inside a railed burial enclosure with high gates.
The Swedish Lutheran Church in Swedenborg Sq in December 1908. (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)
The Swedish congregation abandoned the building in 1911, moving west to Harcourt St in Marylebone, and the church, stripped and empty, deteriorated quickly. Photographs from 1919 show the windows broken and the railings torn down. Finally, in 1923, the site was purchased by the council, cleared, and replaced by a children’s playground. The east, west and south sides of the square had gone up in the seventeen-twenties and the north side a century later. Like Wellclose Sq, the south side contained some larger houses and most of these survived until the nineteen sixties.
South side of Swedenborg Sq, 1945. (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)
The seventeen-twenties terrace on the west side of the square was particularly fine, with handsome Doric doorcases and high basements. After World War II, the square was surveyed by the borough architect who concluded that the houses were in good order “excepting for want of attention due to the war” and “worthy of preservation on architectural grounds.” Subsequent repair work was carried out and a comparison of the photographs taken in 1945 with those of the late fifties and early sixties show that many of the buildings have been carefully rehabilitated.
Houses on the west side of Swedenborg Sq in 1945. (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)
Houses in Swenborg Sq after Post-War repair in 1961. (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)
This revival was short-lived however. In March 1959, a chilling memo from the LCC Valuer recorded that seventeen Grade II and twelve Grade III buildings in the square have been declared a “SLUM.” This change in the way the buildings were perceived must be seen against a background of political change and pressure for removal of the older London neighbourhoods in favour of modern, planned estates. A Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO) is set in motion and, at an inquiry in 1961, the Inspector concluded that the buildings were not capable of preservation.
Within a decade Swedenborg Sq had disappeared completely beneath the Swedenborg Gardens and St Georges Housing Estate – the area was simply erased from history. At Wellclose Sq, the houses came down too but the street pattern was retained, creating a strange non-place. Forty years on, the south side of the square remains empty and, on the site of the Old Court House, a sad wasteland stretches down to the busy Highway beyond.
Visiting in 1966, with the squares on their last legs, the historian and journalist Ian Nairn, who wrote so perceptively about the “soft-spoken this-is-good-for-you castration of the East End,” summed up the terrible plight of these two architectural jewels.
“Embedded in it (Cable St) are the hopeless fragments of two once splendid squares, Wellclose and Swedenborg, built for the shipmasters of Wapping when London began to move east. Those who could care about the buildings don’t care about the people, those who care about the people regard the decrepit buildings rather as John Knox regarded women: unforgivable blindness. Nobody cares enough, and the whole place will soon be a memory.”
Danish and Norwegian Church in Wellclose Sq, c.1845, by unknown artist.
Liberties of the Tower 1720, including Marine Sq, Spittle Fields and Little Minories.
Interior of the Danish-Norwegian church engraved by Kip in 1796.
Geoffrey Fletcher’s drawing of Wellclose Sq, 1968.
Wellclose Sq looking east from the steps of No.5 (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)
Wellclose Sq, south side, 1961. (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)
Old Court House, view to first floor landing showing the fine Barbon staircase, 1911 (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)
Watch House, Wellclose Sq, 1935. (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)
Interior of Swedish church, 1908. (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)
Swedish church, 1919. (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)
Swedenborg Sq, south side looking east, 1921 (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)
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