A Look at St. James’s Park in London: Then and Now

Strolling through St. James’s Park has become one of my favorite things to do whenever I visit London. And each time I’m there, I can’t help but stop on the footbridge to admire the view. But did you know that this lovely bit of heaven in a great metropolis didn’t always look the way it does today?

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Photo of St. James’s Park by Laurie Benson.

St. James’s Park is the oldest royal park in London and was originally a marshy meadow. In 1532, King Henry VIII acquired the land as a deer park and built St. James’s Palace adjacent to the land. James I was the first one to have the park landscaped, but it was King Charles II who hired French garden designer Andre Mollet to create a more formal look to the park similar to the French gardens he saw when he was in exile. The redesign included a straight long canal, lawns, and walkways. Charles opened the park to the public and was frequently seen there amongst his subjects. In 1664, the Russian ambassador gifted Charles with a colony of pelicans which he had placed in the park and whose decedents occupy the park today.

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Andre Mollet’s plan for St. James’s Park. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Beginning in the late 17th century, cows grazed on the fields of the park and up until 1925, you could visit the park and purchase a fresh cup of milk directly from the cows via the milkmaids.

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The Mall in St. James’s Park by Thomas Gainsborough, 1783. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

When George IV, then the Prince Regent, wanted to celebrate the end of the war with France in 1814 with Allied sovereigns, he invited them to London. Various events were scheduled in and around the royal parks. A Chinese-style bridge was constructed to span the canal in St. James’s Park, and on top of it was a striking seven storey pagoda. Although the bridge remained until 1825, the pagoda caught fire during the celebratory fireworks and was sadly destroyed.

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Chinese-style bridge with pagoda in St. James’s Park, 1814. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In 1825, St. James’s Park went through a major change when George IV commissioned renowned architect John Nash to redesign the park in a more romantic style. The shape of the long canal was altered into the shape the lake takes today and many flowering plants and shrubs were installed.

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Photo of St. James’s Park by Laurie Benson.

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Photo of St. James’s Park by Laurie Benson.

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Photo of St. James’s Park by Laurie Benson.

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Photo of St. James’s Park by Laurie Benson.

If you venture into St. James’s Park today, you step back in time to a piece of early nineteenth century London and can thank John Nash and George IV for the beauty that surrounds you. I am so fond of this park, I included it as a key location in An Unexpected Countess.

An Unexpected CountessAn Unexpected Countess is out now!

Sarah Forrester is an American diplomat’s daughter who must locate the fabled Sancy Diamond or her family will be ruined by a mysterious blackmailer. But the Earl of Hartwick has also been tasked by the Prince Regent with finding the diamond. Little does he know that the feisty woman he meets on a roof top is his competition. As they each follow the clues hidden in a bracelet, Sarah and Hart realize they will have to work as a team. Being together may be as dangerous to their hearts as the hunt is to their lives…and finding the jewel is only the beginning.

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St. James’s Square: A Fashionable Regency Era Address

Researching locations to use in my novels in one of my favorite things to do when I’m preparing to write a book. An Unexpected Countess, my upcoming book, is a historical romance that pits my hero and heroine against each other in a race to find a piece of the missing French Crown Jewels. Before I wrote the book, I traveled to London to search out interesting locations to use in that story and became enchanted with another of its picturesque squares.

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St. James’s Square was the first of London’s west end squares and was conceived and created by Henry Jermyn, Earl of St. Albans when he was granted a freehold by the Crown in 1665. The Earl wanted to build thirteen or fourteen houses, “fit for ye dwellings of Noblemen and other persons of quality”. By the time of the construction, his plan was enlarged to include twenty-two houses to be built on the north, east, and west sides of the square with an large unpaved area in the center. The south side wasn’t included in the Earl’s design since there were properties already there that fronted Pall Mall.

By 1726, the south side of the square was an eyesore. It included a 30-foot long coach builder’s shed, and piles of garbage and cinders littered the area. Needless to say, the genteel residence of the square weren’t happy and petitioned the House of Commons to address the situation. An Act of Parliament was passed that year which appointed Trustees from the properties fronting the north, east and west ends of the Square to clean, adorn, and beautify it. That Trust still exists today.

A year after the Trust was formed, the Square was paved and Charles Brideman was commissioned to design an aesthetically pleasing central open area. He created an octagonal space that included a round water basin in the center that spanned 150 feet in diameter and was 4 feet deep. He enclosed the space with outer railings and made walkways extending straight from the corners of the railings to the basin.

In 1799 the octagonal was changed to a circle, and in 1807 an equestrian statue of William III was set in the center of the water basin. The basin was demolished in 1854, but the statue continues to dominate the center of the park today.

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By 1817, the Trustees wanted to revamp the Square and called in John Nash to redesign it. Nash kept the above-mentioned basin but surrounded it with curving walks, added shrubbery around the outside perimeter, designed a summer house beside the south entrance, and added additional serpentine paths through rich landscaped gardens. He enclosed the Square with handsome cast iron railings set on a Portland stone base. Nash’s plan was implemented that year and completed in 1818.

 

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Today, seventeen of the houses that overlook St. James’s Square are “listed” properties of special importance. The Square has had some notable residents. Here are a few and where they lived:

#4 was built in 1728. This was the home of the Astor family for thirty years. It is now home to The In and Out, Naval and Military Club and is the only remaining building that has a mews at the rear.

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#5 was built in 1749 and the second story was added in 1854. This was the London residence of the Byng family (The Earls of Stafford) for 260 years.

#9 & 10 were both built in 1736 and today they’re combined to form Chatham House, which is the office of the Royal Institute of International Affairs. No. 9 was originally occupied by the Hoare banking family until 1836. And, No. 10 was the home to both William Pitt, the 1st Earl of Chatham and Prime Minister of England (1708-1778), and Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1889).

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#15 was built in 1766 and designed by architect James Stuart. This was the London residence of the Earl of Lichfield for fifty years.

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#16 is an important building for those of you who love the Regency era. On the evening of June 21st, 1815 a soiree was being held in this home hosted by Mrs. Edmund Boehm that included the Prince Regent, later George IV. The festivities were interrupted when the Honorable Major Henry Percy, 14th Light Dragoons, an aide de camp to the Duke of Wellington, knocked on the door. He traveled from Brussels with a dispatch from Wellington that informed the Prince Regent of the victory at Waterloo and laid two French Imperial Eagles that were captured on the battlefield at the feet of the Prince. Imagine being able to boast that news of this important victory was announced first in your home.

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#20 was built in 1774 and designed by architect Robert Adam. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother lived here from from 1906 to 1920.

#32 was built in 1818 and for much of the 19th century this was the residence of the Bishops of London.

To find out how I used St. James’s Square in An Unexpected Countess, order your copy today.

An Unexpected Countess

Sarah Forrester, an American diplomat’s daughter, must locate the fabled Sancy diamond or her family will be ruined by a mysterious blackmailer. But the Earl of Hartwick has also been tasked by the Prince Regent to find the diamond. Little does he know the feisty young lady he met on a rooftop is his competition. As they each follow the clues hidden in a bracelet, Sarah and Hart realize they will have to work as a team. Being together may be as dangerous to their hearts as the hunt is to their lives…and finding the jewel is only the beginning.

 

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