Parks, Squares and Open Spaces

In the early seventeenth century London remained small enough to allow most residents to reach the countryside by a few minutes' walk.  Fields near the city were used both for daily chores, like drying laundry, and recreations like archery.  As the metropolis grew open space became scarcer and more highly valued, leading to efforts, especially in the West End, to preserve patches of greenery within the urban fabric.  A few noblemen did this by creating private gardens behind their palatial townhouses but the price of London real estate made this impractical except for the extremely wealthy.  In the early seventeenth century, the only way an ordinary gentleman or courtier was able to escape urban congestion was by renting a house along the fringes of the metropolis; but by 1625 even districts some distance from the City, like the area around Charing Cross, were becoming crowded.

The Stuarts disliked the growth of London, especially toward their main residence at Whitehall, and attempted to forbid the building of new houses on previously open land.  But their proclamations were widely flouted and in the 1630s Charles I began experimenting with the alternative approach of issuing licences that, among other regulations, required builders to preserve open spaces in the middle of newly constructed neighborhoods.  We have described the earliest examples, in Covent Garden and Lincoln's Inn Fields, elsewhere on this site.  Although the initial impetus seems to have come from the Crown and other institutions, the practice of inserting open squares into residential neighborhoods immediately became fashionable and was replicated across the growing West End over the course of the next century and a half, creating the spacious urban grid still evident in much of western London today.  In addition to providing light and greenery, urban squares were treated as public gathering spaces.  By the eighteenth century they were usually fenced in by iron railings, as shown in the illustration at right.   

London also boasted a number of larger parks and pleasure gardens.  The three largest -- St James, Green and Hyde Park -- extended westward from Whitehall Palace to Kensington, then a small village beyond the limits of urban development.  Already in the 1630s the Crown had opened all three royal parks as public amenities for the well dressed and fashionable.  Shortly after the Restoration Charles II re-landscaped St James Park in the French fasion, planting rows of lime trees and having a canal dug through its center, 100 yards broad and over 2500 yards long, which he stocked with water fowl.  He used the Park for the outdoor game, pall mall, which gave its name to the promenade along its north side.  In 1693 a French visitor described the Park as "the royal promenade for all the world... but especially women of pleasure," suggesting another way in which it had become identified with the court fashions of the Restoration period. 

In the eighteenth century some metropolitan parks attracted visitors with outdoor concerts.  They were used for casual strolling in fair weather and, according to disapproving moralists, romantic rendezvous.  They also left their mark on London's literary imagination: most restoration plays about London life are set in the West End rather than the more crowded City.

Several rustic suburbs, easily reached by coach or water, offered additional outdoor recreations, especially in the summer months.  In 1731 a Spanish observer commented that London citizens amused themselves in "the same manner as the quality," by "resorting to the play, park, music-meetings, &co.; and in summer they visit Richmond, Hampstead, Epsom and other neighboring towns, where horse-racing and all manner of rural sports, as well as other diversions, are followed. (2)

1.  F. Colsoni, Le Guide de Londres, ed. Walter Godfrey (Cambridge, 1951), p. 9. 


2.  Don Manoel Gonzales, London in 1731 (London, 1888), pp. 171-2.

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