Camden Square Gardens (Camden)
Camden Square was built gradually from the 1830s-50s, forming the centrepiece of the Marquis of Camden's New Town development. The main feature was once the neo-Gothic St Paul's Church, demolished in 1956. The Midland Railway built a tunnel through the square in the 1860s. The central gardens were for the private use of the square's inhabitants, and remain overlooked by surviving terraces on most of three sides. It was maintained by a Committee of inhabitants out of rates levied on the occupiers; the first rules and regulations were drawn up in 1845. Features included gravelled pathways, lawns, trees, flower and shrub borders. In 1928 it was surrounded by a lilac hedge and had lawns, tennis courts, shrubberies and fine trees. Now enclosed by modern railings, the original layout of serpentine walks survives with some mature London plane, oak, horse chestnut and shrubs. Camden Council took over management in the 1950s and built an adventure playground on the tennis courts site and later a play centre. The square was home to a Climatological Station, founded by George Symons, former president of the Royal Meteorological Society, and to many artists.
- Site location:
- Camden Square
- NW1 9UY
- What 3 Words:
- Type of site:
- Garden Square;, Public Gardens
- Open to public?
- Opening times:
- 7.30am - dusk
Took part in Open Garden Squares Weekend in 2022.
- Special conditions:
- Dog-free area railed off. Adjoining Camden Square Play Centre
- Camden New Town Festival: annual community festival in July; occasional concerts
- Public transport:
- London Overground: Camden Road. Tube: Camden Town (Northern). Bus: 29, 253, 274
- Research updated:
- Last minor changes:
Please check with the site owner or manager for latest news. www.camden.gov.uk
Full Site Description
Camden Square Garden was designed as the centrepiece of Camden New Town, a mid-C19th inner London suburb. This clearly defined area dates from 1788, when an Act of Parliament allowed Charles Pratt, Earl of Camden, to develop his estate to the east of what is now Camden High Street. At the beginning of the C19th this area, formerly the land of Cantelowes Manor, was mainly agricultural, providing food for the city’s rapidly growing population. The Metropolitan Meat Market was located at York Way, immediately to the north in 1855, and there were a few nursery gardens, such as Montgomery’s Nursery, near the site of Rochester Square (q.v.). In 1824, a road was built between Camden and Holloway, and the first terraces in the area were developed by speculative builders. The Camden Estate had more ambitious plans for a high class development of detached Italianate villas surrounding an elegant garden square. As landlord it controlled the size and appearance of the houses and aimed to attract the wealthy middle classes with generous green spaces, high-quality York stone paving and an imposing neo-gothic church.
St Paul’s Church with its 156-foot spire was designed by Ordish and Johnson and built by John Kelk, who was later the contractor for the Albert Memorial. It was consecrated in 1849 and remained the focal point in the square until it was demolished in 1956, because of the prohibitive costs of repair works. Today, the church and community use a single-storey chapel and hall that occupy the same site. Like the church, the garden predates most of the houses and the rectangular enclosure was probably laid out by the original builder, Mr Newman, between 1830 and 1840.
The Garden Committee records date from 1845, when the first Rules and Regulations were drawn up. The archive was donated to Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre at Holborn Library in 1951 by Mrs McConkey, a secretary of the committee, whose family lived at No 16 Camden Square from 1896. The archive includes Minute Books from 1868 to 1931; annual reports and accounts; receipts and pass books; correspondence relating to the war-time uses of the Square; Tennis Club rules and regulations; 1863 and 1894 Acts of Parliament affecting the Square; newspaper cuttings and concert bills. The six committee members included the artist Frederick Goodall, then living at No 4. They were well aware of the value of the garden. According to garden committee records in 1868: 'the enclosure, when completed, was considered to be such an addition to the value of the houses in the Square that £50 and more per home was added to the price of the leases.' Access to the square was strictly limited to residents and their guests who paid an annual subscription of one guinea plus a deposit of two shillings for a key.
Plans to extend the garden to the north of the church as far as Camden Park Road were abandoned because of the impact of the railways. By the 1870s this area had been developed by the grid of houses formed by the Terrace (today known as Camden Terrace) and North and South Villas. To the south of the square, the complex of railway lines from Kings Cross, St Pancras and Euston blighted the area with smoke and noise and curtailed the development of what was originally intended to be a superior residential area.
The 1871 Ordnance Survey map shows a formal, rectangular enclosure with a perimeter pathway, surrounded by hedges and railings. The garden was intersected by a pathway and shrubbery, with each half displaying a diamond shaped flower bed and smaller corner beds. A line of chestnut and plane trees bordered the square, many of which can still be seen today. The records also refer to an iron arcade and to a well surrounded with fencing, although it has not been possible to identify these on the map. The pathways were gravelled and the gardener’s chief tasks were to scythe the lawns (the first mower was acquired in 1872) and maintain order in the square.
The committee’s primary concern was to collect residents’ dues and maintain sufficient funds for the upkeep of the square. The treasurer’s accounts from September 1868 to March 1869 include payments for a stone for scythe (6d); saltpetre for grass (2/8), grass seed (5/-) and the gardener’s wages (£25.4.0). In 1881, the committee reports various improvements to the gardens: the railings and gates were repaired and painted; the iron arches in the centre walk were restored and the drainage was made good. Mr John Slipper, of the Villa Nursery, Rochester Square, was appointed gardener with the power to enforce the rules. These included: no walking on the borders or picking flowers; children to be restrained from noisy games; no games on Sundays; gates to be kept locked at all times and residents not to lend their keys to anyone other than family members or visiting friends. The rules were amended over the years. In 1868: 'Boisterous games are prohibited, and in particular, trap-ball, foot-ball, cricket, rounders, hockey, throwing missiles, trundling iron hoops, flying kits and shooting with arrows.' And in 1873: 'Each householder shall make good all injury done by any member of the family to the trees, plants, seats, fences etc.'
In 1863, an Act of Parliament gave the Midland Railway Company permission to build a new line between London and Bedford, which required a covered way beneath the Square and the demolition of Nos. 8 - 11 on the west side, and Nos. 47, 48 on the east. The Railway Company agreed to compensate the garden committee for the loss of subscriptions and to replant the square with trees and shrubs. The OS Map 25ins 3rd edition of 1916 shows the tunnel running beneath the square.
Throughout the 1860s, the garden committee was preoccupied with reports of rowdy youths breaking into the square, damaging the trees and flower beds and vandalising the gardener’s tool shed. In some cases, residents’ children were banned from the square and the long-suffering gardener, who was sworn in as a constable, was instructed to 'be more strict with the young gentlemen'.
The Cantelowes Archers, founded in 1849, used part of the square for their practice. In 1880 the first tennis court was marked out in chalk and permission agreed, provided players 'wore proper shoes and did as little injury to the grass as possible'. By 1882 there were five courts in the lower part of the Square and the club flourished until the World War II, although these do not appear on the 1916 OS map referred to above.
Evening fetes with music, fireworks and illuminations were held in the square on the eve of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in 1887 and to mark the marriage of the Duke of York and Princess Victoria Mary of Teck in 1893.
George Symons, President of the Royal Meteorological Society, lived at No. 62 from 1868 -1900. He founded the Camden Square Climatological Station, and took daily weather records, first from his back garden and later from the square itself, on the site of what is now the play centre. The Camden History Society reports that he 'would often stay up until midnight, taking barometer readings at 15-minute intervals, before walking to Printing House Square to deliver his results to The Times'. The Royal Meteorological Society's Symons Memorial Gold Medal commemorates him. His weather vane still stands in the garden of No. 62.
At the beginning of the C20th a constable’s shelter was erected inside the square close to the north west gate and new locks and chains fitted. In 1903 new byelaws were printed, approved by a high court judge and enforceable by law. The list of prohibited activities included: 'archery, cricket, football, rounders, hockey, tip-cap, skipping with a long rope, trundling iron hoops, throwing stones or other missiles, racing or jumping'. Also forbidden were 'shouting or improper or unbecoming language, or riotous behaviour'. A photograph of the east side of the square taken in 1910 held in Camden Local Studies and Archive Centre shows the view northwards with St Paul’s Church spire in the distance.
The gardener, Mr Wakeford, retired in 1912, after 27 years of service. He was given no pension. Henry Titmus of 360 York Way succeeded him on a wage of 25 shillings a week for 8 months; and 21 shillings a week for the rest of the year, plus one week’s holiday. He made such a good impression that his pay was increased to the full wage throughout the year, but a lack of funds meant that plans to renew and replant the borders were limited. The first stage in extending use of the square took place in 1912, when residents of the adjacent North and South Villas were allowed to apply for keys. Mr Titmus resigned in 1914 and the committee discussed whether to contract Lents, the nursery in Rochester Square, to maintain the garden. Their fee was £70 per year, plus the cost of bulbs and plants for a spring and summer show, £91/2 in total, but the committee decided to 'pay their own man' and Mr Victor Spalding was appointed.
A sombre reference to the impact of World War I on the square was made at the AGM in 1914, when members discussed 'the good taste or otherwise of certain members of the tennis club using the courts for play during the time the bodies of late residents were laying dead in their houses'. It was agreed that no action should be taken. The following year, the secretary reported that residents had entertained parties of wounded soldiers from local hospitals. With mounting costs of living, the gardener was given permission to grow vegetables in the square for his own use. He told the committee that he had applied for a job as a conductor on the LCC Trams, because he knew there was no prospect of a pay rise. By 1916, the maintenance of the garden had been handed over to the nursery in Rochester Square, but the arrangement failed, because of the shortage of labour. The next gardener to work in the square, Mr Kent, resigned when he requested and was refused wages in advance, and a lady gardener, possibly supplied by Cutbush Nursery in Highgate, was appointed in his place. In 1917, the secretary of the tennis club, Miss Gordon, claimed 'it would be unseemly to allow tennis in the square this summer owing to war conditions and the desire of the government that every individual in this country should devote his or her energies to the business of assisting to bring the war to a successful end at the earliest possible moment'. The committee unanimously endorsed her view. However, there was little support for the proposal that the tennis courts should be turned over to allotments in response to the Prime Minister’s urgent appeal to 'Plant Potatoes'. Most householders claimed that 'the untidy appearance of allotments would affect the value of the surrounding property and that much time would be required to reinstate the tennis courts afterwards'. On being put to the vote, the motion was lost by 10 votes to 5.
By the end of the war, the garden as well as the neighbourhood had fallen into disrepair. Bereaved families were unable to pay rent arrears, and the high cost of materials and war-time shortages meant that repairs were postponed. The cost of painting the railings had risen from £30 before the war to £100 in 1920. The lawn mowers were worn out and the lady gardener had her contract withdrawn when she was unable to use a scythe. The Committee applied to discharged soldiers agencies for her replacement. By 1921, the annual garden rate had risen to £3. There were some signs of greater community involvement. A request from St Pancras Juvenile Welfare Committee resulted in children from Torriano and Brecknock LCC schools using the square for outdoor lessons. However, a request for weekly running classes from Torriano School was postponed - 'the committee not being very favourably disposed towards the suggestion'. Plans for a grand church fete were received from the Vicar of St Paul’s, including: 'a good military band, concerts, refreshments, sweet and other stalls, Aunt Sally’s and similar side shows, perhaps coconut shies (if they would not damage the grass) and tableaux of one kind of other, which perhaps the residents in the square might be willing to organise'.
While Camden Square garden remained in private ownership, there was growing concern among Londoners at the loss of public squares to developers. During the 1920s, Mornington Crescent gardens were sold to the cigarette manufacturer, Carreras, and two squares at Endsleigh Gardens on the Euston Road were obliterated by Friends House. This led to the Royal Commission on London Squares in 1928, and the 1931 London Squares Preservation Act, which protected 461 squares, including Camden Square, from development. About one fifth of these were public spaces. The 1928 report described Camden Square as 'a long rectangular enclosure surrounded by a sparse lilac hedge. Well kept and pleasant with lawn, shrubbery and some fine trees. Over-looked by well-tenanted dwelling houses and a church.'
In 1938, the West Africa Students Union moved from 62 Camden Road to 1 South Villas, to the north of the square, which became known as Africa House. One of its most famous residents was Kwame Nkrumah, a student at London School of Economics, who became the first president of Ghana. In 1938, the general secretary of WASU, Chief Lapido Solanke, a former law student at UCL, wrote to the garden committee asking for permission for Africa House students to use the garden. He was told that 'there would be considerable opposition from the householders - both resident and non-resident - to allowing persons not living round the square to have right of entry to the garden.' WASU purchased a new hostel on Chelsea Embankment in 1949 and Africa House was closed in 1952, although Lapido Solanke remained living there until his death in 1958.
World War II had a profound impact on Camden Square. Trench shelters were dug out in the autumn of 1938 (under the area now occupied by the play centre), with accommodation for many hundreds of residents. The iron railings were removed, supposedly to be melted down for use as armaments, and the tennis club hut was converted into St Pancras ARP (Air Raid Precaution) Post No 18 and a base for the Camden Square Fire Watchers and Fire Fighters. In March 1940, the garden committee secretary wrote to the Town Clerk objecting to the loss of amenities as a result of the shelters and pointing out that the council had taken over a third of the garden and turned flower beds and lawns into mounds of clay. The residents claimed financial compensation from the council for the loss of privacy and the replacement of the beds and lawns at the end of the year. Bombs targeting the railway destroyed Nos. 12 to 26 at the north-west end of the square (the site occupied today by the Council housing blocks of Abingdon Close). There was also bomb damage to houses on the east side of the square and in the mews and to the church.
The garden committee continued to deal with complaints of vandalism. The railings were replaced with chestnut fencing and another lady gardener was appointed at £2 per week. She was reported to be 'doing very well apart from keeping undesirables out of the square'. While many Londoners were patriotically digging for victory (vegetables were grown in Tavistock Square in 1939), plans to turn Camden Square garden into allotments were again rejected, this time by the Marquis of Camden who objected to the felling of mature trees.
After the war, Camden Square garden, like most London’s squares, became open to the public. Extensive restoration work and local authority building on the bomb-damaged sites altered the character of the square, making it a more socially as well as architecturally diverse area. When the church was demolished in 1956 and replaced by a single-storey chapel and community centre the focal point of the square was lost. The southern end of the Square also underwent major changes. St Pancras Council opened an adventure playground to serve the many young families moving into the area. Residents recall high rope walks and perilous structures, which eventually led to its closure in 1976. The playground re-opened in 1986 and today is run by Camden Council as a play centre with term-time after-school clubs and holiday play schemes.
In the early 1950s, the West London Methodist Mission ran a hostel for young offenders, and later for unmarried mothers and their babies, at Henry Carter House, formerly No. 52 Camden Square, once occupied by Annie Swan, the Scottish suffragette and writer. In 1955, this became the Irish Centre, founded by two Catholic priests, which remains an important social and cultural centre serving a wide area. In the 1960s, plans to create a pedestrianized zone around the square were modified following objections from residents and local traders. Instead, schemes for traffic calming and narrowing of streets, and areas of tree planting were introduced. The plans, put forward by the Ward Three Group of the St Pancras Civic Society, also suggested a less formal treatment to the flowerbeds with winding pathways.
In 1974, Camden Council approved plans to make the square part of the conservation area bordered by Camden Road in the west and Agar Grove in the East. The area was extended to York Way in the north and St Paul’s Crescent, to the south in 1980 and 2002. Today, an active Conservation Area Advisory Committee (CAAC) of local management professionals and architects monitor planning applications according to a rigorous vetting procedure, published in 2003 as the Camden Square CAAC Judgement Parameters. They work closely with the Camden Square Neighbourhood Association, which keeps members up to date with proposed developments.
Major replanting works were undertaken in the square garden in 2006, under the management of Portia Baker, landscape architect for Camden Council Parks at the time, with the aim of enhancing the biodiversity of the area. A mix of large and small evergreen and deciduous shrubs with a ground cover of flowering perennials were selected to provide seasonal interest as well as an attractive habitat for birds. The wide bed at the north end of the square was maintained by members of a gardening club, led by a local resident, Annabel Rowe, who planted a mix of perennials and annuals, as well as drifts of spring bulbs. Some of the mature trees were pruned or removed to improve the quality of light in the square and allow grass to re-establish itself around the rose-beds. A fenced dog-free area was introduced, but not formally enforced until the Dog Control Orders for Camden were put in place in 2007.
In November 2010, Camden published the Camden Square Conservation Area Appraisal and Management Strategy, based on a draft by John Thompson and Partners. This describes the area’s special character and its historical development as well as a plan for its long-term management. Trees and green spaces are considered critical to the quality of the area. Local residents’ enthusiasm for the square was evident in their negative response to plans in 2008 to redevelop the church site. More than 140 residents visited an exhibition of architectural drawings in the church hall and responded to a survey carried out by CAAC. The square garden was described as a peaceful refuge in a stressful city, providing a place of calm for local workers as well as residents. Others drew attention to the natural beauty of the trees and vital preservation of wildlife habitats. It was clear that any threats to the square would be as strongly resisted today as they had been by the first garden committee members.
The Camden New Town History group has undertaken extensive research into the history of the area, including a study of Victorian artists who lived in the Square by Beverley Rowe; and recordings of residents’ recollections of the war years, and the St Pancras rent strike by John Cowley. An online enumeration of residents of the square and surrounding streets in the C19th and of shops in Murray Street has also been compiled by Beverley Rowe. Throughout its history, Camden Square garden has been of social as well as environmental importance to the neighbourhood. Its development from a private garden for the exclusive use of residents to a popular public space for the benefit of all reflects the changing character of the area as much as the social history of the past 150 years. However, the residents today are as keen as their predecessors to conserve the beauty of an invaluable green space at the heart of their community.
Other former occupants of Camden Square include V K Krishna Menon, the Indian High Commissioner who lived at No. 57 from 1924-1947. The critically acclaimed British singer Amy Winehouse (1983-2011) lived at Camden Square, where she tragically died age 27.
Report of the Royal Commission on London Squares, 1928; Ben Weinreb & Christopher Hibbert, 'The London Encyclopaedia' (Macmillan, revised ed. 1993); Hakin Adi, 'West Africans in Britain 1900-1960', Laurence and Wishart, 1998; Bridget Cherry and Nikolaus Pevsner, 'The Buildings of England, London 4: North', Penguin 1998; Steven Denford and Peter Woodford (eds), 'Streets of Camden Town', Camden History Society 2003; Simon Foxell, 'Mapping London', Black Dog 2007; Gerry Harrison, 'The scattering: a history of the London Irish Centre, 1954-2004', London Irish Centre, 2004; Simon Jenkins, 'Landlords to London: Story of a Capital and Its Growth', Constable 1975; Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, 'The London Town Garden 1740 - 1840', Yale 2001; Piers Wauchope, 'Camden: A Political History', Shaw Books 2010. Also: Camden Square Gardens Trustees, St Pancras Minutes and other records 1865-1940 (J). Deposited in Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre.
LPGT Volunteer Research by Mary Cruickshank, December 2011
Further Information (Planning and Conservation)
- Grid ref:
- TQ295845 (529658,184564)
- Size in hectares:
- 0.598 (excluding play centre)
- Site ownership:
- LB Camden
- Site management:
- Parks & Open Spaces
- 2010: John Thompson & Partners
- Listed structures:
- On National Heritage List for England (NHLE), Parks & Gardens:
- Registered common or village green on Commons Registration Act 1965:
- Protected under London Squares Preservation Act 1931:
Local Authority Data
The information below is taken from the relevant Local Authority's planning legislation, which was correct at the time of research but may have been amended in the interim. Please check with the Local Authority for latest planning information.
- On Local List:
- In Conservation Area:
- Conservation Area name:
- Camden Square
- Tree Preservation Order:
- Nature Conservation Area:
- Green Belt:
- Metropolitan Open Land:
- Special Policy Area:
- Other LA designation:
- Public Open Space (Small Local). London Squares Preservation Act of 1931. Strategic View Corridor (part)
Please note the Inventory and its content are provided for your general information only and are subject to change. It is your responsibility to check the accuracy.