The five sided square, located just to the east of Smithfield, takes its name from a Carthusian monastery which was established in 1371 on what is now its north side. Prior to this, what is now the square had from 1348 served as a location for a plaque burial pit (a number of skeletons from the plaque pit have been unearthed as part of the Crossrail project – for our earlier story on this, follow this link).
The monastery was dissolved in 1537 after the monk’s refused to recognise King Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy (some were later executed at Tyburn) and it was subsequently transformed into a manor house with Thomas Howard, the 4th Duke of Norfolk, among its residents over the years (in fact he was imprisoned there around 1570 for allegedly plotting to marry Mary, Queen of Scots – he was later executed by Queen Elizabeth I for treason).
Under the will of Thomas Sutton, an almshouse and school was subsequently established on the site – the almshouse remains there while the school, whose students had included Methodism founder John Wesley and writer William Makepeace Thackeray, moved out to Godalming in Surrey in 1872. As well as the almshouse (which is open for guided tours, check this site for details), some of the buildings are now occupied by medical related institutions.
In the 1600s, the square was also home to numerous other large residences among them Rutland House, which had been the residence of the Venetian ambassador. It lost its aristocratic inhabitants in the ensuing centuries but remained mainly residential up until the late 19th century when it gradually became taken over by businesses and other organisations. Interesting to note is that the east side of the square is still home to the residential unit complex known as Florin Court, better known as Whitehaven Mansions, the home of Hercule Poirot in the TV series which bears his name.
The area of the garden square itself was variously referred to as the Charterhouse Churchyard, the Charterhouse Yard and Charterhouse Close over the years and has gone through numerous incarnations with efforts to improve and formalise its look dating back to at least the 16th century. It was at least partly enclosed by the late 1600s and the fences replaced several times, notably in 1742 when an Act of Parliament was passed allowing residents to fine those who entered without authorisation. The enclosing fences have since been modified several more times.
One of the major changes to the shape of the square occurred in 1860 when the Metropolitan Railway was extended between Farringdon and Moorgate. It was at this time that the road surface which surrounds the central garden, which has a Grade II heritage listing, was laid down.
Today the gardens in the centre of the square remain under the management of the Charterhouse (and hence aren’t open to the general public except on tours) but even without a tour it’s still a quiet place to walk around the outside of, evoking a strong sense of years gone past.