This expansive square in the centre of Belgravia is one of the largest 19th century squares in London.

The square, which along with nearby Chester Square, Eaton Square and Wilton Crescent stands on land once known as Five Fields, was laid out in the 1820s on the orders of Robert Grosvenor, 2nd Earl Grosvenor, whose subsidiary title was Viscount Belgrave and who later become the first Marquess of Westminster (and whose family seat is Eaton Hall in Cheshire, close to the village of Belgrave from whence the name comes).

Property contractor Thomas Cubitt was responsible for the masterplan and architect George Basevi, a pupil of Sir John Soane and cousin of Benjamin Disraeli, had the task of designing the original four terraces which surrounded the square.

Most of the houses were occupied by 1840. Today, the buildings – many of which are listed – are home to numerous embassies and official residences of ambassadors.

These include the Portuguese Embassy (11 to 12), the Austrian Ambassador’s official residence (18 – the Austrians have been there since 1866 when it was used by members of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s Foreign Service), the High Commission of Brunei (20), the German Embassy (21-23), the Spanish Embassy (number 24), the Norwegian Embassy (25), the Serbian Embassy (28) and the Turkish Embassy (43).

Famous residents have included the currently Duke of Kent – he was born at number three in 1935, Victorian politician Sir George Murray, Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, who lived at number five up until his death in 1846, and shipbuilder, Lord Pirrie, chairman of Belfast-based Harland and Wolff – builder of the RMS Titanic (in fact it’s said that it was at a dinner here which Lord Pirrie hosted and J Bruce Ismay, owner of the White Star Line, attended where plans to build the ship were first discussed).

The two hectare garden in the centre, which remains closed to the public and is Grade II listed, had gravel walks laid out in the 1850s (the current design is a restoration of what was there in the 1860s). Behind the railings, the gardens features wooden pergolas and shelters and a tennis court.

Among the monuments around the external perimeter of the square are statues of of South American revolutionary leader Simon Bolivar (1783-1830), Argentinean national hero General Jose de San Martin (1778-1850), Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) and Prince Henry the Navigator. There’s also a 1998 statue of Robert Grosvenor by Jonathan Wylder on the corner of Wilton Crescent.

Within the gardens are Homage to Leonardo da Vinci, erected in 1982, and a bust of George Basevi, the architect of Belgrave Square.

Top – Statue of Prince Henry the Navigator; Below – The Spanish Embassy. PICTURES: David Adams

This well-to-do district of west London owes its name to the family of Hugh Grosvenor, the 7th Duke of Westminster and owner of the Grosvenor Estate, the land upon which Belgravia is located.

The country estate of the duke’s family – the Grosvenors – is known as Eaton Hall and it lies just to the south of Chester. Various names related to the estate appear on the London map. Among them is Belgravia.

Belgravia take its name from the tiny village of Belgrave which lies within the estate’s boundary (the word Belgrave, incidentally, comes from the Old French for “beautiful wood”).

The London residential area now known as Belgravia, meanwhile, was formerly known as Five Fields and used for grazing. The Westbourne River meandered through it, crossed by “Bloody Bridge”, so-called because it was a known haunt of robbers.

It later became the site of market gardens and houses began to appear in the area following King George III’s move to what was then Buckingham House but development of the area didn’t begin in earnest until the 1820s when Robert Grosvenor, later the first Marquess of Westminster (pictured here in a statue in Belgrave Square), began developing the estate with the aid of builder Thomas Cubitt.

Designed with Belgrave Square at its centre, the new development immediately became associated with the more affluent end of society, a connection which continues to this day.

As well as Belgrave Square, the district, which straddles both the City of Westminster and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, includes Eaton, Chester and Lowndes Squares (the first two names associated with the duke’s country estate; the third named after William Lowndes, a politician and Secretary to the Treasury under King William III and Queen Anne.

Palatial terraced houses aside, landmarks include the Grade II-listed St Peter’s Church, located at the east end of Eaton Square, which was first built in the 1820s and rebuilt in the 1830s. The area is also home to numerous embassies and consulates including those of Norway, Spain, Malaysia and Egypt, and, in keeping with the international feel, also boasts several statues of notable foreigners including Simon Bolivar and Christopher Columbus.

Famous residents have included former Prime Ministers Stanley Baldwin, Neville Chamberlain and Margaret Thatcher (the first two lived in Eaton Square; Thatcher in Chester Square), Louis Mountbatten, who lived in Wilton Crescent, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who lived in Upper Belgrave Street, as did Lord Lucan who mysteriously disappeared in 1974 after his children’s nanny was found murdered.

PICTURES: Top – Terraced homes in Grosvenor Crescent, which runs off Belgrave Square (Google Maps); Right – Statue of Lord Robert Grosvenor, first Marquess of Westminster (David Adams).

What’s in a name?…Millbank

November 18, 2013

Millbank

The origins of this Thames-side district of London are as obvious as they sound – it was the site of a mill which stood on the west bank of the river.

The mill, which had served Westminster Abbey since at least the 16th century, stood here until about 1735 when it was demolished and replaced by a mansion built by Sir Robert Grosvenor, a member of the Grosvenor family responsible for developing parts of Mayfair.

The house was pulled down in 1809 to make way for Millbank Prison, which was the country’s first national prison and which was where prisoners were held before their transportation to Australia.

The prison closed about 1890 (a buttress which once stood at the top of the prison’s river steps commemorates the prison – pictured above).

The site is now occupied by some of the more interesting buildings in the area – including the Chelsea College of Arts (buildings formerly used by the  Royal Army Medical School, Tate Britain (which opened in 1897 as the National Gallery of British Art), and a housing development known as the Millbank Estate, constructed to providing housing for 4,500 members of the working class.

While the area was previously known for having been dominated by marshland, land was eventually reclaimed along the waterfront and an embankment established, defining the course of the river.

As well as the district, the name Millbank is also the name of the street which runs along the riverbank between the Houses of Parliament and Vauxhall Bridges.

For more on London’s prisons, check out Geoffrey Howse’s A History of London’s Prisons.