The Streets Of London (117)

Finsbury Circus, EC2

One of several Circuses in London, Finsbury is linked to Moorgate at its western point, Bloomfield Street at its eastern and London Wall at its southern point. The name Circus is a nod of the head to the shape of the Roman Circuses, although, in truth, it is a rather squashed oval, elongated at its western and eastern points, rather than a circle. At 2.2 hectares, it is the largest public space within the boundaries of the City of London and probably the oldest, dating from 1606.        

The area was originally a moor, forming part of the grounds of Finsbury Manor. When it was drained in 1527, gravelled paths were laid down across the open fields. This southern part of the moor, known as Moor Fields, was gradually transformed, with the introduction of gravel pathways at the turn of the 18th century, with benches installed and elm trees planted for the enjoyment of the public. A few decades later more formal lawns had been laid down, edged by lines of trees and fencing, and quartered by formal walkways.

The southern part of Moor Field, leading on to London Wall and pretty much the spot now forming Finsbury Circus was where the notorious Bethlehem Royal Hospital, founded in 1247 and nicknamed Bedlam, moved to between 1675 and 1676. There it remained until the building was demolished in 1815, allowing George Dance the Younger to fulfil his dream of building an oval “amphitheatre”, an ambition he had harboured since 1802.

Between 1815 and 1817, under the direction of the City Surveyor, William Montague but to the designs produced by Dance, the area was transformed by the creation of gardens, surrounded by terraced housing and the premises into which the London Institution, founded in 1806 and famous for its teaching of chemistry, moved into in 1815. There the Institution remained until it closed in 1912, when the building was then taken over by the University of London until it was demolished in 1936.

Beautiful as a garden is, particularly in an urban setting, it needs to be maintained and the financial burden for this fell upon a committee of leaseholders in return for their exclusive use of the facility. The gardens came under threat in 1860 when plans were mooted to demolish them and to build a railway station there to service the proposed new underground railway. Happily, public protests kaiboshed the plan. As a compromise the Metropolitan Railway were allowed to run a tunnel underneath the garden, for the privilege of which they paid the leaseholders an annual fee of £100.

The complexion of the area changed as the 19th century wore on, surrounding properties being used more for commercial rather than residential purposes and a campaign was led by Alpheus Morton to take them back into public ownership. Owners of the properties resisted, fearing that the arrival of the hoi polloi would lower the tone of the area and depress property prices. However, Morton’s objective achieved when the City of London (Various Powers) Act was passed in 1900 and by 1909 the garden was re-planned and new facilities added. It was known locally as Morton’s Gardens.  

You do not associate the gentle game of lawn bowls with the hustle and bustle of the City of London but since 1925 the circus has been the site of its only bowling green. A bandstand, another popular landmark of municipal parks, was erected in 1955. During the Second World War a barrage balloon was anchored in the gardens.

History turns full circle because since 2012 the garden had been blighted by construction work for the Liverpool Street Crossrail station, with the excavation of a 16 metre diameter, 42 metre depth shaft to allow the construction of the platform tunnels, taking up two-thirds of the area. When I last saw it, it was still a building site. A competition has been launched to revamp the Gardens once Crossrail leaves.  

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