May 11, 2023
Victoria Square Gardens
by Dick Iles
Victoria Square took almost forty years to complete from 1837 to 1874. There is some doubt that it was ever really planned as an entity. It just evolved, revealing four definite, distinct architectural styles. Prior to Queen Victoria’s accession in 1837, it was referred to as Ferney’s Place.
A vast building programme was commenced in the 1820’s on land owned by the Merchant Venturers, who owned the Manor of Clifton, from old Clifton Village to Whiteladies road. This was in response to the popularity and success of Hotwells.
One of the earliest developments was Vyvyan Terrace in 1835 by Richard Shackelton Pope: one of the last Regency developments. This was followed in 1837 by Lansdown Place, by Foster and Sons, as a terrace in its own right with residual Regency features: square window tops, canopied first floor balconies and a ‘formal’ style of railings, with gateposts, foot-scrapers and stone sills in the ‘areas’ (basement tradesmen’s entrances).
Meanwhile Clifton had become part of The City and Country of Bristol (1835) and the population had increased so much that the Parish Church of St Andrew (dating from the 12th and 17th centuries) had been demolished and rebuilt (1822) to a design by James Foster. However, by 1841 even more pew-space was needed, and Christchurch was built by Charles Dyer. (Dyer had already been responsible for the new, and bigger Victoria Rooms.)
In 1830 Victoria, as princess, had visited Clifton with her mother, the Duchess of Kent, and stayed in the Hotel wing that had just been added to the Assembly Rooms (1806-1809) in the Mall. Designed by Francis Greenway, the premises are now the Clifton Club. Greenway was to be convicted of forgery and was exiled to Australia, where he became a successful Sydney architect and ended up with his portrait on an Australian bank-note! (Not bad for an ex-forger!)
At this time (1830), Nelson Street in Clifton was renamed Victoria Street – later Princess Victoria Street – though contemporary Rodney Place survived unchanged.
1837 saw the accession of Queen Victoria and also the first plans for the new development of Ferney Place, now to be Victoria Square, with the new terrace known as Royal Promenade, though it was not completed for ten years (1847).
The Queen married in 1840 and came to Bristol in 1843 for the launch of the Great Britain. This engendered a great rush for ‘Royal’ street names in Clifton, Bristol and elsewhere.
The Foster family of architects continued to be prominent in Clifton: John Foster designed Royal Promenade (1-14), with its stone, carved balconies and arched gd/flr windows, abandoning the Regency style. The inclusion of the Royal Coat of Arms carved into the upper facade of Nos 7 and 8 prompted rumours that it had been hoped/ expected that QV would stay here on future state visits to Bristol. I recall being told that Nos 7 and 8 had been built with party walls only as thick as normal internal walls, and that Royal Park had been destined to provide stabling and coach house facilities for the mews-less terraces of Victoria Square.
Albert’s untimely death in 1861 put paid to any such visits, and Victoria did not visit Bristol again until 1879, when she came to open the Q.V. Convalescent Home and Hospital at the top of Blackboy Hill. (Bristol acquired Lord Mayor status on that occasion by the knighthood of Mayor Ashman.)
A street map of 1850 shows two sides of Victoria Square so far completed, (Lansdown Place and Royal Promenade), though the garden is depicted, complete with the diagonal ‘Birdcage Walk’ from Pharmacy Arch to (the) Upper Richmond Terrace end of Queen’s Road.
The third side of the Square (Nos 15- 25) by Foster and Wood followed in 1855. This team also designed the similar Royal Parade terrace of shops from the former Maggs store to Dingles. These had rounded ‘Italianate’ first floor windows and elaborate balcony and ‘area’ railings but no sills; (c.f. Royal Promenade which had none). Nos 15-25 had square-topped ground floor windows, whereas 1-14 had square first floor windows. By these little variations are indicated the changing tastes and (Text missing here.)
The remaining fourth side of the Square was to follow in the 1860’s, on the completion of the ‘Merchants Road’, with five large, detached houses, numbers 26 to 30 Victoria Square. These were designed by James Adam Clark and No 30 was Vicarage to the Parish Church of St Andrew until 1940/41, when St Andrew’s was destroyed in the Blitz and Christchurch took up the role of Clifton Parish Church. (For a while it was a Police Training School before becoming Kenroy Hotel.)
The gardens themselves were planned in the late 1830’s and 40’s and had stout, round railings about 5 ft high atop low walls on 2-3 ft with rounded coping stones. Every 10th rail being twice the diameter and fixed into the stone and surmounted by a larger and more elaborate spike. The diagonal footpath (Birdcage Walk) had simpler flat-topped low stone walls and simpler square-sectioned railings with simple spikes. All the railings were close enough to prevent unauthorised access, except at one point where the outer railings met those of the footpath, at the Arch Pharmacy end. Here a slim ‘intruder’ could squeeze in, to disrupt or, if favoured, join in the games of the ‘Square’ children,. Acceptable access was by way of one of the four locked gates placed in the middle of each of the four sides of the Square. (Keys held by residents for an annual fee, payable to Merchant Venturers, I believe.)
Railings were very much in vogue – as decoration, to demarcate and protect property, and to prevent people falling into the service areas, which were all a necessary part of Terraced housing schemes. The raised pavements had two functions: to aid access to carriages and horses, and to provide coal storage cellars, accessed from the gutters. The ‘area’ provided Tradesmen and Servants with access other than the front door. An example of public use of railings in the 1830 - 1880 era can be seen in front of the Victoria Rooms, before the fountains and Edward VII statue were set up, and around gas-lit street lights near the Queen’s Road end of Lansdown Terrace.
Artists’ and architects’ plans depict lawns, gently meandering paths, ponds, fountains and stone urns. Some shrubs and trees are shown, but no formal or herbaceous flowerbeds ... all in line with current taste and fashion. One simple and uncomfortable looking bench is evident.
My own memories of Victoria Square relate to the 1930’s, having been born in no. 17, in 1927, and moving with my family, in 1938, to Pembroke Road. Most of the houses were in single family occupation , and there was a high proportion of ‘Medical Men’ who had their consulting rooms on the ground floor, and lived ‘above the shop’. Division into flats was becoming more prevalent, some (23/24) extending horizontally. The houses really depended upon resident staff, being labour-intensive with only 2 rooms on each of the ground and first floors, and 3 or 4 on the top two floors; as well as the active ‘service’ basement. We had an anthracite stove in our top-floor day nursery / play room and coals had to be carried laboriously up and ashes taken down.
In my days, the higher intensity of residents with children lived in the ‘1 to 14’ and ‘15 to 25’ sides of the Square. The majority of children gathered to play in the parts of the gardens served by the gates opposite Nos 7/8 (and 19/20). Here there was a swing! (The sole gesture towards a playground) and one grass tennis court which was unpopular with teenagers and adults as it was only sunny in the mornings. Two better-kept and more popular, as sunny, courts were patronised by them opposite Nos 19/20. I do not recall any seats or benches; people brought their own deck chairs or rugs.
The basic lay-out has not changed much: a serpentine peripheral path wound around each of the two halves, which were separated by the diagonal Birdcage Walk. cc ... a veritable Jonathan Joe of A. A. Milne type ... though we children must have been a great source of irritation ... playing in his composting grass cuttings, scattering his swept-up autumn leaf piles, and trying to bake potatoes in his bonfires!
Apart from the three tennis courts and the swing, the only ‘amenities’ were three urns. One larger one stood under the cedar of Lebanon and could be climbed into, with some difficulty, to access some exciting bouncy branches, or to hide, in endless games of hide-and seek, sardines, cocky-olly, kick-the-can, etc. Two smaller stone urns served as cricket wickets, or Home/ Base etc. None of them had any plants or even soil or water, let alone fountains!
There was altogether very little in the way of ‘gardening’ by today’s standards. I do not recall any flowers, except a few geraniums and some sedum and London Pride. There were countless varieties of dull and dusty evergreen shrubs, (laurels, hollies, privets and ferns) and a few flowering shrubs such as berberis, cotoneaster, fuchsia, lilac and buddleia, and ribes, hydrangea and hypericum. Under other bigger trees, beech mostly, and hollies, the paths were permanently dank and mossy ... no good for roller-skating! But these very features meant that for us there were few , if any, no-go areas and we ran in and out of the shrubby beds with impunity. We could out-run old Mr Pigeon anyway.
In the long summer evenings whole families of children from the Square’s key-holding residents would be let loose under the eyes of our oldest siblings, who carried the gate-key round their necks. As bedtime loomed we were called in by mothers, nannies or governesses who employed an individual ‘family’ signal preceding our names. I recall bells and whistles of various tones and pitch: the Watson-Williams had a cow-bell! Children under ten seldom had `watches, so if we had no older family member or friend to ask, we would have to ask passers by in Birdcage Walk, if we needed to know the time. They must have been not a little surprised to be accosted thus by ‘posh’ but grimy children, some naked! (Some of the families in the Square were not a little Bohemian!)
Other memories of life in the Square? Guy Fawkes Parties, when we would all gather, bringing our own offerings and pool our resources. One year, I placed my small collection in the fork of a tree (the Cedar) to give special attention to my prize fire-work ... a parachute flare, which I couldn’t wait to set off. I had not put the lid on the box and all my other specimens – ignited by a spark from another’s Ctherine Wheel, went off at once. Dramatic, but drastic and nobody hurt, but my night was ruined! I hadn’t even enjoyed my major firework’s moment of glory. Before the days of Icecream Vans with their irritating jingles we had Gus. Gus was our Walls Ice Cream man who pedalled with his ‘Stop me and buy one’ tricycle round the his patch, that included Victoria Square. He was based outside the zoo gate, at the Downs end of College Road, from where he made two circuits daily. If you put a card in your window, with a large blue W on it, he would call at your house to sell, or take orders for the next day. A special treat was an ice-cream pudding for Sunday lunch. We used to patronise him for many Sno-Fruits and Sno-Creams which came in triangular1-shaped (like Toblerone) cardboard tubes, with blue and white patterns like a police checked hatband. The rival Eldorado man came also, but we were usually loyal to ‘our’ Gus.! The Sunday treat came in a box within a box, packed round with fuming solid Carbon Dioxide.
Other callers were the Errand Boys from such as Mr F Victor Kirby and White the grocer in Boyce’s Avenue, Mr Currall the Butcher in Princess Victoria Street and Loveridge and Pratt the greengrocers in Regent Street They had specially designed bicycles with small front wheels to accommodate the huge baskets. The Baker’s van brought an assortment of bread and cakes to the door. (Tradesman’s entrance, of course), and I just recall seeing the old horse-drawn milk-float, with churns of milk and cream from which these were ladled (literally) into the wide mouths into jugs brought up the area steps by Cook. He later changed to bottles with wide mouth and cardboard ‘caps’ ... so no doubt much more hygienic, but much less romantic! A lamplighter came each evening, with his flickering rod with which he lit the gas lamp near our door. There are still a few gas lit street lamps in the district, if you know where to look, including Cobblestone Mews and Canynge Square. They are lit by electric time-switches now, but hurry to show your grand-children before they too vanish into the mists of time
Other traders were coal lorries – count the empty sacks on his lorry before you pay him – the Rag and Bone man with his ‘Steptoe and Son’ horse and cart and mournful cry. Last but not least, the Paper Boys, with the rival Evening papers: Bristol Evening Post and World and their special Saturday sports editions, The Green ‘un and Pink ‘un respectively
With the demise of the Errand Boys and street traders has gone their own special contribution to the time ... the whistling of the current top tunes, which were tuneful and whistleworthy, unlike the modern products
(Pre WW2 ‘lighting-up time’ had to be carefully watched: cars could not be left on the street without sidelights on; one had to find a garage or off- street site, or suffer a fine. (Good for battery sales?)
My father drove his car to a garage in Princess Victoria Street before walking home, via the Clifton Club (Bridge, Billiards). A driver from the garage delivered the car to No 17 in the morning.
‘Medical Men’ inhabiting Victoria Square in my time (1930s) include my father (eyes); Nixon (Prof., children), Watson-Williams, Fawn and Scarff (ENT), Shepherd (Mids and Gyne), Bush (X-Rays), Dix, Tod, Richard Clark and Elwyn Harris (physicians), also dentist Clarence ... a veritable Harley Street later dispensed to Pembroke Road and ‘Citadels’ such at Litfield House!
Inhabitants of the Vicarage of St Andrew’s, the Clifton Parish Church at No 30 Victoria Square include Rev A Carruthers Stratton, and Revs Baggott and Rothamley. Sunday school was held in a room around the back, entered from the garden. The Church Hall was a large building on two floors, opposite 25 Victoria Square, on the other side of Merchants Road. It was taken over and used by the BBC as studios at the outset of WW2, whence programmes such as ‘ITMA’ emanated.
The War left its mark on Victoria Square in other ways. The removal of all the railings surrounding the gardens completely altered their appearance, and laid them open to all. The tennis courts were all covered by large (’SWS’) tanks full of water, as emergency Static Water Supply, for fire-fighting and general purposes, Clifton being so high that water pressure was sometimes difficult to maintain in the Blitz. The tunnel under Birdcage Walk was no longer required, and has been filled in, but the lintels can be found still, if you know where to look.
No 4 Victoria Square, on Royal Promenade, was completely destroyed – ‘taken out’ as it were, by a high explosive device reputed to have been a ‘Landmine’ rather than a bomb. It has been so very well rebuilt that it is virtually impossible to detect the incident