Saturday, 29 March 2014

Lost London: The Crescent


This post is a continuation the main article on Dances's Square, Crescent and Circus which give an overview and sets the context of this series of posts. Posts on the neighbouring locations of America Square and the Circus are also part of this series.

The Crescent

The Crescent was the second part of Dance's plans for Vine Street. Built at the same time as America Square and the Circus, this was the first planned crescent in London and introduced the concept of curved street frontages to London.  Thought to have been influenced by the work of John Woods the Elder's 'Circus' in Bath, Somerset, which was started in 1754. Dance's crescent was actually built at the same time as John Woods the Younger's much grander Royal Crescent in Bath between 1767-1774.

The Crescent was originally formed of 11 identical, each of four storeys and three bays, plus cellars, and featuring ornate door cases in a more decorative design than those in America Square.

Like its neighbour America Square, the development of the railways in the 19th century had a major impact on the The Crescent. First the Fenchurch viaduct separated it from its afore mentioned neighbour in 1841. Secondly in 1884, the Metropolitan district railway (Circle and District Line) sliced through The Crescent in a south-west to north-east diagonal. Due to the 'cut and fill' method of construction of this new sub-surface railway, it necessitated the demolition of houses numbers 3-5 as it sliced though The Crescent as can clearly be seen in this section of the Ordnance Survey map of 1915.

Ordinance Survey map of 1915

An unsightly electricity sub-station, was built over the underground railway platforms in the 1930s to fill the gap left by the missing houses and survives to this day.

The Blitz

The Crescent area suffered large scale damage from bombing in 1941 during the Blitz period of World War II as shown below which verifies the detail of the bomb-site map in the leading article of this series. The 1930s electricity sub-station seems to have survived the bombing well as seen on the left in the photograph, along with houses No.6 and 7, but the other houses, Nos. 8-11, suffered either total or major destruction. Other buildings which lined Vine Street and Hammett Street seen in the bottom and right corner were also completely destroyed during this period.

The Crescent showing bomb damage c.1941. Taken facing North-West.


Post war, the remaining houses were individually repaired or reconstructed, and finally in the late 1980's a programme of restoration was completed by architects Lyons, Sleeman and Hoare, which included the building of replica houses at Nos. 8 to 11 constructed to the original unified Georgian design. 

The Crescent in 2014. No. 6 and 7 on the left are original, and Nos 8-11 being the 1990's reconstructions.

Today Nos. 6 and 7 retain their original door cases, and the reconstructed houses of No's 8 to 11 pictured below have carefully crafted reproductions.

Original Georgian door case to No.6 The Crescent.

The rear of the houses in The Crescent are not so uniform, reflecting the earlier ad-hoc rebuilding after the war. Mostly neo-georgian and finished in London stock brick to various designs, No.7 on the right of the photograph has a most interesting pedimented gable end with classical Corinthian capitals atop fluted pilasters. The rear of the Crescent also backs to one of the largest remaining sections of the London city wall known as Cooper's Row which was featured in a previous post to which this mini-series is related.

Rear of buildings of The Crescent, with remains of the London city wall known as Cooper's Row in the foreground.

Future Plans

As mentioned in the lead article in this series, The Crescent is now part of a dedicated conservation area which includes the space to the south formerly occupied by the Circus. The aim of the conservation area is to protect and enhance the current space and ensure future developments do no more harm to the identity of the area.

As part of the Aldgate Improvement Project there are plans to add more green space to the area, and the Crescent may benefit from this proposal, with an emphasis put on improving pedestrian access along Vine Street and restoring the continuation of Vine Street south to the Circus again.

100 Minories

The building currently at the end of Vine Street in 2013/4 is known as 100 The Minories.

100 Minories in 2013, formerly part of the London Metropolitan University.
Looking North West.

It has been lying empty since 2011 having been vacated by the London Metropolitan University. It was originally designed by Sir Hubert Bennett and Michael Powell, and built in the late 1960's for the newly merged Sir John Cass Department of Navigation and King Edward VII Nautical College.

100 Minories in 2013, formerly part of the London Metropolitan University.
Picture taken from The Crescent looking due south.

At the time this article was posted, this building is just about to under go demolition to make way for a new 268 room hotel complex, with two basements, ground floor and eight upper stories designed by Buchanan Hartley Architects.

The significance of the hotel is that it's L-shaped footprint will surround The Crescent as does the present 1960's building. There were objections to the original plan for the hotel in relation to it's lack of empathy to the historic buildings of The Crescent, but I am not certain what revisions have been made or if indeed the pressure by the developers outweighed any objections.

Proposed rear of new hotel facing into The Crescent.
As can be seen in the artist rendering above, the proposed rear of the hotel is to be clad in traditional London stock brick and includes a curved four story element to be faced in contrasting brickwork to match the Georgian buildings and the historic curve and facade height of the original houses of the Crescent. There were also proposals for a "screen" to mask the unsightly 1930's electricity sub-station, which may have been abandoned.

Artist rendering of southern elevation for proposed hotel at 100 Minories.
As part of the new development the Vine Street passageway linking The Crescent to the Circus would be recreated to match its historic alignment and width.

Lost London: The Circus


This post is a continuation of the main article on Dances's Square, Crescent and Circus which give an overview and sets the context of this series of posts. Posts on the neighbouring locations of America Square and The Crescent are also part of this series.

The Circus

Situated at the southern end of Vine Street in the City of London, the third element to Dance's plan was 'The Circus', from the Latin word "Circus" meaning a ring, oval or circle. Like the neighbouring Crescent this was the earliest planned use of curved frontages, and introduced the design concept of "circuses" to London.

Built between 1767-74, at the same time as America Square and The Crescent it was thought, like the Crescent, to have been influenced by John Woods the Elder's earlier Circus in Bath, Somerset which was started in 1754, but completed in 1768.

Plan of the Circus, Vine Street, from survey of properties administered by Corporation of London, 1841.

The Circus was originally a cluster of ten houses arranged in a tight circle of about 18m (60 ft) in diameter, with some additional houses located close by along Vine Street and also the small link road connecting the Circus to The Minories. The houses were smaller than those in the neighbouring Crescent with most of the frontages being only 4.6m (15 ft) across. They were the same height of four storeys tall, but mostly just two bays wide. The decorative elements of the front doors were also different to those in The Crescent and America Square, with some having plainer round arched entrances, with only a couple having more decorative stone door cases similar to those in America Square.

The photograph below from 1918, shows the southern most houses of the Circus, numbered 2 through 6, in a good state of repair and in mostly original condition, approximately 150 years after their construction.

Dance's Circus in 1918. Photographer: Anon.
Reproduced by permission of London Metropolitan Archives.

The Second Great Fire of London

Still almost completely intact at the start of the war, the Circus was all but totally destroyed following the German fire bomb attack on 29th December 1940 which laid ruin to one-sixth of the City of London that night alone.

The Second Great Fire of London was name used to describe one of the most destructive air raids of London during the Blitz. In one night from 6pm on the 29th December 1940, until the early hours of the 30th, more than 24,000 high explosive bombs and 100,000 incendiary bombs were dropped on the City.

The bombing started over 1,500 fires, many of which joined up to create a firestorm that destroyed an area greater than that affected by the Great Fire of London in 1666. On this night 19 of the City's churches and 31 Livery Halls were destroyed, with the largest continuous area of destruction stretching south from Islington to the edge of St Paul's churchyard. 

It was this night that provided one of the Blitz's most poignant images of St Paul's Cathedral rising above clouds of black smoke, as featured on the front cover of the Daily Mail newspaper for the 31st December 1940 along with caption "War's Greatest Picture: St Paul's Stands Unharmed in the Midst of the Burning City"

St Paul's Cathedral, taken from roof of Daily Mail building, by Herbert Mason.

War-time policemen Arther Cross and Fred Tibbs recorded in photograph the bomb sites across the City of London throughout this period, and the London Metropolitan Archives has a large collection of their photographs, including the one shown below featuring The Circus the morning after that dreadful night.

Only one of the original Georgian houses (No. 1 in the plans above), alongside a later period adjoining warehouse survived the second world war.

Firemen dousing the ruins of The Circus in 1940 after extensive damage from bombing.
Photogapher: Arther Cross & Fred Tibbs. Reproduced by permission of London Metropolitan Archives.

Post War

After the war, the lone surviving house and adjoining warehouse continued to be in commercial use. There is a photograph of the pair in 1957 showing both in good states of repair, although the house looks like it had been converted to a small warehouse due to the left most window opening having been elongated and a iron hoist fitted to the wall at the second storey level.

This can be seen again in a photograph from 1973 by M.D. Trace, showing a rather forlorn pair of buildings with No.1 still having its original door case, and showing evidence of its earlier conversion to a warehouse.

The dilapidated remains of The Circus in 1973.
Photographer: M. D. Trace. Reproduced by permission of London Metropolitan Archives.

The Tower Hill Improvement Trust acquired 2000 year leases on the remaining buildings in 1962, which was then sold to the Greater London Council (GLC) in 1975/6 who converted the land to open space as part of the road widening scheme at Tower Hill.  Whilst the buildings them selves were demolished, a representation of the foot print of the Circus itself in the form of the granite cobbled road was left in place as a reminder of this pioneering development.

Present Day

The granite block roadway of the Circus is still there today as is shown below. It sits anonymously as part of the small gardens adjacent to the busy trunk road and close to the large remains of the city wall at Trinity Place, by the entrance to Tower Hill underground station. There is no signage as to significance of what was once London's first "circus", so I am sure most people who walk past or even sit on the benches here are completely unaware of what the granite blocks represent.

Looking south to the remains of George Dance the Younger's Circus at Tower Hill, London.

The walkway through to The Crescent under the former London Metropolitan University building has been closed for some time, but is planned to be widened and realigned to the original path of Vine Street as part of the new hotel planned to be developed here at the time of writing. The post on The Crescent features more information about the forthcoming hotel.

Further reading...