A Short History of Regent’s Park
The Regent’s Park is quite modern compared with some of the other Royal Parks. Its present-day appearance owes much to two men of the 19th century – the Prince Regent and John Nash.
When George lll became incapable, his son was appointed as Regent and the Park is named after him – he became George lV on the death of his father. It was the Prince’s enthusiasm and influence, together with Nash’s imagination and flair, that created the Regent’s Park. John Nash was an architect who had met the Prince Regent when he was asked to design Brighton Pavilion. If you stand at the entrance to the English Gardens looking towards Chester Gate, high up on the house set back on the left, (No. 3 Chester Gate) you will see a bust of Nash.
But we are going ahead in time because the story of the land goes back much further. It had been part of the Middlesex Forest which has been described as ‘a great forest of wooded glades and lairs of wild beasts, deer, both red and fallow, wild bulls and boars.’ Of course, you can still see animals like this in the Regent’s Park at London Zoo.
The Medieval Period
At the time of the Norman Conquest, 1066, there was a village of Tyburn in the valley that is now Oxford Street, which with another Roman road, Watling Street, now Edgeware Road, linked the small village to the capital. Nearby there was a manor which belonged to the abbey of Barking; William of Normandy (William the Conqueror) stayed there soon after the conquest.
For the next 500 years the wooded pasture was used by the villagers to graze their stock. The area was known as Marylebone Fields after the church in Tyburn village named St. Mary at the Bourne.
In 1539 Henry Vlll was growing old and ill and was finding the ride to Hampton or Nonesuch too far from Whitehall Palace to go hunting. After the dissolution of the monasteries he acquired the Tyburn manor and with it Marylebone Park – ideal for a Royal Hunting Ground with its forest of fine trees. Later his daughter, Queen Elizabeth l, also enjoyed hunting here.
In 1645, Charles 1 had to mortgage the land to buy arms for his soldiers during the Civil War but after his execution in 1649, together with all the Royal Estates, the Park was confiscated by Parliament. Oliver Cromwell sold off the land to pay debts – mainly the pay of the cavalry – but kept 3000 trees to use to construct ships for the navy. The land was divided into small holdings and let to tenants for dairy farming. Charles ll regained the land but it remained farmland. In 1745 in John Roque’s map of London the Park is shown without palings and mostly grassland.
In 1760 George lll gave up all right to the income from the Crown Lands in exchange for the Civil List – an allowance from Parliament – an arrangement which exists today, so that although this is a ‘royal’ park Queen Elizabeth ll does not receive any benefit from it or have to support it financially.
The Georgian Era
At the end of the 18th century, squares and terraces of houses were being built right up to the Marylebone Road. The Commissioners of Woods and Forests realised the potential of their farmland for building and did not renew the leases when they came to an end. A number of residential schemes were drawn up and a competition held. John Nash, who had just been appointed Architect to the Commission, put forward a scheme which was to transform this part of London.
Part of the plan was a ‘triumphal way’ leading from the Prince Regent’s main residence (Carlton House near St. James’s Park) with a new residence for him, in the centre of picturesque parkland. The entrance to the new Regent’s Park would be a grand circus, there would be 56 villas, each sited so as to be invisible to its neighbours, more than twelve terraces of ‘palatial’ houses, a lake, a canal, a church including a Valhalla of British worthies, a barracks, shops, markets and a perimeter drive – a veritable garden city.
The work was started in 1812 but the Prince Regent, who had been extremely enthusiastic initially, was diverted by the alterations to Buckingham Palace and his residence was never built. The effect of the Napoleonic wars also caused prospective buyers to think again.
However, James Burton, a speculative builder who had made his fortune by building most of his Bloomsbury estate for the Duke of Bedford, had also invested in Regent Street, which was to have been part of the ceremonial way. Only one villa had been built in the Park, and Regent Street seemed to be leading nowhere except to a cow pasture.
In order to protect his investment and encourage other investors, he took the lease on a portion of land and commissioned his tenth son, Decimus, then aged 18, to design a villa for the Burton family (now called the Holme). Later, with Nash particularly, Decimus Burton, backed by his father, worked on many of the terraces and villas and subsequently became a successful and well-known designer.
By this time the whole scheme was much reduced, no Valhalla, the canal now on the northern boundary of the Park, and the barracks sited in Albany Street, only 8 of the villas were built and just a horseshoe of terraces. By 1826 the periphery of Regent’s Park looked much as it does today.
The 19th Century
The Zoological Society of London leased land to the north of the Park and opened in 1827. Decimus Burton designed many of the buildings which were of as much interest as the animals. Many of them still stand and there are ten listed buildings in the Zoo today.
The Toxophilite Society held the lease to land where the tennis courts are now (opposite York Terrace). Members practised archery in the summer and their land was flooded in the winter for the London Skating Club. There was a terrible tragedy on the lake in 1867 when the ice collapsed under the weight of hundreds of skaters and 40 were drowned.
The Inner Circle was the boundary of the land set aside for the new residence for the Prince Regent. When this was not built, the land was leased in 1839 to the Royal Botanic Society and members and their friends could see special gardens of groups of plants from different parts of the world such as America. There was also a central lawn, a lake, a mound, a large conservatory, a museum and a nursery. Shows were held in May, June and July each year and prizes awarded. This lasted until the 1930s when they were no longer able to support these functions financially and the lease was not renewed. The land reverted to the Park and the conservatory was demolished. Queen Mary’s Gardens were constructed on the whole site, and named after the wife of King George V. The rose garden was established and the café opened.
Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, promoted the design and planting of what are now The Avenue Gardens. At his request, William Andrews Nesfield produced a design for an ‘Italianate’ flower garden with complex bedding schemes. This was carried out by his son Markham, who also created the adjacent English garden. He was killed in a riding accident in Regent’s Park. This part of the gardens suffered severe damage during the last war but the area has recently been restored closely following the Nesfields’ plans.
The 20th Century to the Present
The Open Air Theatre opened in 1932 with a production of Twelfth Night. It still stands on the site.
The Second World War took a terrible toll on Regent’s Park. It was used to house personnel and for anti-aircraft installations. Three hundred incendiaries, bombs and V2 rockets landed on the Park and Terraces. Rubble from bomb sites in the surrounding area was buried in the Park which is now much flatter because of this; it is 3 meters deep in some places and parts still occasionally subside because of the collapse of landfill or old air raid shelters.
Immediately after the War there was no public money available for restoring the terraces of large houses and apartments. However, during the 1970s and ’80s all the Terraces were restored to their former glory. Some only needed partial restoration, others were completely rebuilt and in some the facade WAS retained and the houses, apartments or offices rebuilt behind.
Of the 8 independent villas, most designed by Decimus Burton, only 4 remain today. They were each restored in the 1980s – privately funded – and remain in private hands. Of the four lost villas, two were destroyed by enemy action and not rebuilt, one was demolished in the 1930s by the owners and a new house built near the site, and the fourth was demolished in the 1970s to make way for the London Central Mosque.
So … we have looked at this area which during the last millennium has been forest, pasture, a Royal Hunting Ground, farmland, a private residential development and now a well-loved public space.
In the 1820s an architect, James Elmes, wrote of Regent’s Park: “Trim gardens, lawns and shrubs; towering spires, ample domes, banks clothed with flowers, all the elegancies of the town and all the beauties of the country are co-mingled with happy art and blissful union.” Look around you now as you stand in the English Garden – don’t you think that this is still true?