History of Cleaver Square

(text from signboard in the square)

Residential squares with a communal open space proved so popular in 17th and 18th century London that they became the capital’s most characteristic townscape. The first was Covent Garden designed by Inigo Jones in 1631, and by the 18th century every major development in the West End featured at least one square. The appeal is readily appreciated: the formality and lack of through traffic made for neatness and quiet, and the open centre gave light and air. With the expansion of Georgian London the idea began to spread further afield. From the 17th century, squares were usually gravelled or paved for walking and were separated from the carriageway by posts and rails. It was mainly in the 19th century that they came to be planted with trees and to be enclosed by railings with gates to which only the residents had keys.

Cleaver Square, laid out in 1789, was the earliest to be developed south of the Thames. Until the middle of the 18th century, the landscape was of hedgerows, fields and meadows traversed by the turnpike road from the city to Clapham. There were very few buildings, mostly scattered farms and taverns, although there had once been a palace at Kennington Cross, built in the 14th century by the Black Prince on land that had been royal property when the Saxons called it keening-tun: “the King’s place”. Widespread development was only to come after the building of Westminster Bridge in 1750 and Blackfriars Bridge in 1770. These provided easy access from Westminster and the City, and building leases for the locality were granted by Act of Parliament in 1776. 

Mary Cleaver had inherited the estate 1743 the property then consisting of a large open pasture, screened from the high road by a line of trees and known as White Bear Field. She leased the land in 1780 to Thomas Ellis landlord of the ancient Horns Tavern on Kennington Common, and it was he who laid out and developed the square. The entrance from Kennington Park Road is flanked by an elegant pair of terraces built in 1788 and at the time known as Princes Place. The first houses within the square were built in 1789 on the North West side, followed in 1792 by numbers 34 to 41. On the north side Richard Horwood’s map of 1799 shows forty houses in what was then called Princes Square. Of the houses built during Ellis’s lease numbers 2 to 20 and 34 to 41 are largely unchanged. Number 1 and the adjoining houses in Cleaver Square are also of this period. Numbers 42 to 46 were built between 1815 and 1824, and numbers 21 to 33 added to the square between 1844 and 1853. Numbers 49 to 61, the original houses, were refaced in 1853 and the Prince of Wales pub in 1901. By the 1870s the once fashionable area had deteriorated and the houses, each occupied by a number of families, were severely overcrowded. The census of 1881 reveals 481 residents with three houses having fourteen residents each. Numbers 34 to 41 form the most architecturally interesting terrace, having suffered less refronting than others, but this and the rather piecemeal development over some sixty years now lend a pleasing informality to the square, the name of which was changed to Cleaver Square in 1937. 

The centre of the square, originally described as a “grass plat”, was enclosed by Ellis in 1792 as a grazing ground, with terms ensuring that it was not to be divided by fences nor any building erected upon it. On the 1871 Ordnance ordinance survey it is shown planted as a garden circumscribed by a formal path, but by 1898 it had been cultivated as a nursery with greenhouses. It remained as such until 1927 when it was brought by the County Council top forestall an application to build garages on it. More trees were planted and the garden was gravelled over as a recreation ground. Gradual dereliction was to follow, especially during the war years, and it was only in the 1950s that Cleaver Square’s inherent charm was recognised anew and its fortunes once more began to rise. 

In 1995, the London Historic Parks and Gardens Trust organised The London Squares Conference with the aim of encouraging the renovation of these precious but occasionally dilapidated open areas. Cleaver Square featured prominently and Lambeth Council resolved, with the backing of English Heritage, a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and donations from residents, to restore the centre of the square to provide once again an attractive and peaceful public space for the people of Kennington. They and the residents of the square have particular reason to be grateful to Cliff Baylis, Chairman of the Resident’s Association from 1993 to his death in 1998, for his untiring efforts in ensuring that this initiative became a reality.