Hidden History of Golden Square
It might not have the immediate charm of Soho Square, but Golden Square has a fascinating history (and a good reason for its messy hodge-podge of architectural styles and ages).
While walking through on a sunny afternoon I was struck by how many little details I hadn’t noticed before, so I hope you enjoy this look at the hidden history of this Soho square.
History of Golden Square
The square first appeared in 1675, built on land leased from the Crown by Sir William Pulteney (1624-1691), MP for Westminster.
Sitting within the parish of St James’s Westminster, Golden Square could’ve been a satellite of uber posh St James’s Square to its south if it wasn’t for some pesky bureaucracy.
Amongst other problems like who actually owned the leases, Christopher Wren (Surveyor General of the Kings Works) was becoming alarmed at the rate of unlicensed developments in West London. He flat out dismissed the first petition for building in the 1670s despite the assurance that it was for “housing to accommodate gentry”.
On a second submission Wren raised concerns about drainage and water supplies in relation to his work at Whitehall and St James’s Palace but in the end approval was granted by Charles II in 1673 to build on the area then known as “Gelding Close”.
In the National Archives there are plans for the square signed by Wren, though it’s not clear whether he actually designed the square or just signalled his approval.
At its completion in 1707, Golden Square very much lived up to its ambition to house London’s gentry, in residence was a Duchess, a Bishop, Army Officers, a Duke and multiple Peers of the realm.
But it wasn’t to last.
A Diverse and Cultural Hotspot
By 1740 as fancier squares sprung up further west and industrial trades creeped closer, the square’s residents shifted to an international collection of Ambassadors from Genoa to Poland and Russia.
Evidence of this can be seen in the plaque at no.23, built in 1684 and where the Portuguese Ambassador lived from 1724-1747. Later 23 and 24 were also home to the Bavarian Ambassador until 1788.
Despite the staunchly anti-Catholic government, Diplomatic immunity allowed small chapels to be built when connected to the embassies of Catholic countries.
This explains why a Bavarian Catholic Chapel was built on the gardens and stables behind Golden Square, its entrance on Warwick Street (circled in yellow).
The church was destroyed in the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots in 1780 then rebuilt in 1788 and is still the Catholic Church of Our Lady of the Assumption & St Gregory today.
Amongst the bustling immigrant community were creatives like the Swiss painter Angelica Kauffman who lived at no.16 and the dancer Elizabeth Gamberini at no.13.
Other residents worked in medicine and there’s one particularly beautiful c.1760 trade card in the British Museum advertising the instrument maker John Bennett at the sign of the Globe and Crown.
Even the eminent surgeon John Hunter lived in Golden Square and you can spot a plaque to him on Upper John Street.
Manufacturing Moves In
In the 19th Century Golden Square became the centre for London’s wool and worsted trade. 19 of the 39 houses were demolished and they were replaced which much larger warehouse and office buildings.
The most eye-catching reminder of this is at no.22 which elbowed its way above its neighbours in 1915.
It was the showrooms and offices of a Huddersfield wool firm built by Naylor & Sale of Derby.
But there’s also manufacturing details to be found at No.34-36, now home to M&C Saatchi, the world-renowned communications and advertising company.
The carved keystone shows an undulating A and G for “Messrs A Gagnière & Co Limited”, wool and silk merchants. Their grand HQ was built 1913-15 by Leonard Stokes.
There’s more creativity as you exit Golden Square into Upper John Street, where No.s 30-31 are currently being refurbished into 30 Golden Square.
Between 2000-2023 it was Home to Norwich Union Investment Managers, who commissioned Nimmo & Partners to replace the (wonderful!) 1930s Associated British Picture Corporation building.
In a nice nod to this history there’s a series of bronze friezes along the ground floor showing various stages of film production by Giles Penny.
At the centre of the square is a statue of George II, carved in the 1720s for the Duke of Chandos (a former Square resident) and moved to the Square in 1753.
Surrounding the statue are a lovely collection of roses, “a gift to London from Bulgarian Londoners”.
The final piece of hidden history is rather sobering.
Golden Square’s Stumbling Stone
So easy to miss, outside no.s 2-3 is UK’s first Stolperstein or ‘stumbling stone’. It remembers Ada Van Danzig, known as Anna, who restored paintings and worked here from 1934.
In 1939 she travelled to be with her family in Rotterdam but when it was overrun with Nazi troops she fled to France along with her brother, sister and parents. They were betrayed and the family was sent to Drancy internment camp and then to Auschwitz where Anna, her sister and mother were all immediately murdered in the gas chambers on 14 February 1943.
Her brother Paul was killed in March 1943 and her father David in October 1943. Only one other brother, Hugo, survived by assuming a false identity. He was liberated from a German camp in 1945 and eventually died in 2009.
I Hope you enjoyed this journey through Golden Square’s eclectic history. If you fancy more on Soho’s fascinating past, I run a public walking tour called Sordid Soho and you can find more information and view the current availability here.
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