Extract from: British History Online, survey of London Vo. 47, Northern Clerkenwell to Pentonville
Almost the entire area around Amwell Street and Myddelton Square belonged historically to the New River Company, whose extensive Clerkenwell estate stretched from St John Street as far west as King's Cross Road.
Following the chronology of development in the nineteenth century, the account starts in the north with Claremont Square, where the first houses on the New River estate were built, and the former Claremont Terrace in Pentonville Road. From there it moves to Amwell Street, a little-altered shopping thoroughfare of the 1820s, Myddelton Square, the best address, with the church of St Mark, and several short connecting streets. It concludes in the east and south with Arlington Way and Myddelton Passage, both extensively redeveloped in the twentieth century. Social and commercial characteristics, and notable residents, are briefly dealt with at the ends of the individual accounts of building and development.
Myddelton Square is the largest square in Clerkenwell. Its amplitude and its plain stylistic cohesiveness provide a stately precinct for a substantial church, forming the principal set piece of the New River estate's developments of the 1820s. Some post-war and other rebuilding has not significantly compromised these qualities, but, as is usual in the area, the impression of uniformity proves on closer examination to be deceptive. Centrally approached from the east, where there are re-entrant corners, the square is more irregular on the west side, with a kink in the building line to the southwest. There is what Ian Nairn called a 'cheerful stumble uphill' on the east and west sides, and considerable variety in the elevational details of the square's 75 houses, erected over twenty-one years by thirteen different builders.
By 1818 the New River Company had in mind a square with a church, and three years later W. C. Mylne was preparing plans for a generously laid out square on what had been the Butcher's Mantles. The first building agreement and the go-ahead for the church came in 1822, but it was not until 1823 that development commenced in earnest, and the name of the square was resolved. Initially it had sometimes been called Chadwell Square, but it was the name of the New River Company's founder that stuck. By January 1824 agreements had been reached with ten builders for the development of all four sides, each side essentially being divided into three unequal parcels, of from three to nine house plots. Building was not completed until 1836.
First to start was David Barkley, a St John Street butcher, who took on Nos 3–7 on the south side in 1822. The break in the building line between Nos 7 and 8 suggests that work may have begun before the final lines of the square had been set out. In early 1823 Edward Cowper Fyffe, already engaged on Amwell Street, agreed to build Nos 65–73 on the west side and Richard Chapman undertook Nos 51–57 on the north side at the same time as he committed to the south side of Claremont Square. Following his bankruptcy Fyffe's agreement transferred to Garland and Perkins in 1825 (see Amwell, Inglebert and River streets). Later in 1823 William Oliver agreed to build four houses at the east end of the south side (Nos 18–21). Thomas Priddle of Cross Street, Islington, and William Manser of Wardour Street, both carpenters, arrived on the scene as partners and agreed to build eighteen houses (Nos 9–17 and 22–30) to complete the south side and begin the east. James Armsby, a City Road builder, James Mansfield and Thomas Oliver each took three-house plots, on the north, east and west sides, respectively, Oliver working with William Smith of Arlington Street (Arlington Way), who called himself a surveyor. Samuel James Buckingham took the last plots on the north side, and Chapman added the north end of the west side to his commitment. Finally, William Harris, a Holborn optician and speculator, agreed to build Nos 1 and 2 (part of a bigger parcel with Nos 8–12 River Street), and 34–38.
By 1826 there were nineteen houses on the south side, of which seventeen were occupied, and by 1828 this side was complete; 62 of the 73 houses then intended were listed in the ratebooks, implying that so many plots were at least staked out, only Chapman's ground at Nos 51–61 being omitted. In 1829 the square was enclosed with railings and laid out with ornamental gardens. This work, paid for by the lessees, was by Mansfield and Durant Hidson. The gardens were for use by the inhabitants only, the church being separately railed. Despite these advances progress had slowed down significantly in the late 1820s when the building boom had bust. Only 48 houses were complete and occupied in 1830. The New River Company grew impatient, and there was much chivvying of builders to complete the square in 1829–31. Armsby, now living in the square and working with Thomas Sowter, alternatively identified as another builder of City Road, or as a pianoforte maker of Lloyd Square, had taken over Buckingham's unfulfilled agreement for Nos 39–46 in 1827. He was threatened with Chancery in late 1831 to get him to build his last house at No. 39. Mansfield only finished his east-side corner at Nos 31–33 in 1833, and in 1834 Chapman's second agreement had to be transferred, along with plots on the west side of Mylne Street, to James Fisher, another City Road builder, who had already built Nos 65 and 66 under Garland and Perkins in the late 1820s. Fisher completed the last four houses at Nos 58–61 in early 1836.
A broad gap had been left between Nos 11 and 12 for a road to Sadler's Wells. This was never formed and so Nos 11a and 12a were inserted in 1842–3, leaving just a narrow path along which the northern arm of Myddelton Passage ran until 1950. These two houses were built by Richard Saywell, the New River Company employee who had been speculating on the estate since 1818.
Typically the houses have two-bay fronts of 17 or 18 feet, and vary in depth between 27 and 30 feet, the standard two room rear-staircase plan providing interconnecting rooms, with wash-house and water-closet wings. They rise four storeys over basements and have round headed ground floor windows with first floor blind arcading. There uniformity stops. The ground floors of Nos 39–49, Armsby's houses, were not given the rusticated stucco facing that was present elsewhere. The houses on the south and east sides built by Barkley, Priddle and Manser, and Harris (Nos 1–17, 22–30 and 34–38) do not have the stuccoed impost bands seen in various forms on the estate: reeded at Nos 54–57 (where Chapman kept to his Claremont Square type), corniced at Nos 18–21 and panelled at Nos 62–66. Stepping up in height and with 20 ft fronts, Nos 18–21 are rather bigger than their neighbours. They are also more finely detailed. Similar doorcases on Amwell Street seem to confirm a link between William and Thomas Oliver. No. 20, which appears never to have been sub-divided, retains simple but elegant internal door and shutter joinery with doubly rebated panels. Throughout the square there is great variety in doorcases and fanlights, rather less in the first-floor cast-iron balconies, most of which are of the anthemion type. Several street-corner houses have their entrances in stuccoed porches on their side-street returns; the porch on No. 67 was added in 1829 to mirror that on No. 66. No. 30 has a central-staircase plan, as does No. 2, not originally on a corner, but an exceptionally deep house that had a comparatively huge garden and a rear bay window, necessitating the non-standard layout. No. 22, a large square-plan re-entrant corner house, was extended in 1833–4 over part of its big garden. No. 58 is another large corner house with an unusual plan; the fanlight and balcony details give away its mid-1830s date.
Regularity was further broken in 1857 when the mansard roof on No. 64 was added, without the New River Company's consent, an alteration unique in the square. The addition of an upper storey on the side porch at No. 30 was among extensive lease-end repairs and alterations made by the company in 1909–14, carried out by several local builders under the supervision of C. S. Sanders. The most significant change before the Second World War was the demolition of Nos 3 and 4 in 1938–9 for the widening and re-routing of Myddelton Passage.
On 11 January 1941 the north side of the square was bombed. Nos 43–53 were rebuilt in 1947–8 as flats behind a 'facsimile' façade— an early piece of reconstruction and a pioneering example of this approach. The work was probably overseen by Daniel Watney, Eiloart, Inman & Nunn. At the same time the square garden, which had become derelict during the war, was re-landscaped and re-railed, with a playground north of the church and a new paved layout to the east in what had become public gardens.
Social character and notable residents
One of the first householders in Myddelton Square, at No. 7 in 1826–7, was the actor, playwright and stage-manager of Sadler's Wells, Thomas Dibdin. But for the most part the early residents were members of the more mundane professions, particularly medicine and the law, or else merchants. Respectability was carefully guarded, by the inhabitants as well as the New River Company: in 1832 residents complained that boys using the square as a playground were 'dangerous and annoying'. The first tenant at No. 9 in 1825 was William Davies, who employed and boarded a few female 'tambour workers' (circular-frame embroiderers). Permission for this was seen as exceptional, the New River Company being anxious to keep away the lower forms of 'trade'.
Richard Carpenter, the developer of Arlington Street (now Way), was the first inhabitant of No. 62, from c. 1826 until 1842; his son, the architect Richard Cromwell Carpenter, also probably lived here through these years, during the first of which he was articled to John Blyth, with whom he may have worked on the parish school in Amwell Street. A lesser architect, John Bull Gardiner, lived at No. 67 in the 1830s and 40s, and William Slater, R. C. Carpenter's former pupil and partner, who took over the practice on Carpenter's death, lived at No. 54 through the 1860s. The square's suitability for architects found its way into fiction. In Peter Ibbetson (1892) George Du Maurier here installed Mr Lintot, a 'quite self-made' architect, and had him build himself an office in the garden. The locality was dismissively characterised as 'clean, virtuous and respectable'.
Du Maurier's description could doubtless have been applied earlier. Not only was the square then more solidly professional in tone, but there was some association with Methodism, going by the presence there of at least three important figures in the movement. Jabez Bunting, who completed the separation of the Methodists from the Anglican Church, lived at No. 30 from 1833 until his death in 1858, as a plaque records. (This house, subsequently enlarged, became a doctor's surgery and was later the estate office.) Another prominent Wesleyan minister, the elder John Hannah, was living at No. 8 in the early 1840s, and this house was subsequently occupied by the missionary Elijah Hoole, until his death in 1872. His son, also Elijah, a civil engineer and later prolific architect of Wesleyan chapels, lived there as a boy and young man. A rather less than respectable note was struck by the builder William Manser, who in the 1850s resided in the large corner house he had built at No. 22, together with his 'housekeeper' Isabella Priddle (probably his former partner's daughter), with whom he had two children. They were later married and moved to No. 17.
Already by 1841 there were some skilled manufacturers in the square. No. 50 was occupied by two chronometermakers, Henry Appleton and Peter Birchall, and No. 16 by George Guillaume, a Swiss watchmaker. No. 71 had become a lodging house, its occupants including two Spanish merchants, and there were small schools for girls at Nos 40 and 63, run by Frances Muston and Martha Bowman. Lodging-house use gradually spread, but many houses remained in single-household occupation; No. 19 became a pub. Through the later nineteenth century those in the professions tended to give way to clerks and other white-collar workers, tradesmen and artisans. Among skilled workers watchmakers were prominent, with the names Guignard and Golay, noted Swiss watchmakers, occurring at Nos 11, 15 and 46. Whether Victor Piaget, a watch manufacturer at No. 48 in the 1860s, was of the same family as the famous firm of Piaget & Co. is not known.
Other nineteenth-century names connected with the square are: Annie Abram, medieval social historian, born at No. 45 in 1869, the daughter of a law stationer; Golding Bird, physician and pioneer of electrical treatment, resident at No. 19 in the 1840s; Sir George Buchanan, epidemiologist, born in the square in 1831, son of a general practitioner; Stanley Lees Giffard, newspaper editor, first occupant of No. 39, where he stayed until 1857; Joseph Frederick Green, peace campaigner, born at No. 12A in 1855, the son of a merchant and JP; Edward Hughes, portrait painter, born in the square in 1832, the son of George Hughes, painter; Emily Nicholson, artist, resident at No. 70 in the 1840s.
At the end of the century the erstwhile 'highly fashionable' square remained the best address in the area, characterized by 'ferns in china pots in windows'. It was still middle-class, but from having been a residential quarter for families it was now mainly given over to lodging houses, largely inhabited by young professional men. Watchmaking and jewellery were fast disappearing. In 1909–10 the young Fenner Brockway, then a journalist with the Independent Labour Party, moved here from the Claremont Mission settlement in White Lion Street, to lodge at No. 60, occupied by Alfred Harvey Smith, secretary of the ILP. The household included Smith's sister Lilla, later Brockway's wife, and drew in numerous young socialists.
Multiple occupancy having long since become widespread, the outright conversion of the square's houses to flats began; the large corner house at No. 58 was converted in 1936. More flats were formed across pairs of houses, by cutting through party walls and replacing redundant front doors with windows. The New River Company's conservative approach in this work was presented as exemplary in 1944, and appreciated for its recognition of the square's 'well-thought-out design' and 'already delightful rooms'.
After post-war rebuilding on the north side, many more lateral conversions followed in the late 1950s and early 60s (Nos 5–9, 34–35, 54–55, 60–65). The writer B. S. Johnson lived in one of these, Flat 4 in No. 5, in 1965–9, during which time he produced some of his most important and uncompromisingly experimental work. By the early 1980s, when Nos 11–12, 15–16 and 39 were converted by the London Borough of Islington, there were relatively few undivided houses left. Most rear gardens had already been reduced in size by New River Company developments of the mid-century. This tide was turning. In 1975 the City University acquired No. 20 as a house for its vice-chancellor, the lease prohibiting occupancy by more than one family, and in the 1980s Islington began to sell properties through 'right-to-buy' legislation. The square has now been partially re-gentrified, some sub-division being unpicked. One consequence of these changes is that the number of residents has declined significantly since about 1960.
St Mark's Church
Built in 1825–7, St Mark's is a Commissioners' Church and characteristic of the genre, though the stone-faced west tower is a unexpectedly powerful composition. The interior has been greatly altered, most recently in a spartan remodelling of the early 1960s, following significant war-damage.
In 1818 the Commissioners appointed under the new Church Building Act approached the New River Company with a view to building a church in a square on the estate, but it was late 1822 before matters progressed. A site in the then nascent Myddelton Square, 'the most commanding, centrical and convenient situation', was given by the company, subject to conditions. These included completion of the church within six years, its enclosure by railings, and a ban on burials. As it happened, burials were not prohibited outright but were discouraged through high fees. The company's request that its surveyor, W. C. Mylne, be employed as architect was agreed to, provided his plans were 'of a plain Gothic character'.
This was the only church Mylne designed. He struggled to meet his brief, which called for accommodation for 2,000 at a cost of £15,000, confessing in 1823 that 'although plainer than almost any church I have seen executed in Gothic, the estimate exceeds in a small degree the stipulated amount'. When the building was completed in 1827 the final cost was about £18,000, of which the parish contributed £2,000.