Lost London: Dance’s Square, Crescent and Circus


In an earlier post regarding the remains of the Roman city wall at Cooper’s Row, the adjacent location of The Crescent, EC3 was featured several times. I had originally intended just to add a few lines about the history of The Crescent as a side note in that post, but whilst researching further into its history I discovered it is part of a wider story which includes the neighbouring locations of America Square and the now vanished Circus.

These locations being lost, forgotten and generally unsung, I felt they deserved a post of their own, in order to share their remarkable story.  However, due to the volume of material I have now collated on these locations, this will now be split in to a series of posts in order to do proper justice to their histories.

Historical Background

By the mid 18th century, the city wall had ceased to be useful as a defensive structure, and the limits of the city had spilled beyond its boundary, most parts of the London city wall had become engulfed by buildings either abutting or consuming it within their structures.  Even the large defensive ditch which ran along the outside of the wall had been filled to provide level building land.

For some reason this intense redevelopment seems not to have happened to land immediately outside of the wall, parallel to the street known as The Minories, which incidentally is named after the Franciscan convent of Holy Trinity of the Minoresses, founded in 1293 and formerly on the east side of the street.

From further research, the land here appears to have been owned and managed by the the Corporation of London’s City Lands Estates, and may have been used for leasing as allotment gardens which could explain why the space was still undeveloped at this time.

The buildings directly to the east of the wall and fronting the west side of The Minories had an unused void between them and the old city wall. This can be clearly seen in the picture below of Ogilby and Morgan’s map of 1667-79, also accessible on the British History Online website. The city wall is the dark diagonal line heading from top-centre down towards the Tower of London, with white space immediately to the right being the land of interest to this post.

Portion of Ogilby and Morgan's Large Scale Map of the City of London As Rebuilt By 1676
Portion of Ogilby and Morgan’s Large Scale Map of the City of London As Rebuilt By 1676.
Reproduced by permission of London Metropolitan Archive.

Dance’s Plans

In the late 18th century, London was enjoying an economic boom brought about from being at the centre of commerce and trade with the Americas and the East. With the proliferation of new warehouses in the City servicing the Port of London, and new docks being developed to the east, there was a demand for quality housing which would appeal to wealthy merchants and their families.

Having acquired the lease for the small space of land between the City Wall and The Minories, Sir Benjamin Hammett (1736-1800) a prominent property developer, city alderman, and banker at that time, commissioned the architect George Dance the Younger (1741-1825) to design a high quality speculative residential development to attract these merchants to reside in The City as an alternative to the developments of London’s West End.

George Dance was 26 years of age in 1767, and had been only two years in practice with his father (George Dance, the Elder 1695-1768), after returning from Rome as part of his “Grand Tour”. This commission would be one of his earliest works in London.

Dance’s plan for a sequence of a Square, Crescent and Circus, introduced such design elements to London, and in doing so was the first planned crescent and circus in London.

Probably influenced by the Woods’ (another father / son pairing) grand work in the spa town of Bath, Somerset, albeit on a much smaller scale, Dance would repeat this sequence again in the City of London with Finsbury Circus and Finsbury Square some ten years later. Other architects also used this sequence in London, with the perhaps the most notable being John Nash’s linked circuses (Oxford and Piccadilly), crescents (Lower Regent Street and Park Crescent) and square (Waterloo Place).

The Completed Project

The development was completed during 1767-74 and was one of the earliest planned residential developments in London and one of the few such developments of this period to survive in the city.

As can clearly be seen in the spectacularly detailed map by Richard Horwood from 1792-99, the completed project consisted of a small square of sixteen houses houses; a crescent of eleven houses and a small circus of ten houses and other buildings. In addition to the houses the development included storage buildings and stabling for horses and carriages, located in the buildings opposite The Crescent, and in the spaces between America Square and The Crescent and also between the The Crescent and the The Circus as can seen on the map below.

Portion of Richard Horwoods Map 1799, showing Dance's America Sq, Crescent and Circus.
Portion of Richard Horwoods Map 1799, showing Dance’s America Sq, Crescent and Circus.
Reproduced by permission of the London Metropolitan Archive.

The project’s property developer Sir Benjamin Hammett managed to achieve immortality in these plans in the form a street named after himself.  It can be seen as Hamet St (sic) in the map above (now Hammett Street), connecting The Crescent to The Minories. 

War and Peace

Despite their architectural significance, time has not been kind to the original houses in Dance’s development. In 1841, with the opening of the City of London’s first railway station Fenchurch Street, the approaching railway viaduct sliced across Vine Street between America Square and The Crescent. Then in 1884, the Metropolitan District Railway (Now Circle and District Lines), sliced diagonally though the southern half of The Crescent, necessitating the loss of five of the eleven the houses.
The aerial bombing of the City of London during World War II, caused much loss of life and property with a third of the buildings in the City being destroyed during the war. Here America Square was devastated with the total loss of the remaining original houses, in The Crescent, four of the remaining six houses were destroyed, and in The Circus just one house and an adjacent warehouse survived the war.

The map below details the devastation around Dance’s development, which can be seen in the centre. The colours represent the severity of damage. 

  • Black: Total destruction
  • Purple: Damaged beyond repair
  • Dark Red: Seriously damaged, doubtful if repairable
  • Light Red: Seriously damaged, but repairable at cost
  • Orange: General blast damage, not structural
  • Yellow: Blast damage, minor in nature
  • Green: Clearance Areas
  • Large Circles: V1 flying bomb site

The circle just above the centre of the map is directly over America Square, with The Crescent and Circus below.
Click the map for a larger view.

Tower Hill bomb site maps of 1940-41 Tower Hill WW2 bomb site map of 1940-41
Tower Hill bomb site maps of 1940-41 Tower Hill WW2 bomb site map of 1940-41
Reproduced by permission of the London Metropolitan Archives. Tower Hill bomb site maps of 1940-41

Preservation and Future

In 2007, The Crescent became part of a small conservation area known as the Crescent Conservation Area, which encapsulates the area of Vine Street, south of the Fenchurch railway viaduct, all of The Crescent, from the City Wall in the west to The Minories to the east including Hammett Street, and south to include the land formerly occupied by the now vanished Circus.

This designation as conservation area, will hopefully ensure the historic character of the remaining buildings of The Crescent will be preserved, and that future developments will be more sympathetic to it’s historic character.

Continue reading… 

This article continues with more information and photographic records in the following posts…


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