10 November 2022

Two gardens remembering
peace campaigners and
Britain’s richest woman

The statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Tavistock Square was sculpted by the Polish-born sculptor Fredda Brilliant (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

One of the joys of visiting London is strolling through its many parks and squares, discovering new sculptures and monuments. During my visit last week, I visited both Tavistock Square, which is a regular favourite, and Saint Martin’s Gardens in Camden Town, which I visited for the first time. Both are now managed by London Borough of Camden.

Tavistock Square in the heart of Bloomsbury was built shortly after 1806 by the property developer James Burton and the master builder Thomas Cubitt for Francis Russell, 5th Duke of Bedford.

The square formed part of the Bedford Estate in London, owned by the Dukes of Bedford, and square takes its name from the Marquess of Tavistock, a courtesy title given to the eldest sons of the Dukes of Bedford.

The centre-piece of the gardens is a statue of Mahatma Gandhi, sculpted by the Polish sculptor Fredda Brilliant (1903-1999), who had lived in India for many years. She designed he hollow pedestal to hold floral tributes to the peace campaigner and nonviolent resister to oppression in South Africa and India who studied law nearby at University College London.

Gandhi’s statue was unveiled by the Prime Minister Harold Wilson in 1968 and is now a Grade II listed monument.

The Hiroshima cherry tree was planted on Hiroshima Day 1967 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

A cherry tree was planted on 6 August 1967 by the Mayor of Camden, Millie Miller, in memory of the victims of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945. It inspired the planting of a similar cherry tree by Irish CND in Merrion Square, Dublin, on 6 August 1980.

The Conscientious Objectors Commemorative Stone in Tavistock Square was unveiled in 1994 to commemorate ‘men and women conscientious objectors all over the world and in every age.’

The idea of having a stone dedicated to conscientious objectors (COs) to war was initiated in 1976 at the funeral of a conscientious objector, Joseph Brett, who had been imprisoned in 1916. The erection of this massive slate stone was co-ordinated by the Peace Pledge Union (PPU).

Hugh Court of Architects for Peace and the sculptor Paul Wehrle chose a naturally shaped piece of grey-green Cumbrian volcanic slate, 400 million years old and larger than the size originally envisaged. It was unveiled by the composer Sir Michael Tippett, President of the PPU and a former Conscientious Objector, on 15 May 1994, International Conscientious Objectors’ Day.

These three features have led to Tavistock Square unofficially becoming London’s peace park or garden, and annual ceremonies are held at each of these memorials.

The stone in Tavistosk Square honouring conscientious objectors (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

A bust of the writer Virginia Woolf, cast from a 1931 sculpture by Stephen Tomlin (1901-1937), was unveiled in 2004 at the south-west corner of the square. She lived at 52 Tavistock Square in 1924-1939. She and her husband Leonard Woolf ran the Hogarth Press, publishing fiction and poetry, including TS Eliot, EM Forster and Katherine Mansfield.

The square has a memorial to the surgeon Dame Louisa Aldrich-Blake (1865-1925), with a bust by Arthur George Walker on a plinth designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens.

Tavistock Square was the scene of one of four suicide bombings on 7 July 2005, when 13 people were killed, and many others were injured.

A memorial honouring the victims of the four suicide bombings in London on 7 July 2005 was unveiled in Tavistock Square Gardens in 2018, replacing a plaque that had been fixed to the railings outside BMA House.

Saint Martin’s Gardens first opened in 1889 and is the site of Camden Town Cemetery (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Tavistock Square is managed by London Borough of Camden, which also manages Saint Martin’s Gardens, which I came across for the first time last week as I was searching out All Saints’ Greek Orthodox Cathedral.

Saint Martin’s Gardens first opened in 1889 and is the site of the former Camden Town Cemetery. Until the early 19th century, this was undeveloped pastureland on the edge of Camden Town. It was later used as a burial ground for Saint Martin-in-the-Fields, before being transformed into public gardens.

The land, totalling almost 4 acres, was acquired in 1802 to provide an additional burial ground for Saint Martin-in-the-Fields. Part of the land was also used for Saint Martin’s Almshouses, built in 1818.

The additional burial plot for Saint Martin-in-the-Fields was consecrated in 1805 by the Bishop of London, Beilby Porteus. The neighbouring almshouses were built in 1817-1818. Additional land was bought from the Cemetery Charity in 1843 to enlarge the almshouses, although this did not happen until 1854. Saint Martin’s Close, houses on Camden Street and Pratt Street and additional almshouse buildings were then built.

The grounds had been reduced to less than two acres by 1856 and were closed for burials in 1856. The Vestry of Saint Pancras bought the disused burial ground in 1884, although Saint Martin-in-the-Fields retained the freehold. (I had also visited Saint Pancras Church on Euston Road earlier that same afternoon.)

Saint Pancras vestry laid out public gardens in 1884-1887. Most gravestones were cleared and removed to the perimeter, although a few remain in their original locations. There was public outcry that old graves were being dug up, leading to court actions.

The layout was informal with a central mound, said to contain many of the cleared bones. There are plane trees on the boundaries, a monument in the form of a Celtic memorial cross to the composer Charles Dibdin, who died in 1814, and a granite drinking fbr />
Saint Martin’s Gardens were formally opened on 24 July 1889 by the Countess of Rosebery who also unveiled the monument to Charles Dibdin. The carving on the pedestal supporting the cross includes a lyre and anchor on a pile of rope that unfolds into Celtic patterning.

The drinking fountain opposite the main gates is topped with a column and urn, set into cobbles. It was donated in 1889 by Maples of Tottenham Court Road for the ‘Use of the Public.’

Many of the surviving gravestones were removed to the perimeters, others are dilapidated. Most of the tombstones along the north wall are illegible but unbroken and include that of the physician and geologist Dr George Swiney (1786-1844). There are box tombs of the Woodburn, Moore and Willey families, a crypt tomb of the Harvey family, and an obelisk monument to the Barrow family. Other noted people buried there include Robert Graves, engraver, George Stevens, dramatist and author, and Michael Angelo Rooker.

Nell Gwynne, the long-time mistress of Charles II, and Jack (‘Honest Jack’) Sheppard, a thief known for his dramatic prison escapes, may be among those who were reburied there from old Saint Martin’s churchyard near Charing Cross.

The garden has entrances on Camden Street and Pratt Street, which was the site of the original main entrance and Saint Martin’s Chapel. One corner is a children’s playground.

Hannah Primrose (1851-1890), Countess of Rosebery, who opened the gardens in 1889, a year before her death, was the daughter of Baron Mayer de Rothschild and his wife Juliana (Cohen). She had inherited her father’s fortune in 1874, and was the richest woman in Britain. She married the future Prime Minister, Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery, in 1878. Her charitable work was principally in the sphere of public health and causes associated with the welfare of working-class Jewish women in the poorer districts of London.

Within the last two decades, Saint Martin’s Gardens were restored and re-dedicated as a public garden on 10 June 2006 by the present Countess of Rosebery.

Remembering Saint Pancras Vestry and Lady Roseberry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

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