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Westminster in 1843

WESTMINSTER, a city in the county of Middlesex, the constituent parts of the British metropolis, containing the royal residence, the houses of the legislature, the supreme courts of law, the chief public offices of the executive government, and the magnificent abbey church of St. Peter, which is one of the places of interment for persons illustrious by their talents, position, political character, or military and naval achievements.

The limits of the city and liberty of Westminster are formed on the southern and chief part of the eastern side by the left bank of the river Thames. The boundary leaves the river about midway between Waterloo bridge and Hungerford market, and with a little deviation follows the course of the Strand eastward to Temple Bar, being separated from the river in this part by what is termed the liberty of the duchy of Lancaster and by the western part of the Temple. The boundary turns northward from Temple Bar up Shire Lane, and then runs in an irregular line westward, keeping to the south of Lincoln’s Inn Fields till it reaches Drury Lane : it then turns north-westward up Drury Lane to Castle Street, and again turn westward and then northward runs by Castle Street, West Street, and Crown Street, Soho, to the eastern end of Oxford Street. The northern boundary runs in a very direct line westward along Oxford Street and the north side of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, making a small detour in one place, so as to include St. George’s burying-ground, to the northern end of the Serpentine river. From this point the western boundary follows the course of the Serpentine and of a stream which runs from its south-eastern extremity, now for the most part covered over, west of Kinnerton Street (which runs at the back of Wilton Crescent), Lowndes Street, Chesham Street, Westbourn Street, and the Commercial Road, to the Thames just in front of Chelsea Hospital.

The area of the city is 2,500 acres, the number of houses, by the census of 1831, 21,892, namely, 20,616 inhabited, 864 uninhabited, and 412 building ; by the same enumeration the population comprehended 46,004 families, or 201,842 individuals. This statement does not include the population of the liberty of the duchy of Lancaster, now added to Westminster for parliamentary purposes, or the area or population of the precinct or chapelry of the Savoy ; both which are taken as parts of Ossulston hundred in the county of Middlesex. The general description of the city is given in the LONDON articles.

In the present article we propose to give an historical sketch of its origin and of the extension of its buildings and population. The city appears to have owed its origin to a church erected here by Saebyrht or Sebert, king of the East Saxons (or, to follow Camden, of the East. and Middle Saxons), and dedicated to St. Peter. Saebyrht was under the supremacy of his uncle Aethelbyrht, or Ethelbert, king of Kent, and Bretwalda, or lord paramount, of the Anglo-Saxons, and had been converted to Christianity after his uncle, by the preaching of Mellitus, who was one of the companions of the monk Augustine.

The mission of Mellitus to the East Saxons took place A.D. 604 ; and as Saebyrht appears to have died about the same time as Aethelbyrht, A.D. 616, we have an approximation to the date of the foundation of the church, which must have been some time between those two periods. Saebyrht and his wife Athelgoda were buried in the church of St. Peter, which appears to have been afterwards called West-Minster from its position with relation to St. Paul’s, the metropolitan church of the East Saxons. Some have sought to carry the antiquity of the church to a much higher period, and have affirmed that St. Peter himself visited Britain and erected a small chapel or oratory here ; others, more moderate, ascribe the first ecclesiastical structure on the spot to King Lucius, who is said to have reigned in Britain about the latter part of the second century, and to have built a church here from the ruins of a heathen temple which had been overthrown by an earthquake.

The existence however of any church prior to that raised by Saebyrht is, to say the least, very doubtful : and at the time when that was erected the place was in so uncultivated a state, that the Saxons called it ‘Thornege,’ the ‘Isle of Thorns.’ The island was formed by an arm of the river, called Long Ditch, now a common sewer ; or probably by a low marshy tract, from the midst of which the higher ground emerged, on which the church was built.The church of Saebyrht appears to have been destroyed by the Danes about the time of Alfred, and remained desolate until the reign of Edgar, who caused it to be rebuilt, and established in the place, about A.D. 958, a Benedictine priory or abbey of twelve monks, who were however poorly provided for. If this establishment was not an abbey from its foundation, it became one not very long after.

The church nevertheless appears to have been held in high esteem, for, A.D. 1040, the body of Harold I the son of Canute, who died at Oxford, was brought here for burial. The body of the dead king was taken up the same year by order of his half-brother and successor Hardacnute, or Hardicanute, and thrown into a ditch. In the reign of Edward the Confessor, successor of Hardicanute, Westminster was the residence of royalty : the palace built or occupied by Edward appears to have been on or near the same site as the residence of succeeding kings and of the present houses of parliament : it has given name to Old and New Palace Yard, Palace Stairs, &c. It is not unlikely that Westminster had been occasionally the residence of the Anglo-Saxon kings before Edward’s time, as Scotland Yard is said to have derived its name from a palace assigned by Edgar as the residence of the king of Scotland, when visiting the English court to do homage for his crown ; and it is probable that this occasional residence would be near the ordinary abode of the English king.

The abbey church of St. Peter at Westminster was rebuilt by Edward the Confessor with great magnificence, and that prince, on his decease, A.D. 1066, was buried in it, as was also Editha, his wife, daughter of Earl Godwin. Edward built also a parish church, that of St. Margaret, for the inhabitants, who previously had the use of a part of the abbey church.The parish of St. Margaret originally comprehended the whole of the present city and liberties, with the exception possibly of the two parishes of St. Mary-le-Strand and St. Clement Danes. The boundaries of the parish are described in a judgment, given A.D. 1222, by Cardinal Stephen Langton, archbishop of Canterbury, and other arbitrators, on occasion of a dispute between the bishop of London and the abbot and monks of Westminster, as to whether the abbey was subject to the bishops jurisdiction. The original judgment is given in Wharton’s ‘Historia de Episcopis et Decanis Londinensibus et Assavensibus.’

The parish also comprehended several ‘villae’ beyond the city limits, as Knyghtebrigge (now Knightsbridge), Westburne (Westbourne), and Padyngtoun (Paddington), with its chapel. The church and burial-ground of St. Martin-in-the-Fields were not included in the parish, though surrounded by it on every side. When this church of St. Martin was erected is not known ; it was perhaps originally a chapel of the monks of the abbey, who had a garden near it, the site of which has preserved its name with little alteration, Convent, now Covent Garden.

The church of St. Clement Danes was in existence at the time of the massacre of the Danes in England on St. Brice’s day, A.D. 1002, by order of King Ethelred II, and many of the proscribed nation fled to it for sanctuary. The churchyard was, in A.D. 1039, the common burial-place of the Danes, and in it part of the remains of King Harold I were deposited, after being disinterred from their resting-place in St. Peter’s abbey by order of Hardicanute.

The Strand (so called in the Saxon Chronicle) was at this time apparently the road or street between London and Westminster, and upon it Earl Godwin and his son Harold drew up their land forces in their insurrection against Edward the Confessor, A.D. 1052. The churches of St. Martin and St. Mary-le-Strand both existed at the time of Langton’s judgment (A.D. 1222) ; but how long before cannot be ascertained. St. Mary’s church was then called the Church of the Innocents, or of St. Mary and the Innocents ; and there is reason to think, from the notice of it in Langton’s judgment, that it was then parochial. St. Martin’s was made parochial some time between the delivery of the judgment and the year 1363.

The parish was formed by dismembering all the northern and western parts of St. Margaret’s parish, comprehending not only the present parish of St. Martin, but those of St. Paul, Covent Garden ; St. Anne, Soho ; St. Jame’s ; and St. George’s, Hanover Square.After the Conquest, Westminster continued to be the usual residence of the kings of England, and St. Peter’s abbey the usual place of their coronation. Edward I afterwards fixed in the bottom of the inauguration chair a, stone which he had brought from Scone in Scotland, the possession of which was thought to secure possession of the government of that kingdom. William Rufus built a large hall as a banqueting-room to the palace ; and this, with other public works which were carried on at the same time, was made the occasion of great oppression to the people ; so that ‘many men;’ says the Saxon chronicle (A.D. 1097), perished thereby. This banqueting-hall was pulled down and rebuilt by Richard II and is the present Westminster Hall.Henry III began to rebuild the abbey church of St. Peter, having caused the ancient edifice of Edward the Confessor to be pulled down in A.D. 1245. He had previously built a new Lady-chapel. He was buried in the new church, A.D. 1273, and several of his successors on the throne have also been buried there.

The new church was not completed until long after Henry’s death. In A.D. 1297 that part of the abbey which had been rebuilt was much damaged by fire ; and in A.D. 1303 the king’s treasury, then kept in the abbey, was robbed of a vast sum (said in Allen’s ‘History of London,’ but we know not on what authority, to have been £100,000) ; and the abbot and nearly fifty of his monks were apprehended and sent to the Tower on suspicion of being concerned in the robbery : twelve of them were detained in prison two years.Henry III granted to the abbot of St. Peter’s a fair and a market, which were held at Touthull, on the west side of the abbey, a locality known in later times as Tothill Street and Tothill Fields.

The wool-staple, or wool-market, of the metropolis was also established at Westminster, and contributed to the prosperity of the place, which was then quite separate from London. Between them was the village or hamlet of Charing, the last place where the body of Eleanor, the faithful and beloved queen of Edward I, rested on its way to St. Peter’s abbey, where it was buried. Charing Cross, one of those erected by Edward at all the places where the body had rested, was demolished during the troubles of the reign of Charles I ; but the place where it stood has retained its name.In the reign of Henry VII the Lady-chapel of St. Peter’s, built by Henry III, was pulled down, and in place of it was built the more extensive and costly structure now known as Henry the Seventh’s Chapel.

This was the last important addition or alteration made in the abbey before the Reformation, or indeed until early in the last century, when the western towers were rebuilt under the direction of Sir Christopher Wren. Since that time a considerable part of the abbey has been renovated, but no additions have been made.At the dissolution the yearly revenues of St. Peter’s abbey were estimated at £3,977, 6 shillings, 4¾ pence gross (Speed), or £3,471, 0 shillings, 2 pence clear (Dugdale). A MS. valor makes the revenue £3,033, 17 shillings, 0 pence ; and according to another account (Stevens) it was £3,307, 17 shillings, 0 pence. The abbot had a seat in parliament, and the abbey was considered to be the second in the kingdom.

On the dissolution Henry VIII first converted it into a college of secular canons, appointing the ex-abbot to be dean : but he soon after changed his mind, and established a bishopric at Westminster, assigning to it the county of Middlesex as a diocese, and appointing to the abbey, now made a cathedral, a dean and twelve prebendaries. This was about A.D.1541. On the translation of the first bishop, Thirlby, who had wasted the revenues, to Norwich, A.D. 1550, the bishopric was discontinued ; but the chapter remained till the time of Mary I, who again made it a Benedictine abbey, though retaining popularly the designation of Westminster Abbey ; but in the reign of Elizabeth it was made a collegiate church, which, except during the troubles of the time of Charles I and the Protectorate, it has since continued to be. Westminster School is a part of the collegiate establishment, and is endowed out of the revenues of the former abbey.

At the time of the Reformation, Westminster comprehended the parishes of St. Margaret, St. Martin-in-the-Fields, St. Clement-Danes, and St. Mary-le-Strand ; and the chapelry of St. John the Baptist, in the Savoy, a precinct attached to the house erected by Peter, Count of Savoy, uncle to Eleanor, wife of Henry III. The church of St. Mary-le-Strand was pulled down by the Protector Somerset, in order to the erection of his mansion of Somerset House, which occupied the site ; and the inhabitants long remained without a parish church, attending either at St. Clement-Danes or at the Savoy Chapel.

Early in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, about A.D. 1560, according to the plan republished by Vertue in 1737, Westminster was united to London by an unbroken line of buildings, extending from the palace of Whitehall at Westminster, by Charing Cross and along the Strand : those on the south side of the Strand consisting chiefly of the mansions of the nobility, with gardens reaching down to the river ; and those on the north side, between Drury Lane and St. Martin’s Lane, being also mansions, having gardens behind them ; then a park or garden, apparently part of the former Convent (or Abbey) Garden, which has given name to the neighbourhood ; then open fields, extending to Holborn and to the hamlet. or village of St. Giles’s.

In the neighbourhood of Westminster Abbey and Hall, which formed the nucleus of the city, the buildings were thick, and formed a town of several streets. About Charing Cross there were houses extending along what is now Cockspur Street to the end of Pall Mall : but the Haymarket was a country road, separated from the fields by a hedge on each side. The mews at Charing Cross existed, and their eastern wall, with that of St Martin’s churchyard and of the park or garden, noticed as extending at the back of the houses on the north side of the Strand, lined St. Martin’s Lane on each side for some distance ; but the greater part of that lane was lined with hedges, and had fields on each side, which were used for feeding cattle or drying clothes.In the neighbourhood of the church of St. Clement-Danes, and at the Strand end of Drury Lane, about Clement’s Inn, the houses were more thickly grouped, but the greater part of Drury Lane was skirted by fields, occupying, on the one hand, the space now occupied by Lincoln’s Inn Fields and the neighbourhood, and on the other, the site of the present Covent Garden Market, Long Acre, and Castle Street. Hyde Park and St. James’s Park and Palace were existence.

Hyde Park, which then included the site of Kensington Gardens, had formerly been a demesne of the abbots of St. Peters, Westminster, and had been obtained by exchange by Henry VIII, who also erected St. James’s Palace and laid out St. James’s Park. Whitehall Palace, previously York Place, the residence of the archbishops of York, had been purchased by the same prince, in consequence of a fire which had destroyed the greater part of the old palace of Westminster. Speed’s plan of Westminster, published in 1610, a few years after Elizabeth’s death, gives the city but little more extension than plan of 1560, showing that during the reign of that princess there had been little change.In the interval between the publication of Speed’s plan and the close of Charles II’s reign a great increase of buildings took place in the part of Westminster adjacent to the Strand. The greater part of the area contained within the limits of the city of Westminster east of St. Martin’s Lane had been covered with streets ; and westward from St. Martin’s Lane the buildings had extended to the irregular line formed by Wardour Street, Pulteney Street, Warwick Street, and Piccadilly nearly to the Green Park, at that time still united to St. James’s Park. Lincoln’s Inn Fields, the scene of Lord Russell’s execution, the piazza or square of Covent Garden, now a market, Leicester Fields, now Leicester Square, and Soho Square, then called by some King Square, had been laid out and built. The city had also extended westward along the south side of St. James’s Park, and southward, along Millbank, to the Horse Ferry opposite Lambeth Palace.

The churches of St. Paul, Covent Garden (at first a chapel built by the Earl of Bedford, A.D. 1640), and St. Anne, Soho (A.D. 1678), had been built, and districts taken from the parish of St. Martin-in-the-Fields assigned to them as parishes. A vacant space between Carey Street and Portugal Street, since built over, was called Little Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and a space south of the piazza, Covent Garden, now also built over, was occupied by the gardens of Bedford House, which then stood on the north side of the Strand near where Exeter Hall now stands.

The troubles which attended the closing years of the Stuart dynasty, the Revolution, and the wars which followed it, appear to have checked the further increase of the city of Westminster, for a map of London and Westminster ‘as they are now standing, A.D. 1707,’ shows little increase beyond Ogilby and Morgan’s great map (dedicated to Charles II, in or after A.D. 1680), except that Golden Square and the streets adjacent had been laid out, and St. James’s church erected, to which a district dismembered from St. Martin’s had been assigned as a parish. But between A.D. 1707 and 1720, when Strype published a new edition of Stows Survey with a Map, the buildings had covered the space previously vacant as far as Old and New Bond Street, inclusive of those two streets : toward the Piccadilly end of Old Bond Street the houses had extended westward to about Clarges and Half-Moon Streets, and along Piccadilly itself they had already reached Hyde Park Corner. Hanover Square had been laid out.

By the year 1738 the buildings had extended along the whole south side of Oxford Street, and nearly the whole space between Piccadilly and Oxford Street was covered with buildings, as far as Tyburn Lane, now Park Lane, except in the south-western corner about Berkeley Square and May-fair, which were not fully covered as at present till the reign of George III. The churches of St. George, Hanover Square (A.D. 1724), and St. John the Evangelist, near Millbank (A.D. 1728), had been built and made parochial. St. George’s parish was dismembered from St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields, and St. John’s from St. Margaret’s. Westminster bridge had been begun, although it was not completed and opened until A.D. 1747.

During the remainder of the eighteenth century considerable increase of the buildings of the city of Westminster took place. Houses were built along the south side of the road to Knightsbridge, beyond the Green Park, which was now made distinct from St. James’s Park ; Berkeley Square was formed about 1760. May-fair was covered with houses, and Grosvenor Place and. Lower Grosvenor Place, with some of the adjacent parts of Pimlico, were built. These parts were built before 1780 ; and by the close of the century Belgrave Place and other lines of buildings along the Chelsea Road had been erected.By these successive extensions nearly the whole of the area of the city had been covered with streets and houses. The only considerable space not so occupied, with the exception of the parks, and the gardens of Buckingham, Carlton, Marlborough, Chesterfield, and Devonshire houses, was near the south-western corner of the space comprehended by the boundaries of the city of Westminster. This space partly consisted of the open ground of Tothill Fields, partly of a large extent of garden-ground known as the ‘Neat-houses Gardens,’ and partly of ‘the Five Fields,’ and other fields between Pimlico and Knightsbridge.

During the present century the extension of buildings of various kinds has nearly covered this area. The Five Fields and the fields toward Knightsbridge are now occupied by Belgrave and Eaton squares, and Ebury Street, which form, with their neighbourhood, one of the handsomest quarters of the metropolis : Tothill Fields and a part of the Neat-houses Gardens are occupied by the Milbank Prison or Penitentiary ; by Vincent Square, the ample enclosure of which forms the playground of the Westminster scholars ; and by various streets adjacent to them. A part of the Neat-houses Gardens is still occupied only by manufactories or small groups of houses or buildings detached from each other, and it is here alone that opportunity remains for any material extension of buildings. The gardens of Carlton and Marlborough houses are occupied by new streets and terraces. Waterloo Bridge, originally called the Strand Bridge, and Vauxhall Bridge, both connecting Westminster with the opposite bank of the river, have been built ; and it has been proposed to erect bridges for foot-passengers at Hungerford Market and at the Horseferry near Lambeth Palace.

The ponds of the Chelsea Water-works have been converted into a canal – ‘the Grosvenor Canal,’ with a basin and wharfs.Of the population of Westminster until the present century we have no accurate account. It is said by Mr. Rickman, but we know not from what data, to have been about 130,000 at the beginning of the last. century. In Maitland’s ‘History of London,’ the number of houses, at a period, we believe, somewhere about the year 1737, is given at 15,445, which, allowing seven persons to a house, which is Maitland’s estimate for the whole metropolis, would give 108,115 as the number of inhabitants. This estimate and Rickman’s cannot be made to agree except by the supposition of a diminution of population in the earlier part of the last century, a supposition which the great increase of building at time prevents us from entertaining ; or by adopting a higher average of persons to each house, which we are not disposed to admit. We are inclined to think Rickman’s estimate for the beginning of the century is altogether too great, as it would not allow an increase of more than 30,000 during the whole century, which is by no means commensurate with the great increase of the buildings during the period. In 1801 the population was found by actual enumeration to be 158,210 ; in 1811, 162,085 ; in 1821, 182,085 ; and in 1831, 202,080.

The municipal government of Westminster was, until the Reformation, in the hands of the abbot and monks of St. Peter’s Abbey. It was afterwards in the hands of the bishop, then of the dean and chapter, till 1585, when an act was passed for regulating it. The dean and chapter now appoint a high steward, who holds his office, except in case of malversation, for life. The high steward appoints a deputy, who is confirmed by the dean and chapter, and who presides at the court leet and at the quarter-sessions. The dean appoints a high constable, who is confirmed in office by the high steward, and is returning-officer at the election of members of parliament. He summons juries, and sits next to the deputy steward in court. The petty constables are chosen at the court leet. Sixteen burgesses, and as many assistants, are nominated by the high steward or his deputy, from the householders of the several districts into which the city has been divided ; but their duties are now chiefly confined to attending the court leet. Quarter-sessions are held at the Westminster Guildhall, near the Abbey, by justices of the peace, with the deputy steward as chairman : a court leet is held for the election of constables, preventing or removing nuisances, &c.

There are several police-offices and courts of requests within the city. A court of record for the liberty of the duchy of Lancaster is held at Somerset House. Westminster has returned two members to Parliament since the lst year of Edward VI. Its elections during the latter part of the last century and during the present have, from the extent of the constituency and the vigour of the struggle, usually excited great attention. The number of voters in 1835-6 was 15,695 ; in 1839-40 it was 14,254, showing a decrease in four years of 1,441.