Victorian London - Entertainment and Recreation - Parks, Commons and Heaths - St James's Park

In the forenoon it is interesting to observe the trains of children led by charming maidens of rigid deportment to the banks of the ornamental waters of St. James's Park. The lovely charges are left there to feed the downy swans, whilst their blooming conductors indulge in simpering conversations with downy "noblemen in disguise" who have been metamorphosed into very seedy apparel and magnificent tips. Upon the chairs intended for sitting on you can recline for the small charge of one penny; but if you want to rest your legs, it is twopence; if your arms also, three-pence. In short, the price is a penny for chairing each member.

Punch, Jan.-Jun. 1842

St. James's Park was, in the reign of Henry VIII, little better than a morass; but that prince, on his building St. James's Palace, inclosed it, and laid it out in walks. It was afterwards much enlarged and improved by order of Charles II., under the direction of Le Notre, who planted it with rows of lime trees, laid out the Mall, which is half a mile long, and formed a canal in the centre of 2800 feet in length, and 100 feet in width. The rebuilding of Buckingham Palace in 1828 led to an entire remodelling of St. James's Park, when the interior, which previously presented the appearance of a common field, was converted into a beautiful pleasure ground, formed into walks interspersed with shrubberies tastefully disposed; the long straight canal was at the same time transformed into a sheet of ornamental water, with the addition of an island at its western, and a peninsula at its eastern extremity, both crowned with plantations. On the northern side a vast alteration took place upon the demolition of Carlton House and its appurtenances, and the formation on its site of the stately terraces and enclosures that, under the name of Carl ton Gardens, now exhibits one of the finest features of the metropolis. Upon the south side, the Bird Cage Walk, hitherto reserved exclusively for royalty, was converted into a road, rendered a thoroughfare for carriages at all hours during the sitting of Parliament; and in addition the Wellington Barracks and a chapel for the military have since been erected. On the extensive plot of ground between the east end of the enclosure and the Horse Guards the foot-guards parade daily in the summer season between ten and eleven o'clock; and a full band of music renders this an attractive spectacle. Here are two large pieces of ordnance which were thus placed at different periods of the late war, in commemoration of the splendid victories gained by the British soldiers in different parts of the world. One is a Turkish cannon of great length, brought from Alexandria in Egypt, and having on it various impressions emblematical of that country: the carriage which is of English construction, is ornamented by appropriate devices. The other is an immense mortar, which was employed by Marshal Soult at the siege of Cadiz, and left behind on the retreat of the French army after the battle at Salamanca: it was cast at Seville; and the Spanish Regency presented it to the Prince Regent, with a request that it might be placed in one of the royal parks.

Mogg's New Picture of London and Visitor's Guide to it Sights, 1844

JAMES (ST.) PARK. A part of eighty-seven acres (shaped not unlike a boy's kite), originally appertaining to the Palace of St. James's ... A temporary Bridge surmounted by a Chinese Pagoda, erected across the Canal for a display of fireworks on the occasion of the arrival of the allied sovereigns in 1814, was taken down in 1825. Observe.- Fronting the Horse Guards, the mortar cast at Seville, by order of Napoleon, employed by Soult at Cadiz, and left behind in the retreat of the French army after the battle of Salamanca. It was presented to the Prince Regent by the Spanish government. I have been informed by an officer of the Royal Engineers (often fired upon by this very mortar) that the heaviest shell it carried weighed about 108lbs. and that its extreme range was 6200 yards. The same officer added, that he had seen a shell from this piece of ordnance range into Cadiz, when the whole of that splendid square, the Plaza de San Antonio, was crowded with the rank and fashion of the place, and fall most accurately in the centre of the square without injuring a single individual. The ducks in the Park belong to the Ornithological Society. In January 1846, the collection contained upwards of three hundred birds, including twenty-one species and fifty-one distinct varieties. The Park was lighted with gas in 1822; and the Wellington Barracks in the Birdcage-walk erected in 1834. 

Peter Cunningham, Hand-Book of London, 1850

    The windows of almost all the club-houses in Pall Mall have the most charming views on St. James's Park. It is the smallest of all the parks; but it is a perfect jewel amidst the splendid buildings which surround it on all sides. On its glassy lake fine shrubs, and beeches, and ash-trees on the banks throw their trembling shadows; tame water-fowl of every description swim on it or waddle on the green sward near, and eat the crumbs which the children have brought for them. The paths are skirted with flower-beds, with luxurious grass-plots behind them; and on sunny days these grass-plots are crowded with - happy children, who prefer this park to all others, for the water-birds are such grateful guests, and look so amiable and stupid, and are so fond of biscuits, and never bite any one. And the sheep, too, are altogether different from all other sheep in the world; they are so tame and fat, and never think of running away when a good child pats their backs, and gives them some bread to eat. And there are green boats, and for one penny they take you over to the other side; and the water, too, is green, much greener than the boat; and there is no danger of horses and carriages, and children may run and jump about without let or hindrance, and - there are such numbers of children too. in short, there is no saying how much pleasure the London children take in St. James's Park.
    On the Continent, too, there are parks; they are larger, and are taken more care off, and by far more ornamental than the London parks. But all strangers who come to London must find that their imperial and royal palace gardens at home, with all their waterworks, and Chinese pagodas, Greek temples, and - artificial romanticisms, do not make anything like that cheerful, - refreshing, tranquillising, and yet exciting impression which the parks of England produce. It is certainly not the climate which works this miracle, nor is it a peculiarity of the soil, for fine meadow-land there is in plenty on the banks of the Rhine and the Danube. The English alone know how to handle Nature, so that it remains nature; they alone can here and there take off a tree, and in another place add some shrubs, without, therefore, forcing vegetation into the narrow sphere of arbitrary and artificial laws. Our great gardens at home want wide open grassplots; where such are, the shrubs and plantations encroach upon them; none are allowed to leave the paths and walk over the grass, and the public are confined to, and crowded on, the sand-covered paths, whence they may look at the clumps of trees, and the narrow empty clearances between them. On such spots in England you find the most splendid cattle; children are playing there, and men and women come and go, giving life, movement, and colouring to the landscape; and, since parks are but imitations of nature, life, movement, and colour are absolutely necessary to them. 
    This life on the green sward in the very heart of the metropolis gives the parks a rural and idyllic aspect; while, on the other hand, it suggested the saying, that all England gives one the idea of a large park.

Max Schlesinger, Saunterings in and about London, 1853

ST. JAMES'S PARK. St. James's Park (ninety-one acres) lies between Parliament Street and Buckingham Palace. It anciently belonged to St. James's Palace; was first enclosed by Henry VIII.; much improved by Charles II., who daily resorted to it; and finally reduced into its present form by George IV. The north side is called the Mall from a game once popular, and the south side, Birdcage Walk. "Milton lived in a house in Petty France, with a garden reaching into the Birdcage Walk; Nell Gwynne, in Pall Mall; and Lord Chancellor Jefferies, in the large brick house north of Storey's Gate. St. James's Park was, till the time of Charles II, little more than a grass park; he threw the several ponds (Rosamond's pond excepted) into one artificial canal, built a decoy for ducks, a small ring-fence for deer, planted trees in even ranks, and introduced broad - gravel-walks in place of narrow and winding footpaths. Charles I., attended by Bishop Juxon and a regiment of foot, walked, Jan. 30th, 1649, through this Park from St. James's Palace to the scaffold at Whitehall. He is said on his way to have pointed out a tree near Spring Gardens as planted by his brother, Prince Henry. Here Cromwell took Whitelocke aside, and sounded the Memorialist on the subject of a King Oliver. Some of the trees in this Park, planted and watered by King Charles II himself, were acorns from the royal oak at Boscobel; none, however, are now to be seen. St. Evremont, a French epicurean wit, was keeper of the ducks in St. James's Park in the reign of Charles II." -Cunningham.
The rare aquatic birds which disport themselves in the "Ornamental Water," and incubate in its pleasant wooded islets, are the property of the Ornithological Society. To nursemaids and their youthful charges they are as great an attraction as their predecessors were to the "merry monarch."
    The long line of lofty houses which fences - in the Pall Mall side of the Park is called Carlton House Terrace, and occupies the site of the ill-famed palace of George IV., the Carlton House of the gamblers, beaux, wits, demireps, and courtiers of the Regency. Marlborough House (see p. 53) is the intended residence of the Prince of Wales; St. James's Palace, the scene of the royal Levees and Drawing. Rooms.
    The Gardens (open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. in summer, and 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. in winter), one of the pleasantest Arcadys in the Metropolis, were laid out by Regent Street Nash, in the reign of  George IV. In 1857, a suspension bridge for foot-passengers was thrown across the lake, to the infinite comfort and delectation of the frequenters of the Park, who had been previously compelled to effect a wearisome circumambulation. The lake, at the same time, was cleared out, and the depth of water reduced to 4 feet. 
    The Horse Guards Parade, where the Guards are "trooped" every morning, is ornamented with a large mortar, taken at the siege of Cadiz, and presented to the king of England by the Spanish Government; and a Turkish cannon, brought from Alexandria by the English, and mounted on a carriage of English manufacture.
Constitution Hill skirts the western side of the Green Park, and connects St. James's with Hyde Park. Here Sir Robert Peel was fatally injured by a fall from his horse, 1860; and here, on three occasions, the Queen has been molested by the ill-directed pistols of silly wretches, whose wild passion for a wicked notoriety had degraded them into imbecility.

Cruchley's London in 1865 : A Handbook for Strangers, 1865

    As we take our lounge in the afternoon it is necessary to put on quite a different mental mood as we pass from one Park to another. We pass at once from turmoil into comparative repose as we enter the guarded enclosure encircled on all sides by a wilderness of brick and mortar. You feel quite at ease in that vast palatial garden of St. James. Your office coat may serve in St. James's, but your adorn yourself with all adornments for Hyde Park. You go leisurely along, having adjusted your watch by the Horse Guards, looking at the soldiers, and the nurses, and the children, glancing at the island, and looking at the ducks---the dainty, overfed ducks---suggesting all sorts of ornithological lore, not to mention low materialistic associations of green peas or sage and onions. Those dissipated London ducks lay their heads under their wings and go to roost at quite fashionable hours, that would astonish their primitive country brethren. I hope you like to feed ducks, my friends. All great, good-natured people have a "sneaking kindness" for feeding ducks. There is a most learned and sagacious bishop who won't often show himself to human bipeds, but he may be observed by them in his grounds feeding ducks while philosophising on things in general, and the University Tests in particular. Then what crowded reminiscences we might have of St. James's Park and of the Mall---of sovereigns and ministers, couriers and fops, lords and ladies, philosophers and thinkers! By this sheet of water, or rather by the pond that then was a favorite resort for intending suicides, Charles II would play with his dogs or dawdle with his mistresses; feeding the ducks here one memorable morning when the stupendous revelation of a Popish plot was made to his incredulous ears; or looking grimly towards the Banqueting Hall where his father perished, when the debate on the Exclusion Bill was running fiercely high. But the reminiscences are endless which belong to St. James's Park. Only a few years ago there was the private entrance which Judge Jeffreys used to have by special licence into the Park, but now it has been done away. There were all kinds of superstitions floating about in the uninformed Westminster mind about Judge Jeffreys. What Sydney Smith said in joke to the poaching lad, "that he had a private gallows," was believed by the Westmonasterians to be real earnest about Jeffreys---that he used after dinner to seize hold of any individual to whom he might take a fancy and hang him up in front of his house for his own personal delectation. I am now reconciled to the bridge that is thrown midway across, although it certainly limits the expanse of the ornamental water. But standing on the ornamental bridge, and looking both westward and eastward, I know of hardly anything comparable to that view. That green neat lawn and noble timber, and beyond the dense foliage the grey towers of the Abbey, and the gold of those Houses of Parliament, which, despite captious criticism, will always be regarded as the most splendid examples of the architecture of the great Victorian era, and close at hand the paths and the parterres, cause the majesty and greatness of England to blend with this beautiful oasis islanded between the deserts of Westminster and Pimlico. Looking westward, too, towards Buckingham Palace---the palace, despite exaggerated hostile criticism, is at least exquisitely proportioned; but then one is sorry to hear about the Palace that the soldiers are so ill stowed away there; and the Queen does not like it; and the Hanoverian animal pecularly abounds. We recollect that once when her Majesty was ill, a servant ran out of the palace to charter a cab and go for the doctor, because those responsible for the household had not made better arrangements. In enumerating the Parks of London, we ought not to forget the Queen's private garden of Buckingham Palace, hardly less than the Green Park in extent, and so belonging to the system of the lungs of London.

for the rest of this book, click here 

W.S.Gilbert, London Characters and the Humorous Side of London Life, 1870?

ENGLISH PARK SCENERY.—The things which please me most are the trees. Every day, after leaving the Athenaeum, I go and sit for an hour in St. James’s Park; the lake shines softly beneath its misty covering, while the dense foliage bends over the still waters. The rounded trees, the great green domes, make a kind of architecture far more delicate than the other. The eye reposes itself upon these softened forms, upon these subdued tones. These are beauties, but tender and touching, those of foggy countries, of Holland. Yesterday, at eight o’clock in the evening, although the weather was fine, everything seen from the suspension-bridge appeared vapoury; the last rays disappeared in whitish smoke ; on the right, the remains of redness ; over the Thames, and in the rest of sky, a pale slate tint. There are tones like these in the land­scapes of Rembrandt, in the twilights of Van der Neer the subdued light, the air charged with vapour, the insensible and continuous changes of the vast exhalation which softens, imparts a bluish tint to, and dims the contours, the whole producing the impression of a great life, vague, diffused, and melancholy—the life of a humid country. 

The Leisure Hour, 29th June 1872
quoting the 'M.Taine's Notes on England'

St. James’s Park joins the southeast corner of the Green-park, and is little more than an enclosed garden, nearly half of which is occupied by a shallow piece of ornamental water, proably the safest for skating in London. The Mall, a broad walk planted with elms, limes, and planes, runs along the north side, and gets its name from the game formerly played there. On the east side is the parade-ground of the Horse Guards, where the guard is trooped daily at 11 a.m. One of the oddest sights in London is afforded by the colony of gingerbread and sweetstuff stalls in the north-east corner of the park, at the back of Carlton House-terrace. There is a large consumption of curds and whey, and of milk fresh from the cow, at these primitive restaurants, and the cows which are tethered to the stalls give an air of reality to the promises of their proprietors. NEAREST Railway Station, St. James’s-pk; Omnibus Route Regent-street, Parliament-street, and Victoria-street.

Charles Dickens (Jr.), Dickens's Dictionary of London, 1879

fresh milk on sale, from Old and New London, c.1880

see also Richard Rowe in Life in the London Streets - click here

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Thomas Crane & Ellen Houghton, London Town, 1883

ST. JAMES'S PARK ... Pleasantly diversified with forest trees, fine shrubs, and lake on which are boats for hire. Open free.

Reynolds' Shilling Coloured Map of London, 1895

Victorian London - Publications - History - The Queen's London : a Pictorial and Descriptive Record of the Streets, Buildings, Parks and Scenery of the Great Metropolis, 1896 - The Foreign and India Offices, from St. James's Park

Foreign and India Office - photograph


The stately pile of public buildings which comprises the Foreign, India, Colonial, and Home Offices, with those of the Local Government Board, is seen to much better advantage from St. James's Park than from Whitehall. It was designed by Sir Gilbert Scott, in the Italian style, cost half a million of money, and was erected during the five years ended 1873. None of the many "lungs " that London can boast is superior in beauty to St. James's Park, and that part of the lake which is shown in our foreground is particularly interesting, for it is reserved as an asylum for the Ornithological Society's collection of water birds. The trees to the right are on Duck Island, where the birds have their nests.

Victorian London - Publications - History - The Queen's London : a Pictorial and Descriptive Record of the Streets, Buildings, Parks and Scenery of the Great Metropolis, 1896 - The Lake, St. James's Park

St. James's Park - photograph


St. James's Park is the prettiest of all the London parks, and its attractions have by no means lessened since the days when it was a favourite resort of the Merry Monarch and his Court. The "canal," as the water was once called, underwent considerable change in the time of Pepys, who refers to the fact in his Diary, and says that here for the first time in his life he saw skating. In 1827-9 the Lake was altered into its present form, and now has a uniform depth of from 3 to 4 feet. One of the chief attractions of the Park is the Ornithological Society's fine collection of water fowl. Across the Lake and the broad space known as the Parade, the horse Guards appears in our view, with the National Liberal Club group of buildings as a dim background.

Victorian London - Publications - History - The Queen's London : a Pictorial and Descriptive Record of the Streets, Buildings, Parks and Scenery of the Great Metropolis, 1896 - Buckingham Palace, from St. James's Park

Buckingham Palace, from St. James's Park - photograph


From this point of view is seen the principal façade of Queen Victoria's London residence - that part of Buckingham Palace which faces the east. This side of the huge quadrangle is 360 feet long, and was added in 1846 by Blore, Parliament voting £150,000 for the purpose. The style is German, of the last century, and the architect wisely made no attempt to harmonise the new front with the older parts, built by Nash in the reign of George IV. Formerly there stood here the mansion of the Duke of Buckingham - hence the name; this was bought by George III., and rebuilt by his successor. Before the present front was erected, the Marble Arch served as the gateway to the Palace, which was unoccupied for some years before Her Majesty began to reside here. The rooms on the north side are those used by the Queen.