Baber's Field


Note: This article includes material about some fields that were called Baber East and West Mead, which appear on maps in the 1650's under the present site of Bloomsbury and the British Museum in the centre of modern day London. Adjacent land became Russell and Tavistock Squares which were the foundation of much of the wealth of the Tavistock family,including the Duke of Bedford over the centuries following spectacular property deals in the 1680's to 1750ish. It is a pity it was sold to the Montagues. I don't know which Baber owned it.

Page 402 The Growth of Stuart London

In so much that this Place by Physicians is esteemed the most healthful of any in London." In the prints of Southampton House as late as 1746 the hills of Hampstead, Highgate and Islington are prominent features in the background, and the fields lie undeveloped. It was probably the heavy clay soil to the north of Bloomsbury that checked building until engineers had learnt to use iron pipes for water supplies and drainage purposes.

Strype writes further of Great Russell Street, which "takes its beginning at King's Street, and runs Westward into Tottenham Road being of a great length, and its Passage saluteth Southampton House, Montague House and Thanet House; all three the seats of Noblemen:

But for stateliness of Building and curious Gardens, Montague House hath the Pre-eminence, as indeed of all Houses within the Cities of London and Westminster, and the adjacent Parishes." Montague House was built about z676 by Mr. Hooke for Ralph Montague, third Baron Montague of Boughton, Master of the Great Wardrobe to Charles II. Evelyn visited it on 5 November 1679 and notes its French style, noble furniture and its "fine but too much exposed garden." Four years later Evelyn again went to see the "palace lately built by Lord Montague, who had married the most beautiful Countess of Northumberland. It is a stately and ample palace.

Signior Verrio's fresco paintings . . . exceed anything he has yet done . . . comparable to the greatest of the old masters. . . . The garden is large and in good aire, but the fronts of the house not answerable to the inside. The court at entrye, and wings for offices seeme too neere the street, and that so very narrow and rneanely built that the corridor is not in proportion to the rest, to hide the court from being overlook'd by neighbours, all of which might have ben pre-vented had they placed the house further into the ground, of which there was enough to spare."

In January 1686 the house was unfortunately burnt through the "negligence of a servant airing, as they call it, some of the goods by the fire in a moist season," as Evelyn tells us. Lady Rachel Russell who was living next door at Southampton House, watched the fire, and in a letter to a friend mentions that "it burnt with so great violence , the house was consumed by five o'clock."s There was danger that the fire might spread and Lady Rachel's boy complained of being almost suffocated with smoke, but recovered sufficiently to take "a

The Growth in Bloomsbury, Southwark and Stepney page 403

strange bedfellow very willingly, Lady Devonshire's youngest boy, whom his nurse had brought wrapped up in a blanket." The house was at once rebuilt on the same lines as before and there was a good drawing made of it in 1714. It was purchased forty years later for the reception of Sir Hans Sloane's collections, which formed the nucleus of the British Museum.

In a plan of part of the Manor of Bloomsburye drawn by John Daynes in 1664/5 there are several fields mentioned by name, all to the north of Great Russell Street: Long Field with an acreage of 2 5 acres , on the west Baber's Field, 31 acres, and farther west Night Field and Cowles Pasture, each less than 10 acres. On the south of Long Field was built Southampton House, and the plan of the garden as given in Daynes' plan exactly coincides with the plan in Strype's Survey fifty-five years later. On Baber's Field was built Montague House, but in neither case did the gardens cover the whole of the field. Montague House had 7 acres of garden out of the total of 31 acres.

On the land behind Southampton House were built some of the fortifications constructed to defend London during the Civil War, and these survived until Maitland published his History of London in 1754.

The fields were not developed for a great many years and were mainly used for farming. Behind Great Russell Street, at its West end, was Capper's Farm, established by Christopher Capper and subsequently kept by his two unmarried daughters, who have left traditions of spiteful conduct behind them; one who delighted in cutting the strings of boys who were flying their kites, and the other who confiscated the clothes of boys found bathing in their ponds. Here, too, were fields where duels were fought, especially the famous fight in which two brothers were said to have lost their lives as rivals for the same lady.

Tradition reported that the bank where the lady had sat to watch the duel and the foot marks of the brothers would never be covered with grass; and those who walked out to see the spot, by walking up and down helped to perpetuate the legend.

The pipes of the New River Company were built up on trestles, like a very inferior imitation of the aqueduct across the Roman Campagna, and watercress grew there in great abundance underneath the pipes for casual passers to pick.

In Great Russell Street lived Sir Christopher Wren in a house designed by himself, Sir Godfrey Kneller, who painted so many of the beauties of Charles II's Court, Sandford and Le Neve, well-known

Contributed by Nick Balmer
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