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25 June 2012

The regeneration of Hoxton Square

THE much loved public space of Hoxton Square began life in October 1683, when the Austen family leased the southern area of what was known as the Church Field – part of their Hoxton landholdings – to Samuel Blewitt and London ship owner and merchant Robert Hackshaw.

Blewitt and Hackshaw leased out smaller plots for building, and a new development of houses began to take shape where once there had been open fields. Completed in 1720, it was an early example of a residential square, and the first built in the new North-Eastern suburbs of London.

Such squares had recently become a feature of West London, and Hoxton, along with neighbouring Charles Square, was designed to emulate fashionable developments such as Golden and Soho squares.

The original houses would have been two-storeys high, but these were gradually replaced with larger buildings. By the early 1800s, the square’s former genteel status had already declined, Hoxton not having grown into the fashionable residential district its developers had hoped.

It was noted in 1838 that the ‘…grand houses are converted into schools and receptacles for lunatics, and its modern ones are of the second and third-rate…’

The oldest remaining house on the square is No 32. Until the 1990s, the frontage was covered with a cement render which had deteriorated badly and damaged the underlying brickwork.

Restoration work included adding an additional skin of traditional brickwork to bring the house back to a resemblance of its original appearance. Because of this, the building now projects one brick further out than its neighbours.

By the middle of the 1800s, the square had become the centre of the Shoreditch furniture trade, with most remaining front gardens built over for workshops. Industry and working class housing now prevailed over refined residential homes.

The building of St Monica’s Catholic Church in 1865 to serve the local poor Irish population reflected this change in status. Much of the north side of the Square was demolished to make way for the combined church, school and priory.

Residents passed management of the square to Shoreditch Vestry in the 1890s, a responsibility which continued after the 1901 creation of the Metropolitan Borough of Shoreditch, to which the central garden was leased by the Hoxton Square Trustees for a cost of £12 per annum.

The square’s gradual decline continued in the early 20th century, with novelist and historian Walter Besant describing its ‘ruinous broken pavement and many dilapidated houses’ as presenting ‘an intolerably dreary aspect’ in his ‘East London’ of 1903.

A number of factors led to the gradual decline of the Shoreditch furniture trade, but the Second World War had a major effect. Small and family firms were hit hard by staff leaving to fight, and many premises were bombed.

Following a general decline in industry and manufacturing after the war, mass production of goods moved out to the Lea Valley. Faced with competition from cheaper imports, smaller businesses such as those in Hoxton Square collapsed and properties became vacant.

Charity The Hoxton Trust was founded in 1982, to work with residents and businesses to protect the area’s past, improve its present and secure its future. It now works in partnership with the Council to manage the square.

The gardens were refurbished in the mid-1990s and again in 2011, with new planting and additional seating, along with re-laying of paths and restoration of the drinking fountain.

Regeneration during the early 1990s came from local developer Glasshouse Investments Ltd, which worked with the Urban Programme to refurbish buildings for use as artists’ studios. By 2004, the square was able to host the National Youth Theatre’s ‘Shakespeare in the Square’ event.

Today, the square is the focal point of Shoreditch’s fashionable cultural quarter and bustling night-time economy, with its central gardens a much-appreciated green space for residents, workers and visitors alike to draw breath within a busy and crowded area.

This article was compiled by staff from Hackney Archives service. For more info, visit: www.hackney.gov.uk/archives

North side of Hoxton Square in 1969

North side of Hoxton Square in 1969

North side of Hoxton Square in 1969 Today, Hoxton Square is at the forefront of Hackney fashion and culture

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