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History of Lincoln's Inn Fields

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Lincoln’s Inn Fields 

Summarised from 'Lincoln's Inn Fields: Introduction', Survey of London: volume 3: St Giles-in-the-Fields, pt I: Lincoln's Inn Fields (1912)

Lincoln’s Inn Fields public square developed between 1629-38 from three fields: Cup Field to the east; Purse Field to the west, and Fickett's Field to the south.

It is thought that during the reign of Edward II, Cup Field was made up of 24 houses with 10 acres of arable land behind it, situated in the parish of St Giles on either side of the great turnstile (off modern day High Holborn). These lands passed into the possession of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem, Clerkenwell, in 1431 and a century later formed two fields, Cup Field and Conynger Field, the latter eventually becoming part of Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

The early life of Purse Field is uncertain. Its first mention is in the early 16th century as part of the holdings of the Hospital of St Giles and it is reasonable to infer it is the same field mentioned as part of the Hospital’s holdings during the reign of Henry III, between Holburn and Fickett’s Field.

From the time of Henry VIII the fields are easily traced though various deeds and at one point both fields are leased by local Inns, The Ship for Cup Field and The White Hart for Purse Field. By 1537, both of these fields had reverted to the Crown.

During the reign of Elizabeth the fields were pasture grounds in the hands of the Queen and on the 20th and 21st September 1586, Anthony Babington and his fellow conspirators were hanged, drawn and quartered in the fields, for plotting regicide.

It was not until the 17th century that Lincoln’s Inn Fields came under its first threat from property developers. On 24th March 1613, the lease of Purse Field was laid upon Sir Charles Cornwalliss who promptly applied for a license to build on the fields. However, the students of Lincoln’s Inn lodged an appeal and the license was refused. Proposals were soon put forward to stop any building happening in the future.

In 1617 the gentlemen of the Inns of Court presented a petition to James I suggesting the same thing be done to the fields outside of Lincoln’s Inn. This idea was largely ignored for a year until 1618 when a commission was put in place, with Inigo Jones, the surveyor general, at the head:

"to inquire accordinglie of all other nuisances, inconveniences and annoyances whatsoever whereby the ayre in those partes now is or in tyme may be corrupted or made unwholesome, and the same to demolishe pull downe and reforme"

so that

"the said closes and groundes commonlie called Lincolnes Inn Feildes according to [their] wisdomes and discrecions may be framed and reduced both for sweetnes, unformitie and comlines”

- Patent Roll James I

Unfortunately the commission was a failure and over the coming years, the attitude toward the fields completely changed. In 1629, William Newton acquired the lease of Cup Field and in 1638 purchased the lease of Purse Field. Soon after this purchase, he applied to build 32 houses on the land, pointing out that in simple terms the monarchy would make more money in taxes.

On the 5th June 1639, the lawyers made an official complaint stating that any building on the fields would annoy them “with offensive and unhealthy savours” (Black Books of Lincoln's Inn, II., p. 347.), and the subsequent noise would distract them from their studies. Unfortunately, a license had already been issued for Newton to build 32 houses, which he started straight away. He built a few houses himself but also let out the land in plots.

In 1639 an agreement between Newton and the lawyers was reached, whereby:

“the square peece of ground extendinge from Turne Style Lane to the new buildings neere Queene's Streete, and from thence to or neere Lowche's Buildings, and from thence to the south-east corner of Lyncolnis Inn wall, shall from thence fourtwith and for ever hereafter lye open and unbuilt." - Black Books of Lincoln's Inn, II., p. 351.

However, by 1657 three sides of Cup Field had been built on and by 1659 a small gap towards the northwest end of Lincoln’s Inn Fields was filled up thus completing the building in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The three sides were known as: North Range - Newmans Row (hence Holburn Row and Turnstile Row); the west as Arch Row; and the south as Portugal Row, possibly because the Portuguese embassy once had residence there.

In 1666, on the occasion of the Great Fire, Lincoln's Inn Fields was one of the four places set apart for the deposit of people's goods under the protection of the trained bands.

In 1683 the Fields were the scene of one of the saddest incidents of Charles II's reign. Lord William Russell, was in that year accused of complicity in the Rye House Plot (the plan to assassinate Charles II), found guilty, and in spite of the strongest efforts on many sides to save his life, was beheaded in Lincoln's Inn Fields on 21st July.

Five years later, the fields were involved in the anti-Catholic uprisings of the time on the destruction of the Franciscan Monastery attached to No. 54 Lincoln's Inn Fields; the papal emblems were collected, taken outside and burnt.

Further anti-catholic incidents occurred in 1780 when a group of protesters against the Catholic Relief Act (1778) broke into the House of Commons. They then continued as a mob through the streets of London and destroyed any Roman Catholic churches and chapels in their path, including the Sardinian Embassy at No. 53 – 54 Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

In the preamble to the House of Commons’ Lincoln’s Inn Fields Bill of 1735, there were more complaints about the state of the fields:

"the great Square, now called Lincoln's Inn Fields … hath for some Years past lain waste and in great Disorder, whereby the same has become a Receptacle for Rubbish, Dirt and Nastiness of all Sorts … but also for Want of proper Fences to enclose the same great Mischiefs have happened to many of His Majesty's Subjects going about their lawful Occasions, several of whom have been killed, and others maimed and hurt, by Horses which have been from Time to Time aired and rode in the said Fields; and by reason of the said Fields being kept open many wicked and disorderly Persons have frequented and met together therein, using unlawful Sports and Games, and drawing in and enticing young Persons into Gaming, Idleness and other vicious Courses; and Vagabonds, common Beggars, and other disorderly Persons resort therein, where many Robberies, Assaults, Outrages and Enormities have been and continually are committed."

The purpose of the Act was to finally get the fields tidied up and enclosed; the inhabitants and proprietors of the houses in the fields came to an agreement among themselves to take in hand the proper enclosing, laying out and maintenance of the central portion.

On 2nd June, 1735, in accordance with the provisions of the Act, the inhabitants, met and elected 21 trustees. On the same day the trustees held their first meeting, and resolved to advertise at once for tenders for enclosing and adorning the Fields, and to warn, through the columns of the Daily Advertiser, all persons from riding horses or laying rubbish in the Fields

In the early part of the 19th century the garden was re-arranged practically on its present plan.

By the late 19th century almost all the properties surrounding the Fields had been converted into offices. These businesses retained access to the Fields. A public campaign began to bring the Fields into public ownership in order to restore public access. In 1894 the London County Council acquired a lease from the trustees for the Fields lasting until 2555. This lease has been transferred to each new authority and became the responsibility of the London Borough of Camden on its creation in 1971.

View of the bandstand 1895

View of the bandstand 1895

More dramatic changes were wrought in the appearance of the gardens during World War II. The railings around the Fields were removed as part of the munitions effort. In 1940 an underground tank for emergency water supplies was constructed and subsequently an underground air raid shelter (Palmer: 2007). It is unknown in what area these features now lie.

By the late 1980's the Fields had become a refuge for a large number of homeless people who slept rough in the gardens. The problem became increasingly pronounced, as did the attendant infestation of rats attracted by the detritus caused by the activities of soup kitchens. The Lincoln’s Inn Fields Association, a group comprised of representatives from offices surrounding the Fields began to request that the Council enforce the "No Camping" byelaw and remove the homeless people.

This was finally carried out in 1992 when temporary fencing was erected to prevent more people from camping in the Fields. When the last homeless person left, the temporary fencing was completed and the Fields were closed. New decorative railings were erected, with the assistance of the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Association, and the Fields were eventually reopened to the public in 1993.

Page last updated Sep 7, 2011 4:58 PM

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