“The elegant, the prosperous, the polite Tyburnia, the most respectable district of the habitable globe” - William Makepeace Thackeray
Thackeray’s quote is certainly true of the genteel neighbourhood St John’s church finds itself in today, but the reputation of this area was not always so civilised.
Tyburnia, named after the stream, Tyburn, which divided two manors, Ebury and Westminster. The notorious Tyburn Tree was, for centuries, London’s chief site of public executions and hangings. The ‘tree’ was actually a gallows (big enough to hang 23 people simultaneously) set along the old Roman Road outside the city. The condemned, whether guilty or not, were transported by cart, usually on Mondays, to their execution. For many, observing this progress from Newgate Prison to its dramatic finale was the great entertainment of the week and it attracted huge crowds. Burying the dead was profitable for the churchwardens of Paddington in the late 17th and 18th centuries, but before that, remains were buried directly beneath the scaffold to be unearthed as the area came to be built up. Hangings were curtailed at the site in 1783, when they were moved to Newgate Prison grounds. The supposed site is now a traffic island at the end of Edgware Rd, where a stone has been laid, though some say it was where Marble Arch now stands.
The Shrine at Tyburn Convent on Bayswater Road commemorates the Catholic martyrs who died on the gallows during the reformation. It was founded by Mother Marie Adele Garnier in 1901, after she fled from France following a change in law against religious orders. The Convent is now visited by pilgrims from all over the world and is home to the Tyburn Nuns -- the Benedictine Adorers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus of Montmartre.
With its proximity to the city, when the gallows went in the 18th century, the continuing expansion of London naturally extended into the land owned by the Bishop of London. Keen to attract wealthy and titled tenants, his development came to be known as the Paddington Estate. Until then, Paddington had only been a little village on the roman road Northwards, Watling Street now known as the Edgware Road. Though the Paddington Estate developed at a somewhat slower pace than that of Marylebone on the other side of the Edgware Road, by 1804 plans had been drawn up in a very grand style by the architect Samuel Pepys Cockerell, who also drew the first plans for St John the Evangelist. In 1807, about twenty years after the gallows had gone, the first building contract was agreed and Connaught Place began to go up almost at once. Prince William Frederick, the Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh and Earl of Connaught, built number 1 for his brother-in-law, the Duke of Sussex. The Duke then built the remaining houses in Connaught Place. Princess Caroline of Ansbach, the Princess of Wales, lived at number 7 and her daughter, Princess Charlotte, ran away from home to seek refuge there. It was around this time the neighbourhood came to be known as Tyburnia and attracted many wealthy aristocrats and ‘mushroom millionaires’.
Many notable people have lived in the area. W.H. Smith, the eponymous bookseller, lived at Hyde Park Square and was Churchwarden between 1871 and 1875. Percy Dearmer (1867-1936), an Anglican priest, lifelong socialist and advocate of social justice lived for a period near Sussex Gardens. He was the author of The Parson’s Handbook, a guide to the general principles of ritual and ceremony emphasizing art and beauty in worship. Working with Robert Vaughn Williams as editor, he also published The English Hymnal in 1906 which is still in broad use today. William Makepeace Thackeray made his first London home with his mother in Albion Street. Walking the streets around St John’s today, you will see many blue plaques for other notable people who have lived in this area; Charles Boon, co-founder of the romance novel publisher Mills and Boon; Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Scout Movement; Enid Bagnold, playwright and author of National Velvet; Sir Douglas Bader, RAF fighter ace; Dr Marjorie Blackie, one of the founders of homeopathic medicine. Sir Winston Churchill, former Prime Minister, prolific author and artist lived and died at 28 Hyde Park Gate.
Building the fine stuccoed houses for the rich made slow progress, in contrast to the humbler area in the north that was much more rapid and industrial. While just outside the borders of the parish of St John’s, the Grand Junction canal opened in 1801, and the Great Western Railway terminus, opened in 1840, shaping the development of Paddington.
St Mary’s Hospital was founded next to Paddington Station in 1845, the last of the great voluntary hospitals and the birthplace of many of our parishioners, as well as the 2nd and 3rd in line to the throne. The hospital stands on a site which once formed the reservoir of the Grand Junction Waterworks and opened in 1850. It would become one of the pre-eminent medical schools in the country, with Roger Bannister, the 4-minute mile runner being one of the notable alumni. During the 1920s, Alexander Fleming’s bacteriology research resulted in the start of modern antibiotics with his discovery of penicillin, for which he was to win the Nobel Prize for Medicine (1945), and today the laboratory in which Fleming discovered and tested penicillin is preserved in St. Mary's as the Alexander Fleming Laboratory Museum.
By the 1870s, with all open land built upon, the parishioners of St John’s were considered to be wealthy, but with small pockets of poverty in the mews, and alongside the canal buildings. At the turn of the century, Paddington was one of the most densely populated areas of London. Some rebuilding occurred, most noticeably along the Edgware Road during the 1920s and 30s, with flats built over shops, and the large Park West complex. Some houses became derelict; others were split into cheaper lodgings, or in the smarter areas into expensive flats.
In order to avoid the embarrassment of owning so much decaying housing, the Church Commissioners bought out the beneficial leasees in 1953 and quickly sold much of the estate or entered into partnerships with property companies. It was around this time that the name Hyde Park Estates was adopted, in an attempt to restore prestige.
The redevelopment of the area hit full stride in the 1960s when much of Tyburnia was knocked down. The demolition started with Hyde Park Square and included most of the area around St John’s. The expensive and high density flats built in place of the old decaying buildings proved popular and were quickly occupied. It was during this time that Cuthbert Scott arrived at St John’s, to sweep aside the cobwebs from the front door, and hold his first service - to his wife and his dog. During the 1970s, conservation became much more popular and the Conservation Acts helped prevent more extensive change to the area.
With thanks to British History Online for source information for this history, and particularlyA History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 9, Hampstead, Paddington. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1989.Timeline
- 1783 Gallows moved from Tyburn to Newgate
- 1795 Building Act
- 1807 Contract between Trustees of Paddington Estate and John Lewis. 1 Connaught Place built.
- 1807-1812 2-12 Connaught Place built
- After 1821 Connaught Square built
- Before 1855 1 & 2 Connaught Place merged to Arklow House
- 1826 Application to build chapel made to Ecclesiastical Commissioners
- 1829 Charles Fowler’s first design
- 26th January 1832 Bishop of London consecrates St John’s Chapel (aka Connaught Chapel)
- 1839-49 Felix Mendelssohn’s last tour of London, may have played organ at St John’s
- 1845 St James’s, Sussex Gardens built (new parish)
- 1845 All Saints Norfolk Square built (new chapelry)
- 1859 Vicar of Paddington dies. St John’s becomes a new parish.
- 1864 St Michael’s, Star Street built (new parish)
- WWII St Michael’s, Star Street destroyed by firebomb
- 1960s demolition and building of houses and apartment blocks around St John's Church