Ten facts about Lincoln’s Inn Fields

  1. It was previously referred to as Ficket’s Fields and Whetstone’s Park and was considered very dangerous because of the high level of robberies
  2. The square may also have been known as Cup and Purse Field
  3. Queen Elizabeth I and then James I forbade the building of houses on top of Lincoln’s Inn Fields preserving it as a green space
  4. Then James I changed his mind and the famed architect Inigo Jones was allowed to design a public square
  5. The four sides of the square have distinct names: Newman’s Row, Arch Row, Portugal Row and Lincoln’s Inn Wall
  6. Lord William Russell was beheaded in the middle of Lincoln’s Inn Fields on 21st July, 1683 and Algernon Sidney later that same year
  7. In 1662, the Duke’s Theatre was opened on Portugal Street on the site of an old tennis court and was named after Charles II’s brother, James the Duke of York
  8. After barbers and surgeons became separate professions in 1745 (no, really, that happened), Barber-Surgeons Hall was abandoned with surgeons wanting their own headquarters in London. They chose Lincoln’s Inn Fields
  9. Being so close to Chancery Lane, several Lord Chancellors lived on the square
  10. After the Great Fire of London in 1666, recent archaeology (conducted by Channel Four’s Time Team) suggests that refugees fleeing their burned homes camped in the square. Remains of large tent pegs were discovered


“Laudaturque domus longos quæ prospicit agros.”—Horace.

Formation of Lincoln’s Inn Fields—Dimensions of the Square—Inigo Jones’s Plan—Noble Families resident here—The poet Gay’s estimate of the Place—”Mumpers” and “Rufflers”—Used as Training-grounds for Horses—Bad reputation of the Fields in Former Times—Execution of Lord William Russell—The Tennis Court—The Royal College of Surgeons—Sardinian Chapel—The Sardinian Ambassador’s Residence—The “Devil’s Gap”—Institution for the Remedy of Organic Defects, &c.—Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge—Newcastle House—The Soane Museum—Inns of Court Hotel—Whetstone Park—Milton’s Residence—Great and Little Turnstiles—Proposal to erect the Courts of Law in Lincoln’s Inx Fields.

This open space, which happily still serves to supply fresh air to the residents of the crowded courts of Drury Lane and Clare Market, affords in its central enclosure one of the largest and finest public gardens in London, and in point of antiquity is perhaps the oldest. In 1659, we find from Charles Knight’s “History of London,” James Cooper, Robert Henley, and Francis Finch, Esquires, and other owners of “certain parcels of ground in the fields, commonly called Lincoln’s Inn Fields, were exempted from all forfeitures and penalties which they might incur in regard to any new buildings they might erect on three sides of the same fields, previously to the 1st of October in that year, provided that they paid for the public service one year’s full value for every such house within one month of its erection; and provided that they should convey the ‘residue of the said fields’ to the Society of Lincoln’s Inn, for laying the same into walks for common use and benefit, whereby the annoyances which formerly have been in the same fields will be taken away, and passengers there for the future better secured.”

It has often been stated, and repeated until generally accepted as true, that the square of Lincoln’s Inn Fields was designedly laid out so as to be exactly of the size of the base of the Great Pyramid. “This,” remarks Horace Walpole, “would have been much admired in an age when the keep of Kenilworth Castle was erected in the form of a horse-fetter and the Escurial in the shape of St. Lawrence’s gridiron;” but a reference to Colonel Howard-Vyse’s work “On the Pyramids” will show that the fanciful idea is untrue, the Fields measuring 821 feet by 625, while the Great Pyramid covers a space of 764 feet square.

The “square” was formed in the seventeenth century by no less a person than Inigo Jones, to whom, along with other gentlemen and one or two members of the Court, a special commission was issued by James I., for the purpose of having the ground laid out and improved under his direction. Several of the houses on the west and south sides are of his design. “The expense of laying out the grounds,” as we learn from Northouck, “was levied on the surrounding parishes and Inns of Court.” The west side was originally known as Arch Row, the south as Portugal Row, and the north as Newman’s Row; but the names dropped out of use at the close of the last century.

The original plan for “laying out and planting” these fields, drawn by the hand of Inigo Jones, is still to be seen in Lord Pembroke’s collection at Wilton House. The chief feature in it is Lindsey (afterwards Ancaster) House, in the centre of the west side, now divided into two houses and cut up into chambers for lawyers. It is unchanged in all its external features, except that the balustrade along the front of the roof has lost the handsome vases with which it was formerly surmounted.

Among the noble families who lived in this spot was that of the Berties, Earls of Lindsey and afterwards Dukes of Ancaster; but they seem to have migrated to Chelsea in the reign of Charles II. In this square at various dates lived also the great Lord Somers; Digby, Earl of Bristol; Montague, Earl of Sandwich; the Countess of Middlesex, and the Duke of Newcastle; and in the present century Lords Kenyon and Erskine, Sir John Soane, and Mr. Spencer Percival. A century ago Lord Northington, Lord Chancellor, lived in a house on the south side of the square, on the site of the Royal College of Surgeons. At the birth of her first son, Charles Beauclerk, afterwards the great Duke of St. Albans, Nell Gwynne was living in lodgings in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, being up to that time regularly engaged at the theatre close by.

It is to be feared that although Lincoln’s Inn Fields is said to be the largest and handsomest square, not only in London, but in Europe, it has not borne a very good character in olden times. At all events Gay speaks of the Fields in his “Trivia” as the head-quarters of beggars by day and of robbers at night:—
“Where Lincoln’s Inn’s wide space is railed around,
Cross not with venturous step; there oft is found
The lurking thief, who, while the daylight shone,
Made the walls echo with his begging tone.
That crutch, which late compassion mov’d, shall wound
Thy bleeding head, and fell thee to the ground.
Though thou art tempted by the linkman’s call,
Yet trust him not along the lonely wall;
In the midway he’ll quench the flaming brand,
And share the booty with the pilfering band.”

Blount tells us, in his “Law Dictionary,” that he used to see idle fellows here playing at “the Wheel of Fortune;” and it is clear, from more than one contemporary allusion in popular comedies, that it was the regular haunt of cripples, with crutches, who lived by mendicancy, which they carried on in the most barefaced, if not intimidating, manner. Here, too, according to Peter Cunningham, “the astrologer Lilly, when a servant at Mr. Wright’s, at the corner house, over against Strand Bridge, spent his idle hours in ‘bowling,’ along with Wat the cobbler, Dick the blacksmith, and such-like.”

We occasionally find in the literature of the seventeenth century allusions to the “Mumpers” and “Rufflers” of Lincoln’s Inn Fields. These were, according to Mr. John Timbs, names given to troops of idle vagrants by whom the “Fields” were infested; and readers of the Spectator will hardly need to be reminded of “Scarecrow,” the beggar of that place, who, having disabled himself in his right leg, asks alms all day, in order to get a warm supper at night. The “Rufflers,” if we may accept the statement of the same authority, were “wretches who assumed the characters of maimed soldiers,” who had suffered in the battles of the Great Rebellion, and found a ready prey in the people of fashion and quality as they drove by.

The “railing” to which Gay alludes in his poem, it should be here remarked, was only a series of wooden posts and rails, the iron rails not having been put up until the year 1735, when the money for so enclosing and adorning the Fields was raised by a rate on the inhabitants. The plan of the railing, its gates, and its ornaments, was submitted to and approved by the Duke of Newcastle, the minister of George II., who was one of the residents of the square. We are told that before Lincoln’s Inn Fields were so railed in they were used as a training-ground by horse-breakers, and that many robberies were committed in its neighbourhood. And Ireland, in his “Inns of Court,” tells us a story which shows us that they were surrounded by a rough and lawless set of people: “Sir John Jekyll having been very active in bringing into Parliament a Bill to raise the price of gin, became very obnoxious to the poor, and, when walking one day in the Fields at the time of breaking the horses, the populace threw him down and trampled on him, from which his life was in great danger.”

Peter Cunningham, in his “Handbook of London,” tells another story which shows that the bad reputation of these Fields at the time of their enclosure was of more than half a century in standing: “Through these fields,” he writes, “in the reign of Charles II., Thomas Sadler, a wellknown thief, attended by his confederates, made his mock procession at night with the mace and purse of Lord Chancellor Finch, which they had stolen from the Lord Chancellor’s closet in Great Queen Street, and were carrying off to their lodging in Knightrider Street. One of the confederates walked before Sadler, with the mace of the Lord Chancellor exposed on his shoulder; while another, equally prominent, follows after him carrying the Chancellor’s purse. For this theft Sadler was executed at Tyburn.” And to go back a little further still. “Here,” he adds, “even in the place where they had used to meet and confer on their traitorous practices, were Ballard, Babington, and their accomplices beheaded, to the number of fourteen.” Here, too, in 1683, a far worthier man, whom it is almost a sin to mention in such company, Lord William Russell, laid his noble head on the block, Dr. Tillotson standing by his side. The reader of Burnet’s “Memoir of his Own Times,” will not forget his description of the scene of Lord William Russell’s execution in this square. He writes, “Tillotson and I went with him in the coach to the place of execution. Some of the crowd that filled the streets wept, while others insulted. He was singing psalms a great part of the way, and said he hoped to sing better ones soon. As he observed the great crowd of people all the way, he said to us, ‘I hope I shall quickly see a much better assembly.’ When he came to the scaffold, he walked about it four or five times; then he turned to the sheriffs and delivered his papers. … He prayed by himself, then Tillotson prayed with him. After that he prayed again by himself, then undressed himself, and laid his head on the block without the least change of countenance; and it was cut off at two strokes.” The death of this patriotic nobleman must for ever remain as a blot of deep dye on those who commanded his execution.

We learn incidentally that early in the last century Betterton and his company were playing at the “Tennis Court,” (fn. 1) in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, when it was first proposed to him by Vanbrugh and Congreve, as builder and writer, to join in starting a new theatre in the Haymarket.

On the south side of the square, the Hall of the Royal College of Surgeons is the principal ornament. The building was erected, or rather rebuilt, in 1835–6, under the superintendence of the late Sir Charles Barry. The College of Surgeons was chartered in the year 1800, since which time many valuable advantages have been conferred upon the society by the Legislature. The front of the hall consists of a noble portico, with fluted columns, whilst along the top of the edifice is a bold entablature, with enriched cornice. To the left of the entrance-hall are two or three spacious rooms for the use of the secretary and other officials, and on the right a doorway gives access to the museum, which forms perhaps the chief feature of the building. This occupies three large and lofty rooms, lighted from the top, and each surrounded by two galleries, in which are displayed, as well as in cases on the ground-floor, the valuable collection of objects of which the museum consists. The basis of this collection was originally formed by John Hunter, whose museum was situated in Leicester Square. It was purchased from his widow at his death, by the Government, for the sum of £15,000, and presented to the College of Surgeons. “The main object which he had in view in forming it,” says the writer of an admirable account of Hunter and his museum in the Penny Cyclopædia, was to illustrate, as far as possible, the whole subject of life by preparations of the bodies in which the phenomena are presented. The principal and most valuable part of the collection, forming the physiological series, consisted of dissections of the organs of plants and animals, classed according to their different vital functions, and in each arranged so as to present every variety of form, beginning from the most simple, and passing upwards to the most complex. They were disposed in two main divisions: the first, illustrative of the functions which minister to the necessities of the individual; the second, of those which provide for the continuance of the species. … The pathological part of the museum contained about 2,500 specimens, arranged in three principal departments: the first illustrating the processes of common diseases, and the actions of restoration; the second, the effects of specific diseases; and the third, the effects of various diseases, arranged according to their locality in the body. Appended to these was a collection of about 700 calculi and other inorganic concretions.” This, it may be added, has been considerably augmented by subsequent purchases, and also by gifts to the college; so that it may now be fairly said to form the richest collection of the kind in existence.

Among the objects of curiosity preserved here are the skeletons of several human beings and animals, which during the time of their existence had obtained some celebrity. Among them may be mentioned Jonathan Wild, the notorious thiefcatcher; Mlle. Crachani, a Sicilian dwarf, who at the age of ten years was just twenty inches high; Charles Byrne, or O’Brien, the Irish giant, who at his death measured eight feet four inches; and also the gigantic elephant “Chunee,” which was formerly exhibited on the stage at Covent Garden Theatre, and afterwards in the menagerie at Exeter Change, where, in 1824, “in consequence of the return of an annual paroxysm producing such ungovernable violence as to endanger the breaking down of the den,” its destruction caused so much sympathy at the time. Its death was effected by shooting, but not until the animal had received upwards of 100 musket and rifle shots. The skeleton of this animal is twelve feet four inches high.

In the first room of the museum is a very lifelike marble statue of John Hunter, the founder of the collection, by H. Weekes, Esq., R.A., erected by public subscription in 1864. The library of the institution is a noble room extending over the entrance-hall and adjoining offices, and contains a few portraits of eminent surgeons. The council room also has a few portraits hanging upon its walls, and also a cartoon of Holbein’s great picture of the “Grant of the Charter to the Barber-Surgeons,” of which the original is in the council room of the Barbers’ Company in Monkwell Street. The lectures to students, of which there are three courses during the year, take place in the theatre, a lofty but somewhat contracted-looking place, with wainscoted walls, crimson seats, and a square-panelled ceiling, in the centre of which is a lantern or skylight. The museum, it should be added, is not intended as a place of exhibition, but a place of study. Members of both Houses of Parliament, the dignitaries of the church and law, members of learned and scientific bodies, physicians, surgeons, &c., have not only the privilege of visiting it personally; but of introducing visitors.

On the western side of Lincoln’s Inn Fields, a little south of Lindsey House, is a heavy and gloomy archway (said, however, to be the work of Inigo Jones), which leads into Duke Street. On the south side of this, close to the archway, stands the Sardinian Chapel, the oldest Roman Catholic chapel in London. It was originally attached to the residence of the Sardinian Ambassador, and dates as a building from the year 1648. It is well known that during the reigns of the later Tudors and the Stuarts, the Roman Catholics in England were forbidden to hear mass, or have chapels of their own for the performance of their worship. They therefore resorted in large numbers to the chapels of the foreign ambassadors, where their attendance was at first connived at, and afterwards gradually tolerated and allowed. The ambassador’s residence stood in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and originally the only way into it lay through the house. In the Gordon Riots, in 1780, this house and the chapel were attacked and partially destroyed, as being the chief resort of the Roman Catholic nobility and gentry, and of the Bishop or Vicar Apostolic of the London district, who lived in a small house in seclusion in Castle Street, Holborn. After the suppression of the riots, the chapel was rebuilt and enlarged westwards, by adding to it the ground formerly occupied by the ambassador’s stables. During the first twenty years of the present century this chapel formed the centre of the Roman Catholic worship and of the charities of that Church; but it was superseded by the erection of St. Mary’s, Moorfields, in 1820, and subsequently by the erection of other Roman Catholic Churches in Islington, Clerkenwell, Soho, &c. It formerly had a fine choir, and still shows in its fine ecclesiastical plate and pictures some remains of its former importance. It has now gradually come to be a chapel for the Catholics of its immediate neighbourhood, many of whom are foreigners. A body of Franciscans, we are told, was established in connection with the Sardinian Chapel, near Lincoln’s Inn Fields, in the reign of James II.

As late as the reign of George II. there was on this side of the square an archway with a tenement attached to it, known in common parlance as “the Devil’s Gap.” It was taken down in 1756, in consequence of the dilapidated state into which it had fallen. Its last permanent tenant, some century before, as we learn from the London Gazette of that year, was an attorney or money-lender, Jonathan Crouch, a man who, in the days of Civil War, squeezed the life-blood out of his victims, regardless whether they were Puritans or Royalists. He over-reached himself in an effort to secure a rich and youthful heiress as a wife for his son; and his melancholy end in a death-struggle with the rival for the young lady’s hand forms one of the most sensational tales in Waters’ “Traditions of London.” The affair caused an intense excitement at the time, and it is said that the house, or rather den, of Crouch in the Devil’s Gap could never afterwards find a tenant for many a year.

On the same side of the square was, early in the present century, the “Institution for the Remedy of Organic Defects and Impediments of Speech,” established by Mr. Thelwall, who, having been in early life a somewhat revolutionary reformer, later turned his attention to philanthropy, and taught elocution with success. All remembrance, however, of the institution and its founder, has long since passed away.

At the northern end of the west side, at the corner of Great Queen Street, over the pathway of which one end of it is carried on arches, the visitor will be sure to note a large and handsome mansion which for the last half century has formed the headquarters of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. It was originally built by the Marquis of Powis (fn. 2) in 1686, no doubt on account of its nearness to the Sardinian Chapel, as the family were at that time Roman Catholics. It afterwards became the residence of the Duke of Newcastle, the Prime Minister of George II.’s reign, after whom it was called Newcastle House.

Nearly in the centre of the north side of the square stands the museum founded in 1837, by a bequest of Sir John Soane, and called after his name. The son of a common bricklayer in a Berkshire village, he rose into celebrity as an architect, and designed, among other buildings, the Bank of England, and most of the terraces in the Regent’s Park. He was also clerk of the works of St. James’s Palace, and architect generally to the Houses of Parliament, and other public buildings. He was subsequently elected Professor of Architecture to the Royal Academy. All his life long he had been a collector of books, statues, pictures, coins, medals, and other curiosities mostly antique, with which he stored the house where he lived and died. The museum, filled from top to bottom with a beautifully arranged collection of models of art in every phase and form, small as it is, may be said to be almost as useful to the art student as is the Louvre at Paris. And yet, standing in the centre of London, it is but little known, though open to the public gratuitously. It is open always to students in painting, sculpture, and architecture; and (on application) to the general public on every Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday in April, May, June, and on Wednesdays in February, March, July, and August. Professional and amateur students can obtain from the curator, or from any of the trustees, permission to copy any of the pictures and other works of art.

In 1833 Sir John Soane obtained an Act of Parliament for settling and preserving his museum, library, and works of art “for the benefit of the public, and for establishing a sufficient endowment for the due maintenance of the same.” The building may be distinguished from the others in the row in which it stands from the peculiar semiGothic style in which it is erected. Between the windows of the ground and of the first floor are fragments of Gothic corbels from ancient buildings, erected, probably, about the close of the twelfth century. Upon each side of the gallery of the second floor are copies in terra-cotta from the Caryatides in front of the Temple of Pandrosus, at Athens.

The walls of the entrance-hall are coloured to imitate porphyry, and decorated with casts in plaster after the antique, medallion reliefs, and other sculptures. The dining-room and library, which may be considered as one room, being separated only by two projecting piers formed into book-cases, is the first apartment entered. The ceiling is formed into compartments, enriched by paintings by the late Henry Howard, R.A. Over the chimney-piece is a portrait of Sir John Soane, painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence, in 1829, almost the last picture painted by that distinguished artist; and beneath this is a highly-finished model in plaster of the Board of Trade and Privy Council Offices, &c., at Whitehall, being a design for completing the buildings north and south of Downing Street, made by Sir John Soane in 1826. This room contains a large number of plaster models of ancient Greek and Roman buildings, such as the Parthenon, the Pantheon, and the Tower of the Winds; and there is also a large model in cork of part of the ancient city of Pompeii.

The next room contains a considerable collection of marble fragments of Greek and Roman sculpture, of antique bronzes, and some curious natural productions. In what is called the Monument Court, the walls of which are enriched with various fragments of ancient buildings and pieces of sculpture, is an architectural group about thirty feet high, comprising works of various forms and nations.

One of the principal apartments in the basement of the building is called the Sepulchral Chamber; and in the centre of it is the splendid ancient Egyptian sarcophagus discovered by the traveller Belzoni in 1817, in a royal tomb in a valley near Thebes. It was purchased by Sir John Soane for the sum of £2,000. The pictures are chiefly in the rooms on the first and second floors, and among them will be seen several by Hogarth, Turner, and Sir Charles Eastlake, and a large number of architectural designs by Sir John Soane himself.

Near the above building stands a palatial carcass, an incomplete edifice once designed to form part of the Inns of Court Hotel. Its appearance is thus graphically described by a writer in one of the illustrated newspapers:—”It is windowless, doorless, and the sky can be seen through the skeleton bones of its untiled roof. It is blackening from exposure to our grimy, smokeladen atmosphere; and, for all its bigness of form and solidity of structure, already declining and decaying like a phthisical youth without ever having reached maturity or consummation. It might be a haunted grange, to judge by its looks, if there can be haunting when there has never been inhabiting; or a typical ‘house in Chancery,’ reared by way of compliment to the presiding spirit of the situation. Submitted for public sale, this handsome yet deplorable shell has found no purchasers. It is the monument—after the manner of the broken columns emblematic of mortality, so frequently to be found in cemeteries—of a rage that once existed for monster hotels. The rage is gone—here are its ruins.”

Parallel to the northern side of the “Fields,” and lying between them and Holborn, is an almost untenanted row of houses or buildings, now chiefly turned into stables, but formerly dignified by the name of “Whetstone Park.” Two hundred years ago it was a place of very bad reputation, and was attacked by the London apprentices in 1602. The loose character of Whetstone Park and its inhabitants is a frequent subject of allusion in the plays of Dryden and Shadwell, and occasionally in Butler’s “Hudibras” and Ned Ward’s London Spy. But Whetstone Park is not without at least one distinguished inmate. At all events we read in Philips’s “Life of Milton” that the author of “Paradise Lost” “left his great house in Barbican, and betook himself to a smaller (in Holborn) among them that open backward into Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Here he lived a private life, still prosecuting his studies and curious search into knowledge.”

At each end of this park are narrow footentrances leading into Holborn, called the Great and Little Turnstiles, names which bear testimony to the former rurality of the spot, when turnstiles were put up to let pedestrians pass through, whilst they checked the straying of the cattle that fed there. Mr. John Timbs says that Turnstile Alley, when first built, was “designed as a change for the sale of Welsh flannels;” but afterwards both of these narrow thoroughfares became the homes and haunts of booksellers and publishers. One of these booksellers, Cartwright, was also known in his day as a player, and he left his plays and his pictures to Alleyn’s College, of “God’s Gift,” at Dulwich.

The new law buildings belonging to the Society of Lincoln’s Inn harmonise finely with the associations of the neighbourhood; and these, with the low wall of Lincoln’s Inn Gardens, occupy the eastern side of the square. Before speaking of these buildings, we may add that this fine open space was very nearly being lost to the public a few years since, for in 1843 the late Sir Charles Barry designed a magnificent structure for the New Courts of Law—which even then were in contemplation—to occupy the centre of Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Nearly two hundred years before, a question had been mooted whether it would not be possible to establish an Academy of Painting, the head-quarters of which should have covered the self-same spot. Happily Providence preserved the square on each occasion of danger.

It has always been a matter of complaint that the access to so noble a square on all sides should have been so wretched as it is. It has no direct street leading into it from either Holborn or the Strand, though at the north-east and north-west corners there are narrow footways, known as the Old and New Turnstiles. Indeed, access to it is to be had only from Long Acre, by way of Great Queen Street. Northouck, as far back as the year 1785, suggested that “the situation” of Covent Garden Market, with the indifferent state of the buildings between, furnished a hint for continuing Great Russell Street in a straight line uniformly to the south-west corner, instead of the narrow, irregular, and dirty avenue through Prince’s Street and Duke Street. But up to the end of the year of grace 1874 nothing has been done, though it is supposed that the erection of the New Law Courts may possibly expedite the formation of a new street or two in this direction. Such an improvement, it must be clear to the most casual observer, is far more necessary for the improvement of our metropolis than the demolition of Northumberland House.



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