This is a large open space close to Barbican that sits on top of a large 14th-century plague pit, and since then although everywhere around has been developed, the plague pit has never been built on. But it does have snakes in it.
The plague pit was dug outside the boundaries of the City of London, and was the largest mass grave in London during the Black Death. During the plague, tens of thousands of bodies were buried in it. A few decades after the burials ceased, a large Carthusian monastery was built on the northern side of the plague pit, and the area gained its name from the common name of the monasteries, La Grande Chartreuse, which is anglicised as Charterhouse.
Although initially built outside the city walls, in the countryside, the expanding city quickly surrounded the site on the remaining three sides. It’s shown as Charterhouse Yard in the 1670s as an open space with a line of trees running through the middle. A century later, it has two rows of trees, pretty much aligned as they are today.
The monastery was closed as part of King Henry VIII’s dissolution, and after being sold for use as a mansion house, was given to a school and almshouse. The almshouse is still functioning there, and they recently opened a museum on the site.
The area around the square away from the former monastery has seen a lot of changes over the centuries though.
Most notable is on the eastern side where the art-deco Florin Court was built in 1936 on the site of a manor house originally owned by the Marquess of Dorchester, and is one of the earliest purpose built blocks of residential flats in the area. Florin Court was used as the fictional residence of Hercule Poirot, Whitehaven Mansions, in the 1980s TV series Agatha Christie’s Poirot.
The south side is mainly lined with a row of warehouses that have since been turned into offices, and the western side is a recently refurbished office block that was originally built in phases between 1956-62, on a site that had been cleared by WW2.
The square — actually a pentagonal space, but who’s quibbling about a square having five sides — seems to have been open until around 1715, when the local residents around the square agreed to enclose it with a wooden fence and gates. In 1742, they secured an Act of Parliament for a much larger enclosure work to take place, and a board of trustees set up to look after the square.
The preamble to the 1742 Act recorded that the wooden fencing that used to enclose Charterhouse Square had fallen into decay and that the Square was liable to be frequented by “common Beggars, Vagabonds, and other disorderly Persons, for the Exercise of their idle Diversions, and other unwarrantable Purposes, so as to be unfit for the Habitation of Persons of Character and Condition”. The preamble also recorded that the cleaning, watching and paving of the Square had been greatly neglected. Accordingly, the owners and residents had agreed that they should raise funds by way of rates to maintain the appearance of the Square.
That act was still in effect, but no longer active until it was repealed in 2013, as the collecting of rates and maintaining roads had long since been carried out by the local council.
Little else changed for a couple of centuries until 1825, when the brick wall was replaced with the iron railings which are now the dominant feature of the square. Not that these are the original railings though – these are from 1949-51 to replace ones that were removed in 1942 for the war effort.
There are several gates into the pocket park, flanked on three of them by gas lamps, although some of those were repositioned in 2016 when the park was refurbished after it was used by the Crossrail project to dig a shaft down to the railway tunnels that now run deep under the park. It was the Crossrail excavations that uncovered the plague pit.
Apart from the gas lamps, something else that’s charming about the park, and often overlooked, are the benches to sit on. Look closely, for the ironwork is in the shape of snakes!
There’s also a crest on the front of the benches, which is the coat of arms of the Carthusian order. The crest is a globe surmounted by a cross, with seven stars above the cross, representing St Bruno and his six companions who formed the first Carthusian family.
In the corner of the park is a covered pavilion which was also added in 2016, with a gas lantern above a wooden block highlighting the history of the square and the monastery. I quite like the fact that although the pavilion is relatively new, they still installed an old fashioned gas lantern inside it.
Apart from when the local school ends, the square is often fairly quiet, which I put down to its relatively hidden location, which is familiar to locals, but being mainly on a side street, not that obvious to people just a hundred yards away.