Two hundred years ago a huge plot of land was secured as an open park, by means of simply ploughing a deep ditch all around it.
This is Vincent Square, a 13 acre not-quite-square plot of land that’s the private playing fields for the pupils of Westminster School, right in the heart of central London. Westminster School predates the Norman Conquest as a charity school, although records only go back as far as the 14th century, and today is one of the more exclusive private schools in the UK.
The headmaster has long been a prominent position in society, and in 1802, the noted schoolar and theologian, William Vincent took up the role. He was a vocal critic of republicanism and gave a number of notorious speeches which were often reprinted for wider distribution.
Unfortunately for the Westminster School boys, he was also a strong beliver in corporal punishment and was well known for his bellow of Eloquere, puer, eloquere (Speak out boy!) on the classrooms.
In 1810, noting that the fields to the south of modern day Victoria Street, known as Tothill Fields were slowly being taken over by housing developments — the legend goes that he paid a farmer with a horse to plough a ditch around a large square in the marshland areas to secure it for the school before anyone else could claim it.
Although the legend is often written in such a way as to imply that he basically nicked the land, that’s highly unlikely, as we will see.
Tracing the owners, the whole area was once part of the Manor of Westminster, owned in the early 1200s by John Mansell, counsellor to King Henry III. It seems to have been little looked after though, being rather marshy, and over the centuries used more for training militia, plague burials and public entertainments.
Ownership may have passed to the Abbey at some point, as there are records showing that Churchwardens were covering the cost of maintaining the fields, such as in 1672 to repair a famous maze that stood in the area.
However, the churchwardens were struggling to prove ownership, and made repeated legal attempts, to no avail. Quite who did own the land is unclear, but the Abbey is clearly managing the fields.
In 1705, the churchwardens are first recorded as buying a plough to maintain the title of the parish, and it is they who first used the idea of enclosing portions of the land.
In 1808, the Dean (William Vincent) and Chapter took determined action to prove their ownership. In July 1808, a letter was written to the neighbouring parishes informing them of the Abbey’s intention to enclose the entirety of Tothill Field.
The famous ploughing of the deep ditches, which cost £3 to carry out, seems to have been more practical than anything else — to help drain the land, as it wasn’t until 1842 that iron railings were erected around the square.
The Builder magazine is reported to have written that in 1810 when the area was being developed, “Dr. Vincent had already inclosed a portion of the fields for the square which bears his name” – so quite when he did his deed is now unclear. And his motivation presumably predates the other developments.
Certainly by 1828 (Greenwood map), it shows up as a large square surrounded by part built housing. The square is described as the Play Ground for the Weftminster Scholars.
I think we can say that yes, the Dean did hire a farmer to plough a boundary around the Square, but that it was a carefully planned exercise with a lot of publicity, not just an uppity Dean nicking some land before the developers could get it.
Whatever the origins though, the land is still owned by the School, and still used by them.
To mark the 200th anniversary of its legendary formation, the Vincent Square Residents’ Association were granted planning permission for a large terracotta plaque to be erected on a building overlooking the square.
The plaque itself was designed by Karen Newman, and is based on a painting by Willam Owen, Court painter to the Prince Regent, and a preparatory drawing.
Ironically, the wall the plaque is on faces away from the square, although the angle of the portrait means he can just about see the square he is famed for creating.