A large plaza in the heart of London’s Chinatown that has undergone many changes in its long life.
Today the plaza is pretty much the heart of Chinatown, although it has only been so since the 1950s when the combination of an influx of workers from Hong Kong and the migration of Chinese workers from Limehouse to this part of London formed the community that exists today.
But to get to the current situation, we need to go back in time to when all was fields and starting to be developed.
There are a number of Newport’s in the area, streets and places, and they all owe their origins to an illegally built house. Around the 1620s, Sir William Howard built a grand house in the area, Newport House, but didn’t have permission to do so. He was ordered to pay compensation of 10 shillings a year to St. Martin’s vestry and one shilling to the vicar in rent for the land he had illegally enclosed.
The gap between his back garden and King Street/Gerrard Street is where Newport Place is today. It wasn’t called that at the time though, being more likely to have originally been Bearbone Square.
The house passed through a number of owners, but in 1681 it was sold to the famous property developer, Nicholas Barbon, who already leased land nearby. There was a protracted lawsuit later over payment of debts, but in the meanwhile, Barbon demolished the House and leased the land to developers.
When Newport House was demolished, the whole area became known as Newport Market, a meat market. However, it descended into slums and attempts to clean up were unsuccessful, so in the end, it was cleared in 1879-89 by the Metropolitan Board of Works to make way for the construction of Shaftesbury Avenue and Charing Cross Road.
At the time, the plaza area was known as an extension of Little Newport Street and wasn’t renamed as Newport Place until 1939.
Sadly during WW2, most of the north-eastern corner was totally destroyed and much of the eastern side was badly damaged. The Shaftesbury Theatre was utterly gutted and later torn down. Although the area was partially rebuilt, not much was done until the early 1980s, when the while eastern and northern sides were rebuilt — with the houses and shops on the eastern side and a Fire Station where the old theatre used to be. That’s also when the underground car park that sits in the corner of Newport Place was built, with a spiral ramp leading down to five floors of parking.
At the time, Newport Place was more of a road with wide pavement on the eastern side, as it gave access to a service road behind the shops and the local council cleaning service. In recent years, the plaza has been revamped and converted into a pedestrian area. An old pagoda was demolished as well, but will be replaced shortly in a slightly different location.
If looking north, the second shop on the right, currently Shanghai Modern, used to be a road into the back service areas but was blocked off and filled with a restaurant.
The pedestrianisation wasn’t just part of a plan to make the plaza more appealing to visitors, but mainly to stop it from being used as a shortcut by vehicles trying to avoid Charing Cross Road.
Architecturally, the area is now dominated by the 1980s buildings on two sides, with a cluster of buildings of various ages on the western side. Do look at the southeastern corner though, where Newport Court joins the Place, with a triangular brick building — the sole survivor of Nicholas Barbon’s original developments in the area.