Lincoln’s Inn Fields is the largest garden square in London, covering 7.25 acres – a welcome green oasis in a densely populated area. The site of the present square was originally open fields – Cup Field, part of Fickett’s Field to the south and Purse Field to the west. As early as 1376 these fields were a common walking and sporting place for the citizens of London and there is some tradition of jousting. By the reign of Elizabeth I, Cup Field and Purse Field were pasture grounds in the hands of the Crown.
In 1657, Cup Field came into the join possession of Sir William Cowper, Robert Henley and James Cowper who wanted to build houses on the north and south sides (the west side had been developed from 1638). They agreed to have Cup Field ‘levelled, plained and cast into grass plots and gravel walks of convenient breadth, railed along on each side, and set with rows of trees’. They also sold the remainder of Cup Fields to Lincoln’s Inn, who leased it back to them for 900 years (a lease now held by the London Borough of Camden).
However, despite the building of the houses and the rudimentary laying out of the paths, Lincoln’s Inn Fields was notorious at the end of the 17th century as an ill-kept and unsafe place, the haunt of robbers and vagabonds. Gay’s Trivia of 1716 warns:
Where Lincoln’s Inn, wide space, is rail’d 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 moved, 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 mid way he’ll quench the flaming brand
And share the booty with the pilfering band.
In 1734 the inhabitants had an Act of Parliament passed ‘to enable the present and future proprietors and inhabitants of the houses in Lincoln’s Inn Fields to make a rate on themselves for raising money sufficient to enclose, clean and adorn the said fields’. 21 Trustees were elected from the inhabitants and they had the central part of the square laid out as a garden, surrounded by railings and gates to which only the inhabitants (who paid an annual rate) had keys. A Scavenger kept the fields and streets clean and took away household rubbish. Watchmen kept the peace and enforced the various rules laid down by the Act.
From the middle of the 19th century a strong public campaign was waged to open up the central garden to non-residents. In 1894 the newly-formed London County Council acquired the central garden, paying compensation to the Trust – which was wound up. Management of the garden passed to the Greater London Council on its creation in 1965 and to the London Borough of Camden in 1970.
During the twentieth century the gardens gradually assumed a more municipal air with the introduction of a putting green and netball and tennis courts and the erection of what became a bandstand (originally a rain shelter). The 1734 external railings and gates were taken down in 1941 as part of the wartime scrap metal drive, but replaced in the 1990s.
Historical information provided by Friends of Lincoln’s Inn Fields