History of Battersea Square and Surroundings

Until the nineteenth century Battersea was largely a market garden area. Much of the area adjoining the River Thames was marshland and not built upon. The village of Battersea centred on Battersea Square. Battersea High Street, Battersea Church Street, Vicarage Crescent and Westbridge Road. The lord of the manor was Sir Walter St John and in 1700 he had founded a school for 20 boys from the village of Battersea. By 1750, 83 boys and 5 girls were being given instruction.

In 1763 the manor was sold by the St John family to Lord Spencer who opened up the isolated village by building a bridge across the Thames in 1772. The village remained a small but thriving community. The Raven Public House was built around the end of the seventeenth century. It was used as a meeting place to discuss the rebuilding of St. Mary’s Church which was completed in 1777.

The construction of railways in the Victorian period hastened the suburbanisation of London and the population of Battersea increased from 6,617 in 1841 to 168,907 in 1901, by which time it was a Metropolitan Borough. A railway station was built at Battersea High Street by 1863 for the West London Extension Railway.

Battersea Square had been the focus of village life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and was a gathering place for water; the old pump is shown in historical photographs and on maps, though it has disappeared by the time of the above picture (around 1910).

The Square lost much of its identity during the twentieth century when it was given over to the motor vehicle. A plan to bring a new orbital motorway through Battersea, with a four-lane highway linking York Road and Battersea Bridge, would have destroyed the Square and many other buildings in the area. The local Labour Party 1971 manifesto had made it clear that they were intending to oppose the Motorway Box and many of the threatened road widening lines. They did just that, by a small majority, after they won control of Wandsworth Council in 1971.

Among those campaigning against the scheme was the newly formed Battersea Society. Prominent in that group were Christine Lewis and Peter Deakins, who took the photograph below in 1972 which gives a good idea of what the Square was like in those days.

The result of the momentous decision to reject the widening line was not apparently and immediately very significant. An area of Battersea badly affected by planning blight continued, for the moment, its slow decline, but it resulted in a fascinating outcome. The GLC decided to use the properties it had bought for road widening to construct instead the very attractive Althorpe Grove estate, set back just 18 inches from the historic road lines. And eventually a scheme of preservation and enhancement of Battersea Square was undertaken by Wandsworth Council in 1990 seeking to re-establish the “sense of place” of the village by allowing part of the public space to be used by pedestrians, and by reviving the name Battersea Square, which had disappeared from maps.