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Parliament Square was laid out as a grand ceremonial square in 1868 upon an earlier formal garden in order to provide a suitable approach to the newly rebuilt Palace of Westminster designed by Sir Charles Barry. The square was re-designed 1949/50 in preparation for the Festival of Britain Year in 1951. Parliament Square covers the site of a once crowded district with narrow streets, small houses and a host of small alleys near the medieval Palace of Westminster and St Margaret's Church (q.v.). In the early 1780s the buildings were demolished and the churchyard was cleared and grassed over, the cleared space becoming known as 'the Desert of Westminster'.
After the fire of 1834 that destroyed the medieval palace, Sir Charles Barry won the competition to design the new Palace of Westminster, which has since become more commonly known as the Houses of Parliament. Work began in 1837 and the new buildings were partially completed in 1852, with Big Ben following in 1858. A view in 'The Illustrated London News' in 1851 shows the early C19th layout of the square, with its perimeter path and a few mature trees within a railed enclosure. The garden was not, however, deemed to be a dignified terminus to the southerly prospect down Whitehall. Lord John Manners, who in 1866 had contemplated no less than removing St Margaret's Chapel to form 'the termination of a vista which will be unsurpassed in any European capital', had begun to rearrange the layout of the square prior to the establishment of the Royal Commission in 1868. Manners' refurbishment was considered so dramatic that many Londoners had difficulty recognising the square, which was referred to in a spoof published in The Builder (October 1867) as 'a joke of that funny fellow, Lord John Manners...a nice bungle it is...that wretched lark's cage patch'.
In 1868 Parliament Square Garden was redesigned by Edward Middleton Barry (1830-80), 3rd son of Sir Charles Barry on whose death in 1860 he took over work on the new Houses of Parliament. This coincided with the opening of the extension of Bridge Street, which opened up New Palace Yard and Westminster Hall to public view. The new garden formed a green foil to the precincts of Westminster Abbey (q.v.) and the Houses of Parliament. This improvement also entailed driving the new underground railway diagonally across the square; an engraved view in The Illustrated London News shows the disruption caused by the new Metropolitan District Railway Works.
In 1949/50 Parliament Square was again reconfigured to a simple and dignified plan by architect George Grey Wornum, his scheme put forward to improve traffic conditions anticipated for the 1951 Festival of Britain exhibition. The Metropolitan Police were particularly anxious that no pavement should be provided round the new island and that pedestrian access to the new garden be provided only from the road islands on the north-west, south-east and south-west corners. Wornum's scheme incorporated the line of existing London plane trees on the west side of the square and the four existing statues of politicians (placed on new pedestals) to form a terrace garden with flower beds and large stone jardinières. The remainder of the island was laid to turf, except for a paved walk with flower beds and a raised terrace with three catalpa trees on the north side. The plan was intended to set aside open space for future public monuments. The scheme was greeted with great enthusiasm in 1950, and vaunted as a 'New Look for the Hub of Empire' (The Sphere). Wornum received the Royal Institute of British Architect's Gold Medal on the strength of his achievement.
The square has undergone relatively few modifications since 1950. Special flag-post holes were formed around the perimeter in the mid 1960s and the traffic lights were installed in 1968. Various plans to alter the square have been mooted but remained unexecuted, including a 'new look plan' in 1987 to pedestrianize the square, and the erection of a large Pegasus/Unicorn fountain by the Fountain Society to mark Queen Elizabeth's reign. The north-east side of the square underwent changes wrought by the new Jubilee Line extension. The eastern side opposite one of the main entrances to the Houses of Parliament has long been a place where people can protest against government policies, actions or lack of action.
Parliament Square provides a setting for various monuments including Sir Robert Peel by Matthew Noble (erected 1876); Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield by Mario Raggi (unveiled 1883); Abraham Lincoln (erected 1920); George Canning by Richard Westmacott (erected 1867); Edward Stanley, Earl of Derby by Matthew Noble (unveiled 1874); Henry John Temple, Viscount Palmerston by Thomas Woolner (1876) and Field-Marshal Jan Christian Smuts by Sir Jacob Epstein (1956). In 1973, the statue of Sir Winston Churchill by Ivor Roberts-Jones was added, and in 2007 a bronze statue of David Lloyd George was unveiled. The most recent addition is the 9-ft high bronze statue by artist Ian Walters of Nelson Mandela, which was unveiled on 29 August 2007.
Management responsibility transferred from DCMS to the Greater London Authority in February 2002 under the Greater London Authority Act 1999.
Neil, `Victorian and Edwardian Whitehall: Architecture and Planning', 1865-1918 (unpublished PhD dissertation; University of London), 2 vols., 1985; Prints and preparatory sketches of G. Wornum's design in the RIBA Drawings Collection, Portman Square; Watson, Isobel, Pimlico Past and Present, London, 1987; Ben Weinreb & Christopher Hibbert, 'The London Encyclopaedia' (Macmillan, revised ed. 1993); Collected clippings at Westminster City Archives.