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Bucolic Bonnington Square

Bonnington Square in Vauxhall was built during the 1870s. Only a "six" away from the Oval cricket ground it comprised compact neat rows of London brick houses surrounding a central double terrace primarily used to house railway workers who were employed at Nine Elms Goods Yard close by.

Booth's map has the square marked as "Mixed, some comfortable, others poor", which I would imagine had some bearing on the level at which the householders were employed at and also the size of the household. However, I think it's safe to say that Bonnington Square was probably around average on the respectability scale, front steps being scrubbed regularly and the judicious hanging of undergarments on the washing line to avoid embarrassment. What marks it down as being different from a slightly superior upper working / lower middle class abode is the fact that the central area has houses on it when a slightly more up market square would have some sort of green space provided (obviously maximisation of profit against land space by the developer). All of the houses appear to only have back yards and no gardens. I would imagine that some residents relied on nearby allotments for fresh vegetables, but in an age where leisure time was limited I wonder how many hankered after a small green space of their own? If there were some they would have to wait for nearly seventy years and would need the help of the Luftwaffe to achieve it.

The map above shows that Bonnington Square caught it's fair share of bomb damage, numbers 2-12 damaged beyond repair and demolished, giving the square some open space.

I had intended at this point to move forward to relatively recent time in the squares history, but I felt something as tangible as this link to the war and the people affect by the bombing needed to be looked at.

Most of the houses in the Square are three storied dwellings and a lot had more than one family living in them. Looking at the 1939 Register for 2-12 and then cross referencing them against the Civilian War Dead record I found that nobody on the 1939 register living in the square was killed in the bombing, however I did find that two people were killed during the raid of 14 October 1940.

At number 6 which is the first house from the left marked in black on the bomb damage map lived the Carter and the Wise families.

The Carters were Sidney a 30 year old builders labourer and his 36 year old wife, Edith. The Wise's were Arthur a 35 year old carpenter and his wife Emily who was a year younger. The record also shows that one set of rooms was unoccupied and this is where fate plays it's cruel hand. The two unfortunate souls who died in the raid were a mother and son, Widowed Sarah Mary Ann Gough (56) and John Edwin Gough (34). When the register was taken on September 29th 1939 the Goughs were living at 126 Strathyre Avenue, Croydon which is about 8 miles away. There is no way of knowing why the Goughs moved to the Square and subsequently lost their lives, sadly a check on the map for bomb damage around their Croydon address show it to be very light and nowhere close to their former home. We'll never know why they alone were killed or if the Carter's or the Wise's were still living at the address in 1940, it's just a very sad story in a massive list of similar stories throughout the world.

So, let's move forward thirty years or so and Bonnington Square has hit upon hard times By the late 1970s, the square was compulsorily purchased by the Greater London Council for the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA), which intended to demolish it in order to build a new school. A local shopkeeper took out a legal injunction to prevent the demolition while occupants were departing, and gradually the square emptied of residents. However they weren't empty for long as word spread about the empty properties and squatters moved in.

By the early 1980s the square was completely occupied. The squatters established a volunteer-run vegetarian café, a bar, a nightclub, wholefoods shop and a community garden on the site of No. 2-12. They subsequently formed a housing cooperative and successfully negotiated with ILEA for the right to lease the buildings. There is a fascinating video that was made in 2015 about the takeover of the square with interviews with some of the original squatters HERE.

 In 1990 the residents undertook a project to change the garden into a "Pleasure Garden" as a nod to the nearby Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens which closed in 1859, and during this formed the Bonnington Square Garden Association. In 1998, the housing cooperative was permitted by the London Borough of Lambeth to purchase the buildings.

Today the gardens are mature and all around the square are exotic plants. The café is still running and the square also boasts an Italian Deli.

It's a great little oasis in what is a rather ugly area and a really nice story, as it could have so easily had a different outcome. So if you find yourself near Vauxhall and have some time to spare head for Bonnington Square and grab a coffee.

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