A short history of Ashley Gardens
The flats in Ashley Gardens were built on land which, from the fourteenth century to nearly the end of the nineteenth century, was occupied by a succession of prisons. Tothill Fields, the last prison on the site, was sold to Cardinal Manning and his friends in 1883. The prison was closed and demolished in 1884 leaving the site free for the building of Westminster Cathedral and Ashley Gardens.
19th century map of the area, showing Tothill Fields prison on the current Cathedral and Ashley Gardens site
The building of the flats in Ashley Gardens (Ambrosden Avenue and Thirleby Road) took place between 1890-1893; the architect is unknown. The flats in Emery Hill Street were built a little later. Pevsner describes the flats in Thirleby Road as presenting ‘an overpowering spectacle’.
The mansion flat was an innovation of the mid-late nineteenth century. It offered a new style of living- central, spacious and well designed accommodation. Ashley Gardens had the advantage of being near Parliament, the City and the West End and, of course, was only a few minutes walk from Victoria Station. Ashley Gardens rapidly established its literary credentials, as the setting for plays by George Bernard Shaw and Harley Granville Barker. A later writer, the novelist, Anthony Powell, in his ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ has one of his main characters living in Ashley Gardens with his mother.
The Army and Navy Stores (now House of Fraser) in Victoria Street provided for virtually every aspect of life for those who were members and allowed to shop there.
A play by George Bernard Shaw set in Ashley Gardens
The Second World War had an impact on Ashley Gardens in two ways. It was the home of the Second Army Planning Group established here in January 1944; the Second Army was to head the invasion of Europe. Several flats were requisitioned as offices and living accommodation for service personnel. Also there was some bomb damage with incendiaries destroying the lift shafts in Blocks 10 and 11 and damaging the roof of Block 10.
Effects of bombing on Block 10
View from Westminster Cathedral: flat roofs indicate bomb damage
Until the late 1960s the flats were rented but in 1969 the then owners offered to sell individual flats on long leases up to 99 years, with owners paying a regular sum for maintenance of the Blocks. At the same time the property company undertook a major programme of repair and improvement. The sale of the freeholds of the Blocks was completed in 1984.
View from Bressenden Place during the rebuild of Victoria Street in 1973
Although Ashley Gardens is not listed, it is in a conservation area and regarded by Westminster City Council as an’ unlisted building of merit’. This restricts changes to the exterior of the flats which would still be recognised by the original architect. Major internal works have been undertaken, for example, dividing the flats in Blocks 8, 9 and 10 into two and installing modern lifts. Original features can be found in some flats, particularly remnants of mosaic floors. The mosaic floor in the entrance hall of Block 10 were restored a few years ago.
Despite the name, Ashley Gardens has not always enjoyed the fine display of trees, shrubs and flower beds we now see along Thirleby Road. The main garden is said to date back to the prison on the same site demolished in 1884 and indeed, there are some old and interesting trees in the area, including a Japanese pagoda tree which featured in a letter to The Times on 14th September 1992. However, the present healthy state of the garden is due almost entirely to the efforts of Mrs Jo Wedgwood (Block 11) who over twenty years ago led the daunting task of clearing and replanting the garden, which had become overgrown with untidy shrubs, wild roses and weeds. She now administers the garden with the support of a Garden Committee, which runs as a sub-committee of AGRA.
While Ashley Gardens remains substantially unchanged, the surrounding area does not. Victoria Street was redeveloped in the 1970s and major rebuilding, not only of Victoria Street but of the Underground station as well, is now in progress.
Thanks to Ashley Gardens Residents Association for permission to use text and pictures from their publication ‘Ashley Gardens: Backward Glances’ (1990)