Haunted by St. James’s Square, the square that isn’t there

St. James’s Square – an entire piece of the Georgian city of Bristol that simply doesn’t exist in 2021 – intrigues me.

My current novel project is set in Bristol in the 1950s when much of the city centre had been destroyed or damaged in the Blitz and post-war rebuilding was just getting underway. I have my protagonist living in what remains of St. James’s Square which means I’ve had to try to get a feel for this stolen place.

It’s not only that the buildings have been demolished – the pattern of the streets has fundamentally changed, like the site of some atrocity everybody wants to forget. What is there now? A chain hotel forecourt and a dual carriageway, pointedly cutting across the old lines.

Making my way to work from Horfield to the city centre for several years, I walked over the grave of St James’s Square most mornings and often stopped to see if I could find any trace at all. 

Cumberland Street, behind St James’s Square.

Cumberland Street, which runs behind the brutalist slabs of the Hilton and Holiday Inn, is the last connection. Enter it from Brunswick Square, pass the surviving red-brick Georgian terrace and you’ll eventually reach a pedestrian footpath that goes under and through the hotel. It always feels to me as if, on the right day, at the right time, that footpath might lead to St James’s Square, as in H.P. Lovecraft’s 1925 story ‘He’. It’s never happened yet, unfortunately.

The passageway that ought to lead to the square but doesn’t.

The surviving Brunswick and Portland squares also offer hints of how their missing sibling might have felt. Laid out in a line, the three were constructed one after the other, St James’s Square being the first, with houses in place by 1716. Enclosed and private, clamshell hoods over every door, it perhaps felt more like a relic of the 17th century than its larger, grander siblings. But squint, catch the right angle, and there’s surely a family resemblance. Look into the corners, away from the garden and eccentrically designed church, and Portland Square in particular catches something of the feel of the photographs of St James’s Square I’ve seen.

Ruined buildings.
Portland Square – is this Blitz damage?

Yes, there are photographs. Old Bristol was particularly well-photographed compared to some cities and between Know Your Place, the Bristol Post archive and the comprehensive works of Reece Winstone, I’ve harvested quite a few images. Two of my favourites, though, are in Walter Ison’s book Georgian Buildings of Bristol, first published in 1952.

A Georgian square.
SOURCE: The Georgian Buildings of Bristol, Walter Ison, 1952.

Other pictures online capture St James’s Square in its later years, approaching its doom. As happened in many British cities, Georgian houses built for gentlefolk became workshops, warehouses and institutional buildings. There was a large YMCA hall, for example. From the 1920s onward, Ison says, “its disintegration was rapid”:

During the late war more than half the total of houses, including the forest and least spoiled, was destroyed, and only the mutilated and disfigured ranges on the north and east sides remain… The surviving north row consists of two double-houses, Nos 6 and 7, and two single houses, Nos 8 and 9… These fronts have been suffered greatly in appearance by the partial removal of the crowning cornice, and by the brickwork having been rendered and generally defaced by painted signs.

This is the St James’s Square in which parts of my novel are set – a square that is no longer square, facing demolition. Portland Square, again, helps catch a little of how that might have felt, with half of the west side of the square still occupied by miraculously extant tottering ruins.

A little further away, across Stokes Croft and up the hill towards Kingsdown, there is also King Square – formerly genteel houses, sign-covered commercial properties and discarded strong cider cans piled around the wastebins.

St James’s Square, the square that isn’t there, disappeared for good in the 1960s, making way for new roads and a roundabout suitable for mid-20th century traffic. As local historian Eugene Byrne has written, “As you wait at the traffic lights where Bond Street joins the St James Barton roundabout, you are on the spot where the YMCA Hall used to be.”

I hope that reading my book will bring the Square back from the dead, even if I’ve taken some artistic licence to create a single surviving townhouse in that post-war period where my lead character lives, surrounded by dusty Georgian furniture and faded paintings, soon to be displaced.

Bristol gets police dogs, 1957

Bristol City Constabulary got its first police dogs in 1957 – a pair of Alsatian puppies named Kylow and Kudos. Why did it take so long?

These days, we’re all used to seeing those white DOG SECTION vans parked up, and to seeing footage of specialist dogs being handled by police officers. Some are trained to find drugs, others to detect the most minute traces of long-buried bodies.

In the 1950s, however, they were still quite new to policing in Britain and not all forces had their own dogs. There’s a pretty comprehensive history of their slow arrival here, starting in the 1850s, accelerating in the 1920s, and gaining serious commitment from the late 1940s onward.

That article argues that it was the expense of training and keeping dogs that led to the slow uptake; but I also think there must have been something about them that was seen as fundamentally un-British. Snarling Alsatians pulling at their leashes… This was the stuff of Colditz and the Gestapo, at odds with the myth of the bobby on the beat.

Headlines from the 1950s increasingly often refer to ‘police dogs’ being mobilised in manhunts in Yorkshire, Lancashire, Devon and elsewhere. Somerset Constabulary’s police dog, Brenda, was acquired in 1956 and she and her handler, PC Ray Fear, became minor celebrities. POLICE, PLUS BRENDA, MAKE QUICK ARRESTS read one headline in 1958.

Bristol, despite being a big, bustling city with a bit of a crime problem, was late to the party. It only acquired Kylos and Kudos after they were obliged to borrow dogs from Dorset Constabulary in the hunt for two missing children.

What became of Kylow and Kudos, I’m not sure. Were they effective? Did they have long careers? You might think that there would be something in the newspaper archives but, no, unlike Brenda, they didn’t attract ongoing coverage.

One last thing I would really like to know is where those names came from and why no journalist at the time thought to ask that question.

This is the first in a series of posts highlighting aspects of the research I undertook for my work-in-progress, a dark crime novel set in 1950s Bristol.