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The Clapton Square Conservation Area, Hackney, was designated in 1969 and extended in 1991 & 2000. It is protected by Acts of Parliament as a London Square. It is dominated by the Church of St John-at-Hackney built in 1792-97, and St John’s Gardens. It is made up of listed late Georgian terraces on Clapton Square. More of these terraces can be found on the south side of Sutton Place (once home to Colin Firth) and pairs of early mid-nineteenth-century houses to the north.
Clapton Square has a charming village feel, and five-storey houses with their original leaded fanlights above the doors, pilasters and roof cornicing. Their sash windows, ornamental cast-iron balconies, six panelled doors, columns and porches make them easily as impressive as any Grade II listed Georgian property in smarter south-west London, and many have stunning views of the church. Clapton Square, with its ivy-clad frontages, was laid out on Clapton Field in 1816 and is still a pocket of greenery in this busy area. Two sides of the square were demolished in the late 19th century, so today Georgian houses are only on the north and west sides. The Rectory for St Johns was relocated to Clapton Square in 2006.
The Square was laid out in 1816 by wealthy citizens such as brokers from the city in the style of West End Georgian squares and terraces. It has central gardens containing a finely restored drinking fountain donated to Hackney residents by Howard Morley Esq.in 1894. The east side of the square was destroyed by bombing in the Second World War but has now been rebuilt in Georgian style by Furlong Homes. Russian revolutionary Vladimir Illyich Lenin used to visit, around 1905, his friend and comrade Theodore Rothstein at a house on the west side. 19th century Jewish writer Grace Aguilar also lived in the Square. To the north-east of the square is Holly Villas in Clapton Passage which is a fine terrace of bay-windowed Victorian villas of 1882.
‘On the whole I spent my life more happily at Hackney than I had ever done before’ wrote Joseph Priestley one of England’s greatest scientists who lived at a house in the 1790s (demolished in 1880) on the corner of the Passage and Lower Clapton Road. He was hounded out of his house and laboratory in Birmingham by a mob that opposed his support for the French Revolution. He was invited to come to Hackney to take up the post of Unitarian Minister at the Old Gravel Pit Chapel where he had many friends amongst the Hackney Dissenters. A plaque marks the site of his house above the existing corner building in Lower Clapton Road. He emigrated to America in 1794 fearing a repeat of his family’s persecution.
In a cottage behind Priestley’s house, in the closing years of the 18th century, lived a Huguenot widow called Louisa Perina Courtauld, a designer of gold plate who married Samuel Courtauld (goldsmith). Their son, Samuel Courtauld, founded the Courtauld dynasty of silk and artificial fibre manufacturers and a descendant founded the Courtauld Institute now in Somerset House.
Clapton Square is situated near the centre of the London Borough of Hackney, at the junction of the historic north-south thoroughfares of Lower Clapton Road and Mare Street and the east-west route of Dalston Lane and Homerton High Street (Figure 1). The land slopes gently down from the north to the southern portion of the Conservation Area. Most of the Area is situated on the Hackney Gravels geological terrace created by the once wider River Thames. The Conservation Area is split amongst Chatham, Dalston, East Down and Lea Bridge Wards, and has approximately 250 dwellings yielding a population of some 1,000 people.
The Conservation Area contains two significant open spaces, Clapton Square and the Churchyard of St. John-at-Hackney, known as St. John's Gardens, an L-shaped green area with good footpaths. The serpentine form of Lower Clapton Road (together with the partly pedestrianised stretch of Mare Street, a busy shopping district) is a distinctive feature of the Area, generating a good sequence of views.
The plague in 1665 and the Great Fire of London the following year did a great deal to make country life more appealing to affluent urbanites and this trend continued in the Georgian period. Daniel Defoe, who lived in Stoke Newington, described Hackney in the 1720s as comprising "twelve hamlets" and "having so many rich citizens that it contained nearly a hundred coaches". Important Hackney residents included the Governor of the Bank of England, who lived in Hackney House, Clapton in 1745 and the chief founder of the Honourable East India Company.
Georgian streets have a uniformity, due to the regulations of the London Building Act of 1774. Known as the Black Act because of its impositions, it was passed in response to the Great Fire and stipulated amongst other things that houses should be brick, windows recessed and that roofs should be slate and should not overhang. Ironically it is these rigid building regulations so resented at the time that have contributed to the Georgian house being so sought after today.
There are significant historic buildings around Clapton Square, ranging from the medieval St Augustine's Tower Hackney the Tudor period Sutton House, the neo-classical Church of St John-at-Hackney, and the High Victorian Round Chapel all of them listed buildings and significant local landmarks.