St James’s Park is one of most pleasant open-air places to visit in central London, a beautiful open space between Trafalgar Square, Parliament Square and Buckingham Palace. From 1915 to 1920, it looked rather different. Most of the lake was drained and temporary government buildings constructed in the park.
In April 1915, the Times commented on the Easter Day crowds in St James’s Park:
In St. James’s Park children played by the score. The empty bed of the lake has provided two new games for them: one is to roll down the grass bank and simulate drowning in the imaginary water at the bottom, and the other to see who can walk furthest along the exposed pipes that stretch the length of the shallow basin. … A large portion of the crowd is in uniform, the grass of St. James’s Park is half covered with the nearly completed new War Office buildings…
Pathe filmed the construction of one of these buildings in 1916, which you can watch here. In the end, most of the lake was filled with buildings and much of the grass. This painting by Sir Henry Rushby shows the unusual view from the top of the Foreign Office:
The modern BBC photo below shows roughly what the view looks like today – the Foreign Office is the large building at the bottom of the park in this view (next to the Treasury with its distinctive round courtyard).
The buildings were mainly wooden, but by 1917 a shortage of wood led to buildings being constructed of bricks and mortar.
The Civil Service more than doubled in size during the war, to peak of 221,000 by 1918 – less than half its current size but enormous by the standards of the time. To house these new civil servants, the government constructed new temporary buildings in London’s parks. Regent’s Park and Embankment Gardens were also affected, but St James’s Park seems to have attracted the most attention. Sir J Boynton complained, ‘You wreck Regent’s Park and St. James’s Park, but except for a few trenches over by Kensington Gardens, you have done nothing in Hyde Park. Give Hyde Park a turn, and take your attention from some of the other places.’
From debates in parliament, we can identify some of the departments and offices housed in the park:
- War Office pensions office (mentioned July 1915)
- Offices of the Ministry of Shipping, ‘not inappropriately situated, where water used to run, in St. James’ Park (February 1917)
- A canteen for the Ministry of Shipping (May 1919)
- And after the war the Passport Office in the lake (June 1920) and the Demobilisation Office (Dec 1919)
MPs and Lords were not keen on the buildings, presumably at least partly because the park is so close to Parliament. In 1918, Sir Godfrey Baring protested about ‘the really deplorable use which has been made of St. James’s Park and other parks… It is to be regretted that a place like St. James’s Park should be disfigured with such buildings as have been erected there. I cannot believe that in this huge Metropolis there were not other spaces more suited to buildings of this hideous character than is St. James’s Park, one of the most beautiful in the country. It is most desirable, from the public health point of view, that public parks should be kept as free and open as possible during the hot weather.’
Even in 1920, the buildings were still there. As Lord Gainsford complained at length:
Then take the east of St. James’s Park. There are offices there alongside the Mall. I walked along there a few moments ago, and I saw that the first establishment was the War Office Mobilisation Department. Why the War Office want a mobilisation department there, when they did not want one before the war, passes my comprehension. The next two sets of buildings are occupied by Admiralty officials. Why we want an increased number of Admiralty officials when the German Navy has either been sunk or distributed, and there is no prospect of our requiring a large Navy in the immediate future, is again beyond my comprehension.
…If you go over the bridge in St. James’s Park you see on the right the Ministry for Shipping, and on the left a horrid, offensive eyesore, a sort of restaurant in which waitresses appear to be waiting upon each other at all times of the day. It hides one of the most beautiful pictures which we possess in London, and the building seems to me to be one which ought to be quickly removed. A little nearer the Westminster end is another establishment which was not required before the war. We were then able to issue passports under a system by which undesirable aliens were prevented from coining into this country, without having to put up a building, and occupy it in the lake of St. James’s Park. It seems to me that we ought to revert to the pre-war system rather than continue to occupy with a Passport Department a space in the middle of St. James’s Park.
This is the view from the blue bridge that he referred to. It is a great spot for sight-seers, with views up to Whitehall one way:
…and to Buckingham Palace in the other direction. It looked very different in 1920 with government offices and a canteen in the way!