A community site for the residents, neighbours and friends of Warwick Square, London SW1

Warwick Square, Pimlico and St Gabriel’s Church

Colin Sheaf, Chairman, the Warwick Square Co Ltd

Visitors to our Grade-2-listed Victorian private garden in Warwick Square are invariably impressed by the splendid vista looking westwards across the lawn to the elegant spire of St Gabriel’s Pimlico. Thomas Cundy’s charming Kentish-ragstone-faced parish church nestles, like a rustic country church, between enormous leafy plane trees which may well be contemporaneous with the  foundation of the church in 1851.  Most visitors assume the symbiotic relationship is a happy and attractive accident, but the historical truth is more interesting. It reflects a classic Victorian combination of aristocratic religious philanthropy and good practical commercial entrepreneurship!

The low-lying, marshy Thames-side acres of undeveloped  Pimlico originally formed part of the Parish of St George, Hanover Square, created in 1725. The land comprising what would become known as ‘Pimlico’ was part of  the Grosvenors’ massive London estates. However, until the first quarter of the 19th century it was of minimal commercial or residential interest to these entrepreneurial aristocrats. The waterlogged extensive property largely comprised frequently-flooded  market gardens, crossed East-West by a single robber-infested elevated trackway (then called ‘Willow Walk’, now ‘Warwick Way’). Before Cubitt’s project, it was the sole traditional link between the thriving  entertainment venue Ranelagh Gardens in the old Manor of Chelsea, and the former monastic community around Westminster Abbey.

In the 1820s, the Marquess of Westminster leased this enormous ‘Neat Houses Gardens’ estate (pretty much the area of the present parish of St Gabriel’s) to the man who would become Queen Victoria’s favourite builder, Thomas Cubitt. Cubitt created a development blueprint running south from Buckingham House (latterly Palace) to the Thames foreshore, stripping off the glutinous Pimlico clay and laying soil from St Katherine’s dock (which he was then excavating)  onto the exposed gravel.. The lessees hoped the blueprint would energise independent builders and leaseholders to transform into an elegant ‘South Belgravia’ this low-lying marshy area, bisected by the ‘Grosvenor Canal’ running north from the sprawling, shallow (then not embanked) Thames up to their canalboat-turning ‘Basin’ (now Victoria Station). Pimlico was envisaged as a new residential area, expanding southwards the success of their immensely profitable property empire in Belgravia, St James’ and Mayfair. The new neighbourhood would bask in some of the social prestige and commercial prosperity associated with their great central London developments. History would show that the intention was admirable, but the social ambitions were not realised! Cubitt’s strategic planning encouraged the building of  huge numbers of (principally) four-storey affordable town houses, laid out geometrically as very similar-looking ‘Stuccoville’ terraces. These accommodated the new urban middle classes, drawn to living and working in London as Queen Victoria’s burgeoning Imperial capital, full of novel job opportunities. Aristocratic owners and tenants preferred to remain living in the established squares of late Georgian London, especially after two new separate south-coast (Brighton) and east-coast (Chatham and Dover) train routes, both terminating at Victoria, brought coal-fired steam trains and noise straight through this teeming new residential hub. Until very recently, St Gabriel’s external stonework retained its deeply ingrained Victorian patina of black soot!

The current parish of St Gabriel’s (Patron Saint of Communications) was created in 1850, when the second Marquess of Westminster generously donated the freehold of an empty site at the west end of the new Square to build a church for the expanding parish. (It represented a substantial improvement on the previous occupant, a cottage owned by  a retired highwayman who kept two bears and amused himself by  cock-fighting!)

Local history relates that this act of exceptional  philanthropy was apparently the result of an exchange of desirable Pimlico properties between Thomas Cubitt and the Marquess. The former had the lease to develop the whole Warwick Square plot, which would take place throughout the 1850s and ‘60s during which a number of lease-holding developers built expanding sections of the North and South Terraces.  The Square’s houses maintained a consistent external appearance by Cubitt’s overall control (and his supply of most of the architectural features and building materials from his massive Thames-side builder’s yard).  The Marquess owned a riverside plot which Cubitt wanted for his property portfolio: while Cubitt owned the lease for the undeveloped Warwick Square western site, perfectly placed to accommodate a new parish church abutting one of only three private garden squares in the whole bustling Pimlico neighbourhood. The exchange was duly effected, and the church was incorporated into ‘an intended new road to be called St George’s Road, opposite an intended new…Warwick Square’.

The architect of St Gabriel’s was Thomas Cundy II, surveyor to the London estates of the Earl of Grosvenor, who designed with his son Thomas Cundy III, in the Decorated Gothic style, a substantial ‘High Church’ (Anglo-Catholic) edifice. The family sculptor Samuel Cundy provided the Bath stone font, installed in 1853. St Gabriel’s finally cost its parishioners £9,360, a total reached with a generous donation of £5000 by the  munificent second Marquess. Built by Messrs John Kelp, the church was consecrated on 12 May 1852 by the Bishop of London. The original 160-feet spire was rebuilt in 1887-8, when a choir vestry was also added. Responding to even greater usage and wider public outreach, in 1896-7 a splendid East Window (by C.E.Kempe), ‘Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee North and South side aisles’, a Lady Chapel and the handsome West porch were added as the last major modifications to Cundy’s 1853 footprint. The core Church miraculously survived relatively unscathed some light bombing in 1917, and a fearsome hail of parachute, incendiary and delayed-action bombs in 1940/41 (despite 150 houses being destroyed by a parachute mine a few hundred yards south between Alderney and Cambridge Street, and the Lady Chapel being destroyed in April 1941).

Over the decades, the mature trees in Warwick Square have grown to frame, in a  most striking and memorable way, the fine westerly view towards St Gabriel’s, the sacred heart of our parish.. The Victorian landscape designers had a clear vision to link the new garden and its equally new neighbouring church, the tranquil illusion of  ’Rus in Urbe’ (‘The Country in the City’), as the original wrought-iron motto still proclaims above the south gate. There can be few more successful ‘rural illusions’ anywhere  in central London than Warwick Square’s. The author gratefully acknowledges his debt for much of the Church information to the excellent Anniversary monograph, The First Hundred Years: The story of St Gabriel’s Pimlico, compiled by one of the Parish’s own priests, the Revd.T.F.Shirley (SPCK 1953).


  1. 30 Mar 2023    

    Wonderful article. Very, very interesting.

  2. 30 Mar 2023    

    Very interesting and filling the gaps in our knowledge how Warwick Square took shape,
    especially the church that visually gives such a focal point. Also interesting is to discover
    that the church spire was rebuilt towards the end of the nineteenth century. I have always
    suspected that it is not quite vertical (something that could be proved or disproved with
    a weighted string on a frame).
    I totally agree that this square is one of the finest gardens in London. The members are fortunate
    to have such an environment in a secure private place, and so well run.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *