The first thing you need to know about Portland Square is that it isn’t a square. But it was meant to be.
The story starts with a local property speculator called Joseph Hughes. Born in Winchcombe in about 1783, Hughes set up in Cheltenham as a butcher and in 1824 he bought a house and some fields along Prestbury Road which he had been living in as a tenant. He divided the land up into building lots, demolished the existing house and planned out a spacious square of new houses.
Hughes’ vision for Portland Square was ambitious, something to complement the nearby Pittville estate (then in development) but on a smaller scale. It was envisaged as a block of quality townhouses facing each other across a central ‘open garden or pleasure ground’. The plans included an especially large and well appointed house at the far corner for Hughes himself to live in.
The origin of the name Portland is likely to be a tribute to Henry Cavendish Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland. He died in 1809 having twice been prime minister. The name Portland had already been used in street names in Bath, and was established in Cheltenham too. Portland House, the large house (still standing) in Albion Street next to the Masonic Lodge, was around in at least 1804. There was also once a not-so-prestigious terrace of houses off the south side of the High Street near the church yard called Portland Place or Portland Row. Their date of building is lost in history and they were demolished as long ago as 1819.
Building at Portland Square began in 1825 and started well, mostly along what is now the east side of Albert Place. Hughes’ own luxury home was built early on, and so was the corner house on Prestbury Road which became the Sudeley Arms. But at the end of 1825 British banks suffered a major financial collapse and the ripples spread out across the country, leaving many businesses and building projects helplessly strapped for cash. Hughes was managing his project with multiple mortgages, and the credit crunch hit him hard. He managed to stay afloat for a further two years, but finally in November 1827 his debts swamped him and he was declared bankrupt.
East is up
Most of the plots were still unbuilt at this point, and were sold off to a variety of different builders. The vast majority were developed over the following five or six years, but not necessarily following the original plans. Then came the ruination of Joseph Hughes original vision. The all-important central square of open garden was bought by developers in 1835, and completely filled in with houses, named Beaufort Buildings. This left Portland Square not as a square, but as two parallel streets with Beaufort Buildings in the middle. One of these was renamed Albert Place in 1842, leaving Portland Square as a single street.
And it remained a single street until 1958 when house numbers and street names were adjusted (as shown in the plan above) and the road formerly called Beaufort Place became part of Portland Square, rendering it Portland L-shape. Better than nothing I suppose.
One pair of plots remained undeveloped in Albert Place, and the break in the terrace was used as an access road to a builder’s timber yard at the back. By 1840 this gap had been made permanent and became the western end of Selkirk Street.
The fancy house Joseph Hughes had intended for his own residence was at the far end of Albert Place at its junction with Sherborne Street. He wasn’t able to live in it for long, since the bankruptcy forced him to become a paying tenant in one of the other houses on the site (the present day Sudeley Arms). Hughes’ special house was of double width and had a large yard to one side complete with stables, piggeries and a slaughterhouse (old professions die hard). In 1829 following his bankruptcy and sale of assets it became the Portland Brewery. Parts of it were later converted into a pub, first called the Portland Arms and then the Portland Inn. In 1924 it became the Portland House Dairy. Then in 1955 there was a catastrophic fire on the premises and the house and whole site was demolished.
Other pubs in the ‘square’ at various times include the Coach and Horses Inn at 4 Portland Square (until 1940) and the Blue Boys beerhouse (1841-53) on the corner of what had originally been intended as the pleasure garden. On the Prestbury Road junction there is a lovely old glass-fronted corner shop which was originally part of Portland Square, but now numbered 27 Prestbury Road.
Photo taken December 2003. The outer buildings don’t bend, it’s just the wide-angle lens
These are houses on the west side of Portland Square, viewed from Portland Place (which was originally meant to be part of the square). It was common in Regency times to build taller and grander houses on the corners of streets, so this slightly incongruous arrangement of three-storey houses built up against shorter ones is quite typical in Cheltenham. The cream coloured wall on the right hand side is the back part of the Sudeley Arms pub on Prestbury Road. The building has been a pub since 1857 and has kept the same name all this time, but prior to that it was a high-class lodging house and was originally No.1 Portland Square. In addition to lodgings it housed the Ale, Porter and Cider stores run by Joseph Hughes’ nephew, which is probably how it ended up becoming a pub.
The honey-coloured stone three-storey house is the present day no.1 (formerly no.2) and is one of the few houses Hughes managed to build himself before he ran out of money. It was a posh lodging house for many years and adopted the name Portland House (not to be confused with an older house of the same name in Albion Street). Next to it, the green-painted (with a lovely curved end wall) and the pink-painted house were still undeveloped plots when Hughes was forced to sell up, and were built as a pair in 1833 by a tailor called William Henry Mason. He lived in the green one himself for a few years and leased the other one out. The bricked up window is probably a relic of the Window Tax, repealed in 1851.
From 1833, the house now numbered 26 Albert Place was occupied by Henry Merrett, the architect and surveyor who made the wonderfully detailed 1834 map of Cheltenham which is one of the town’s most useful historical resources. This detail from the map (below) shows what stage Portland Square was at when he lived there, giving us a glimpse too of Hughes’ original vision. It was still a square, the central green was as yet unbuilt on, and to the east is the unmade lane to the timber yard which was shortly to become Selkirk Street.
With thanks to Mike Grindley and Friends of Pittville for making this research available online.