St George, Bloomsbury Way

Above: The church stands on the north side of Bloomsbury Way.

There are two ‘St George’ churches in Bloomsbury which are not that far apart – the church of St George, Bloomsbury Way and the church of St George the Martyr, Queen Square. They should not be confused with each other because they are quite separate.

St George, Bloomsbury Way, was built 1716–31, under the ‘Fifty New Churches Act’ of 1711, to designs of Nicholas Hawksmoor. The portico is copied from St Martin in the Fields (which stands in Trafalgar Square). The parish of St George was taken out of the parish of St Giles in the Fields in 1724 and the church was consecrated in 1731.

The Fifty New Churches Act was passed by the government of the day to address the problem of a rapidly increasing population in London requiring new parish churches to be created where new communities were springing up. Money was granted to enable 50 new churches to be built on entirely new sites. The resulting new parishes were to be ‘carved’ from parts of older parishes. However, as soon as parishioners heard about new churches being built, they started to ‘shout’ about their own existing church, claiming that it was in poor condition and needed to be rebuilt. Of course, the money provided in the Act was intended for entirely new churches on new sites – not new churches on old sites. While protests were being made, the church of St Alphege, Greenwich, actually fell down, providing the parishioners with a really strong argument for a ‘new church’ on the site of the old one.

The result was a compromise, with some churches being rebuilt – like the one at Greenwich – and others being erected on an entirely new site – like St George, Bloomsbury Way. Some time passed before the compromise was reached and the cost of a new church continued to rise. The money put aside to build 50 new churches only paid for just over a dozen churches and some of them were rebuilds on old sites.

St George stands on the north side of Bloomsbury Way. It is one of Hawksmoor’s splendid churches. He had trained under Christopher Wren but his churches had a style of their own being, in the main, bolder, and certainly built to be noticed. This church has a spire which is stepped and, at the top, is a statue of George I. It is a very unusual design and it is unique in London. Probably because of its position, the church is aligned on a north-south axis of which there are only a few churches in London laid out in this way.


Posted in /Cam-Holborn | 1 Comment

Bedford Square

Above: Looking across the large garden in the square at houses on the south side.

The square was laid out between 1775 and 1783 as an upper-middle-class residential area. It takes its name from the main title of the Russell family, the Dukes of Bedford, who owned much of the land in the Bloomsbury area. The architect Thomas Leverton is known to have designed some of the houses, although he may not have been responsible for all of them. This square marked a second phase in the development of the Bloomsbury Estate, transforming the fields used for pasture into a planned estate.

Bedford Square is considered to be one of the best-preserved set pieces of Georgian architecture in London. Sadly, most of the houses have now been converted into offices and are no longer residential. Numbers 1-10, 11, 12–27, 28–38 and 40–54 are grade I listed buildings. This gives some idea of the architectural quality of some of the houses in the square

The central garden remains private but is opened to the public as part of the Open Garden Squares Weekend held each year. The square is Grade II* listed on the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens.

The square suffers from the busy traffic that endlessly clogs up the eastern side but there are really no other options for routing the traffic which includes buses. It is pleasing to observe that the other three sides are relatively traffic-free due to the one-way system in use. The large square lies a short distance north of New Oxford Street and to the east of Tottenham Court Road.


Posted in /Cam-Holborn | Leave a comment

Russell Square

Above: Looking across Russell Square early in the year, before the foliage on the trees obscures the view. The large terra-cotta building on the right is Hotel Russell.

Russell Square and Great Russell Street derive their name from Lord William Russell, the Duke of Bedford, who married the daughter and heiress of the last Lord Southampton. The square was begun in 1804. Having a side that is 670 feet (204 m) long, it is the second-largest in London, after Lincoln’s Inn Fields. In 1817 John Constable moved from Charlotte Street, Fitzroy Square, to No 1 Keppel Street, Russell Square, where he lived until 1822.

When laid out, the square had houses on all four sides. The Ordnance Survey map of 1895 shows that the houses were all still in existence at that time. They have been gradually eroded with time. Terraces of houses remain on the south side and on the west side. The north side has lost most of its original houses and the east side is now entirely hotels and offices.

Standing on the east side of the square is the large ornate terra-cotta facade of the Hotel Russell, built 1898. Its name and date of construction can be seen on the exterior. As is the nature of hotels, it is now a five-star hotel known as the Kimpton Fitzroy London Hotel. It does not seem to have the same ring to it as the original name. In the 1960s, when High Fidelity sound reproduction (or Hi-Fi) was a novelty, the rooms of the hotel were hired by companies selling record players and stereo loudspeakers. Members of the public were allowed paid entrance to the hotel and could walk around defined floor levels, visiting the rooms and listening to Hi-Fi demonstrations in the rooms. It was an annual event for many Hi-Fi enthusiasts.

As far as traffic is concerned, the square was for many years nothing more than a very large roundabout, with north-bound traffic negotiating three sides. Of recent years attempts have been made to reduce the amount of traffic with the road on one side being converted for two-way traffic. With the British Museum extending to the SW corner of Russell Square and several buildings associated with London University standing along its western and northern sides, the days of it being a residential square are almost over.

The great ‘industry’ around Russell Square is now hotel accommodation. As well as the Russell Hotel, there are several other hotels on the east side of the square and even more slightly further away. The hotels have been built there because of their central location – with tourists wanting to visit museums and theatres nearby. The other reason is that Holborn Underground Station is a short walk away. With many visitors to London arriving at London Heathrow Airport, they can hop on the Piccadilly Line (on the underground railway) at Heathrow and travel on that line all the way without changing to Holborn where they are only a short walk from their hotel.

Russell Square appears so large to a pedestrian that it seems as if you are entering a park. The open space is well-used and there is even a café for refreshment. The square is situated at the northern end of Southampton Row.


Posted in /Cam-Holborn | Leave a comment

Bloomsbury Square

Above: View from the southern side of Bloomsbury Square, looking north.

One of the fine squares of Bloomsbury, it was laid out in 1661 and was at first known as Southampton Square, after the developer, Thomas Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton. It was the first open space in London to be called a square. It quickly became a very desirable residential area which grew into one of the most sought-after suburbs of London. The square was visited in 1665 by John Evelyn, who later wrote in his famous diary ‘Dined at my Lord Treasurer’s the Earl of Southampton in Bloomsbury, where he was building an oval square or piazza, a little town.’

From 1800 the 5th Duke of Bedford began developing his estate. On the north side of Bloomsbury Square had been Bedford House and garden which the Duke demolished in 1800. About 1806 he commissioned Humphry Repton (1752-1818) to redesign Bloomsbury Square. By the 1820s there was a large lawn with an oval line of trees in the centre and an oval shrubbery at each corner. There was also a formal walk. Repton was highly valued by the Russell Family. He was also responsible for planning the picturesque gardens at Woburn Abbey, the Duke of Bedford’s country estate.

The square stands just west of the junction of Southampton Row and Theobalds Road. When the square was first laid out, its centre had grand gardens. Over the years these became nothing more than open grassy areas. In 2003 an attempt was made to restore the gardens to their former glory. They are Grade II listed on the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens.

In the NW corner of the square is a building that was used for many years by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain. The 18th-century building was partly credited to John Nash. Along the top of the building can still be seen the name of the society.

Bloomsbury Square is large enough to be able to relax in the gardens away from the noise of the constant traffic on the nearby roads. The southern side of the square carries the heavy traffic that is almost non-stop on the one-way road called Bloomsbury Way.


Posted in /Cam-Holborn | Leave a comment

Bloomsbury Names

Above: Looking north in Bedford Place towards Russell Square. Bedford Place runs almost NW from Bloomsbury Square to Russell Square.

As you walk around Bloomsbury, you will find the same names repeated in the streets, the squares and sometimes on the buildings. The answer lies in the fact that the land passed through the ownership of several wealthy families and the main features were named after them. This ‘potted history’ will hopefully explain some of the names to be found in the area.

The earliest written record of the name for the area we now call Bloomsbury is in the Domesday Book (1086) which mentions vineyards and a ‘wood for 100 pigs’. In 1201 the Blemund family bought the manor and it became known as ‘Blemundsbury’ – a ‘bury’ being a fortified house. With time, the name corrupted to Bloomsbury. The manor house, which stood on the approximate site of today’s Bloomsbury Square, later came into the possession of the Earl of Southampton.

In 1545 the Manor of Bloomsbury was granted Thomas Wriothesley, 1st Earl of Southampton and Chancellor of England. In 1657 his great-grandson, the 4th Earl of Southampton began the development of the Bloomsbury area, including the building of Southampton House, later Bedford House, on what is now Bloomsbury Square. On the death of the 4th Earl of Southampton, in 1667, his daughter Lady Rachel Vaughan inherited the Bloomsbury Estate and in 1669 she married William, Lord Russell, son and heir to the 5th Duke of Bedford – bringing the Bloomsbury Estate into the Russell family as part of her dowry. In 1673, Lady Rachel’s sister married Ralph, Earl of Montagu and built Montagu House close to Bedford House.

Above: Part of Rocque’s map of 1746 showing the position of Bedford House and Montagu House in relation to Bloomsbury Square. Part of High Holborn is to be seen at the bottom right-hand corner.

In 1683 William, Lord Russell was executed by beheading for treason and Lady Rachel administered the Bloomsbury Estate until she died in 1723 when it was absorbed and administered from the Bedford Estate Office. Montagu House burned down and was rebuilt in 1685. It was purchased for the nation and became the core of the British Museum which was founded in 1753. The exhibits were based on the collections of Sir Hans Sloane who lived for many years in Bloomsbury Place (an Estate property).

Bedford House was demolished in 1800 to make way for housing and the formation of Russell Square. It will be seen that much of Bloomsbury has been managed and developed by the Russel Family since 1669. It is managed today by the Bedford Estate Office which still stands within the original estate.


Posted in /Cam-Holborn | 2 Comments

Bloomsbury – Quick Look Around

Bloomsbury is the name for an area of London that, until 1965, was mainly part of Holborn although the northern end extended into the old Metropolitan Borough of St Pancras. Today all of Bloomsbury lies within the London Borough of Camden. There is no fixed boundary for Bloomsbury but it is in the form of an approximate square bounded by Tottenham Court Road (in the west), Euston Road (to the north), Gray’s Inn Road (to the east) and Theobalds Road (along the southern side.

The name ‘Bloomsbury’ derives from ancient land-owners called the Blemund family. William de Blemund acquired land in 1201. The last syllable – bury – derives from the German word ‘burg’ meaning ‘fortress’ or ‘defended place’. It is found in many place names, sometimes at the beginning of the name and sometimes at the end. In the City of London is the street name Aldermanbury. In Kent is the City of Canterbury and in Suffolk is Bury St Edmunds. In the case of Bloomsbury, the ‘bury’ would have been the site of the large manor house. The manor passed to Lord Southampton and later to the Duke of Bedford who began to develop a series of graceful squares and streets for the fashionable and wealthy. Street names like Bedford Way and Southampton Row are reminders of those landowners.

Bloomsbury does have a special quality to it. There are probably more large Georgian squares than in any other area of London. There are certainly more universities and hospitals situated within its perimeter. Having been laid out by landed gentry for wealthy households, many of the streets still retain fine Georgian terraces, adding a touch of grandeur to the locality. Although the area is bounded by busy main streets – Tottenham Court Road, Euston Road, Gray’s Inn Road and Theobalds Road – a stroll off the busy routes into Bloomsbury will soon reward the visitor with elegant, peaceful surroundings. The British Museum is probably the most well-known tourist attraction. It is close to three elegant squares – Bloomsbury Square, Bedford Square and Russell Square.

A group of intellectuals called the ‘Bloomsbury Group’ or ‘Bloomsbury Set’ began as an informal assembly of Cambridge University graduates. Four of them had graduated in 1899. The group came into being around 1905 and stayed as a group until the Second World War. Although mainly known as a literary group, the members were active in fields of art, criticism and scholarship. Several members of the group lived in and around the area known as Bloomsbury.

Arguably the most well-known name in the group was Virginia Woolf. Born Adeline Virginia Stephen, she married Leonard Woolf. Her sister, Vanessa Stephen, married Clive Bell and is usually known as Vanessa Bell. The group was quite large and included people from many different backgrounds including civil servants, journalists, barristers, novelists, painters and art critics. They did not all live in Bloomsbury but because several of them did and also because they often met in Bloomsbury, the name of the locality came to define them.


Posted in /Cam-Holborn | Leave a comment

Mitre Tavern, Ely Court, Ye Olde

Above: The tiny pub stands in the narrow passageway called Ely Court.

According to the sign outside the tavern, the hostelry was established in 1546 – only ten years after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. It may well have been established at that date but the pub on the site today only dates from the late 18th century. The pub and all the ancient buildings of Ely House were demolished in 1772. Documents held by English Heritage indicate that the pub was built about 1773 and later remodelled internally in the early 20th century. None the less, the tiny tavern is an interesting place to visit.

The Grade II public house is tucked away in Ely Court, a narrow alleyway running between the streets called Hatton Garden and Ely Place. It is believed to have been established in 1546 by one of the Bishops of Ely to provide refreshment for the servants working at Ely House. The property would have had many people working there, including cooks, gardeners, stable boys and a multitude of servants to look after the many needs of the resident bishop and his retinue of priests and other clerics.

On the outside wall of the tavern is a stone mitre believed to have been removed from the old Ely House gatehouse that stood beside the roadway in Holborn. It is said that the pub received its licence from Ely, not from the local licensing authorities because Ely House was under the control of the Cathedral City of Ely. This anomaly seems to have continued until the early 1970s.

Many tales persist that the land of Ely Place is still under the control of Ely and that the police are not allowed to arrest any offender on that land. The fact of the matter is that because Ely Place has associations with Ely – for historic reasons – the Metropolitan Police are at liberty to make an arrest on the land but, as a courtesy to the police in Ely, they send the relevant documents to them for information.

Although there is little in the way of historical facts associated with the tavern, it is one of the more unusual hostelries in Central London today. Because it stands on a site that is cramped, to say the least, it cannot expand and that is probably part of its charm.


Posted in /Cam-Holborn | Leave a comment