Bloomsbury: curiouser and curiouser
From Triffids to the Titanic, Dan Carrier unearths Bloomsbury’s more unusual connections
22 February, 2019 — By By Dan Carrier
HAS a set of streets ever added to the stock of human knowledge quite as much as Bloomsbury? While the Bloomsbury Set – the likes of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell – are well known, it was not just the Fabian writers of the early 20th century who made the place renowned. Bloomsbury has always attracted the great and the good, but its streets boast much more than a torrent of Blue Plaque worthies. Here is a run down of some other landmarks and the people associated with Bloomsbury, some celebrated, others less so.
• EIGHT miles of iron wires were strung across the lawn of Sir Francis Ronalds’s home at 40 Queen Square, as he conducted glorious experiments in the field of electricity. Ronalds, who lived between 1788 and 1873, invented the electric telegraph aged just 28.
• FLEETS of swish Daimlers, transporting Wooster-style toffs, industry bigwigs and movie stars were a regular sight in Herbrand Street between the wars – as it is here you can find an Art Deco car garage designed by Wallis, Gilbert and Partners, they of the Hoover Building fame. It was designed originally as a multi-storey garage for the famous Daimler Hire Company – and many a famous name would send their chauffeur here to take one of the luxurious fleet away.
• FANCY seeing what the grand dining room of the Titanic was like? Take a trip to the former Hotel Russell – now the Kimpton Fitzroy London – overlooking Russell Square and check out its restaurant. It was designed in 1898 by Charles Fitzroy Doll – who later went on to lay out the dining room on the ill-fated ship, which is said to have been identical to the one he built in Russell Square.
• HEAD to Bloomsbury Square and look at the statue of a man decked out in the garb of a Roman senator: it is Charles Fox, the Georgian politician, designed by Sir Richard Westmacott. Fox’s statue was unveiled exactly 10 years after his death, in 1816 – and Westmacott, a devoted Classicist, decided he would pay homage to the great opposition spokesman of the period as someone from the time of the Caesars. Fox liked to refer to London as “the new Rome”, while his statue clutches a copy of Magna Carta – representing his belief in the rights of the people and the limitations of monarchy.
• GREAT Ormond Street’s world-famous hospital for children started in humble surroundings of a single house in 1851. It was partly the generosity of another famous Bloomsbury resident, the writer JM Barrie, who gave the royalties of Peter Pan to the hospital that helped its expansion in the 1920s and 30s.
• POETS Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes could be found locked in intellectual battle at The Lamb in Lamb’s Conduit Street in the late 1950s.
• THE Neasden Manor Dairy Farm, run by the Tubb family, had their central London shop at 43 Store Street – and would sell the produce from their Middlesex holding here. Milk came in churns straight from the fields, and Edwardian shoppers would come with their own bottles to buy milk. The shop remains, but now as Café Deco, selling sandwiches and coffee.
• BLOOMSBURY was not always considered to be right in the heart of central London. Jokes made by Tory satirist and MP Theodore Hook in Parliament and his novels in the mid-1820s painted the area as being off the beaten track for any self-respecting gentleman to travel, a jibe partly aimed at the location of the British Museum. It was not until it was given a WC postcode when London was divvied into postal districts in the 1850s that it was truly embraced as part of the heart of the capital.
• THE first use of anaesthetics in Britain is recorded to have been in December 1846, by surgeon Robert Liston at the University of London’s teaching hospital in Gower Street. It was said his skill was such he could amputate a limb in 25 seconds.
• DAY Of The Triffids author John Wyndham lived for many years in rooms at the Penn Club, Tavistock Square, between 1924 and 1938. He returned after the war to the club’s current address in Bedford Square, where he was living when he wrote the sci-fi classic.
• MARY Ward, who penned a series of best-selling novels at the tale end of the 19th century, was a pioneer in looking out for the area’s poor. She helped set up the Passmore Edwards Settlement in Tavistock Place, which combined clubs and classes for Bloomsbury’s working-class families.
• THE British Museum was founded with the help of a lottery. In 1753, physician Sir Hans Sloane, who kept a private museum packed full of curiosities, died. He instructed that his collection should be offered for sale to George II to buy for the nation – and it must be kept in one piece. The king said he couldn’t afford it, so Parliament held a lottery to raise the funds. Parliament passed an Act to incorporate the British Museum – the first national museum in the country – and Sloane’s collection was handed to it.
• ELISABETH Jesser Reid, who lived in Bloomsbury, founded The Ladies College in 1847 in Bedford Square that offered the same higher education courses available to men, and became a leading figure in the battle for equal rights.
• BEDFORD Square, which was first laid out in 1775, is one of the few examples in London that survives intact. Its central garden is oval, and each terrace has a block at the end that projects forward, modelled on the idea of a countryside pavilion.
• MUSICIAN Bob Marley rented a room at 34 Ridgmount Gardens when he came to London from Jamaica in 1972. He was short of cash after a tour had not paid out and found cheap lodgings in Bloomsbury with his fellow Wailers Bunny Livingstone and Peter Tosh.