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The blooming of Bloomsbury

A new book delves into the history of the area around Euston Road

18 January, 2019 — By Peter Gruner

The stag hunt as seen in the Illustrated London News in 1850

ONE of the first cafés where women could go without a male escort and Britain’s first Indian restaurant are celebrated in a fascinating new book about the history of Bloomsbury.

The imposing ABC tea rooms once stood overlooking the Regent’s Canal and were among the very first public places in Victorian times where a single female could eat a meal alone without a “guardian” chap.

Its origins are revealed in Ricci de Freitas’s well-researched book of often-forgotten history, Three Men and a Field, about the development of Bloomsbury and the area north of Tavistock Place.

The Aerated Bread Company (ABC) based in Camden Road is featured, along with many other important historical places and buildings in this lavishly illustrated book tracing a world gone by.

The tea rooms once occupied the site of present day Sainsbury’s supermarket. They were founded in 1862 by bread baker Dr John Dauglish (1824-1866). References to ABC tea rooms proliferate in literature, from Virginia Woolf to Agatha Christie, Graham Greene to Somerset Maugham.

Millions of us will also be grateful to Sake Deen Mahomed (1759-1851), who in 1810 opened the first Indian curry house, the Hindoostane, near Portman Square.

The ABC tea rooms as portrayed in a cartoon entitled: An Aerated Bread Shop in Highways and Byways of London (1902)

Sake Deen, whose portrait was painted by renowned artist Thomas Mann Baynes, another local man, was a traveller, surgeon and a man who also introduced therapeutic shampoo steam baths to London. He was thought to be the first Indian to publish a book in English.

Celebrated London Met police officer Sir Melville Leslie Macnaghten (1853 to 1921) led the acceptance of finger print identification and also named possible suspects in the Jack The Ripper case.

Comic actor Kenneth Williams, Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, Jerome K Jerome, author of Three Men in a Boat, and Lenin, Russian communist revolutionary, all lived in the area at some time.

Ricci has delved deep into the architectural history of the area centred on the development of that part of Lamb’s Conduit Fields, which lay between the Foundling Hospital Estate and the New Road (later Euston Road). Bloomsbury was so highly regarded that it was summarily Grade II-listed for its special architectural interest in 1976.

Notable former residents of the south side of the original Tavistock Place include anti-slave campaigner Zachary Macaulay, (1768-1838). He was best known for his tireless work with William Wilberforce with whom he is featured on the “Heroes of the Slave Trade Abolition,” wood engraving held by the National Portrait Gallery

Sake Deen Mahomed

Mary Matilda Betham (1776-1852) biographer, diarist, and miniature portrait painter lived in Burton Street. The eldest of 15 children, she painted the portrait of Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1802 and a miniature of his wife. Coleridge so admired her writing that he wrote a complimentary poem, To Matilda Betham from a Stranger. She became interested in women’s rights and wrote a Biographical Dictionary of the Celebrated Women of Every Age and Country in 1804.

At nearby Burton Crescent, Sydney Smith (1771 to 1845), celebrated wit and clergymen and Canon of St Paul’s, infamously stated: “What a pity it is that we have no amusements in England but vice and religion.”

Smith was also appreciated for his culinary skills and in particular his recipe for salad dressing. Charles Dickens, another local man, said: “I wish you would tell Mr Sydney Smith that of all the men I ever heard of and never saw, I have the greatest curiosity to see and the greatest interest to know him.”

Smith could have mentioned stag hunting as a popular pastime. In 1850 a stag had apparently been chased by hounds all the way from Hendon to Somers Town to end up in an ironmongers near Mabledon Place. The incident is pictured in a painting from the Illustrated London News. No one knows the fate of the stag, except that it was unlikely to have been a happy one.

Ricci de Freitas

The area’s dedication to hospitality is emphasised by the story of the Crescent Hotel. Italian immigrants Aldo and Felicina Bessolo started the hotel in Cartwright Gardens back in 1956 and it is still going strong three generations later.

The book is dedicated to the three men of the title. The first, Sir Andrew Judd, in 1572 acquired land around Conduit Fields. It remained farmland until 1807, when prolific Georgian architect and builder James Burton (the second man) began developing the estate.

By 1820, The Skinners’ Company Estate was an established residential district, with 11 new streets of houses, each of which has its own dedicated chapter in the book, with mini-biographies of their most notable former residents.

The area underwent a further transformation in the early 1900s, when Abraham Davis (the third man) under the auspices of the London Housing Society Ltd, replaced 13 “tired” Georgian terraces with an impressive array of red-brick mansion blocks which characterise the area today.

Three Men and a Field (Bloomsbury North of Tavistock Place). Available from Skoob Books, 66 The Brunswick, WC1N 1AE, Judd Books, 82 Marchmont Street, WC1N 1AG, and Camden Local Studies & Archives Centre, Holborn Library, Theobald’s Road, £21.95.


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