Amazing women, dystopian strongholds, and aristocratic estates – a few quirky facts with which to impressive your friends and family next time you’re in Bloomsbury.
1) Loads of it is named after the Duke of Bedford’s family
Bloomsbury became part of the Bedford Estate in 1669 when William, Lord Russell married into the Southampton family (the previous owners). The rest, you could say, is history because the majority of Bloomsbury is still part of the Bedford Estate to this day. They do not own the land occupied by the University of London and the British Museum, but as I’m sure you can imagine, what’s left is still extremely profitable. To the extent that Andrew Russell, the 15th and current Duke of Bedford was valued in 2017 at £700 million. Not too shabby.
Considering that this part of central London has been in the same hands for the last 351 years, it may not seem surprising that many of its square and street names come from the Dukes of Bedford. Names like “Russell” (the family name) and “Woburn” (referring to their family seat in Bedfordshire). “Tavistock” comes from the title of the Marquess of Tavistock, which is held by each Duke’s eldest son. Even “Gordon” Square – no, not named after maybe Gordon the gardener who tended to the square for 25 years or Gordon the local milkman (neither of these people are real to my knowledge), but it is named after the second wife of the 6th Duke of Bedford, Lady Georgiana Gordon (married 1803).
The occasional reference to “Southampton” are a nod to the Earls of Southampton who owned the land before the Russells.
I could go on, but you’ve probably got the idea now…
2) It where you can find London’s narrowest alley
Now, if you have your ear to the ground about London’s narrowest streets, you might have read this heading and been up in arms, furious, foaming at the mouth, cursing dishonour on me and my cow, but please, just let me explain.
The narrowest alley in London is not Brydges Place near Trafalgar Square, as is commonly believed. Although, not to take anything away from Brydges Place, it is still a very impressive 33 inches wide. Just stealing first place though is Emerald Court, near Great Ormond Street, at 26 inches.
I’m not sure when exactly it was built. It wasn’t there as of a map of 1682, but has appeared by 1746, so it was built at some point in those intervening 60-odd years.
And just in case you’re trying to imagine, the alley is about as wide as your average Humboldt penguin is tall (the kind they have at London Zoo).
< Photo for scale (and definitely not “Aww” factor).
3) The first anaesthetic given in England was administered on Gower Street
Gower Street has many, many, many blue plaques, so while the house itself is not there any more, there is a plaque marking the spot where the first anaesthetic was given in England in 1846.
Surgery before anaesthetic was not pleasant. Understatement of the century. You hear horrific cases of people like Samuel Pepys in the seventeenth century who had a bladder stone the size of a billiard ball removed from his body with no pain relief; patients being pinned to operating tables by multiple people to stop them writhing in agony, and surgical students like John Keats, who abandoned medicine because he found operations so traumatising. Thankfully, he went on to grace the world with his poetry, so a blessing in disguise, I guess.
So the aim was then to perform an operation as quickly as possible, to limit the amount of pain, and thus emerged surgeons like Robert Liston in the early 1800s, who prided themselves on being able to amputate a leg in just thirty seconds.
The first use of true surgical anaesthesia is contested, but the first time it came to England at least was 1846 when James Robinson, a dentist, carried out the first confirmed anaesthetic in the UK at the house of botanist Francis Boott. The anaesthetic was ether and the operation was a tooth extraction.
It was Robert Liston again who became the first surgeon in this country to operate using anaesthetic, two days after the demonstration at Gower Street. His patient was a butler, Frederick Churchill, who had such a relaxing leg amputation that when he woke after the operation, he asked, “When are you going to begin?”
4) It’s where “Keep Calm and Carry On” was born
It’s hard to believe that there’s a hidden skyscraper in Bloomsbury, but there kind of is. Senate House stands an impressive 19 floors and 64m tall, but you only really notice it once you’ve pretty much tripped over it. It’s tucked away off Russell Square and is the home of the University of London and Senate House Library, one of the UK’s largest academic libraries for arts, humanities & social sciences with about 2 million books.
You also might recognise it from films like Batman Begins, The Dark Knight Rises, and The Theory of Everything.
It was designed by architect Charles Holden and is a stately and towering example of 1930s Modernism, clean lines and minimalist design. Construction started in 1932 and the ceremonial foundation stone was laid by King George V the following year.
It didn’t spend much of its early life being used for the purpose for which it was intended. In 1939, two years after its completion, the Second World War broke out and the building was taken over by the Ministry of Information, the government department responsible for censorship and propaganda during the war. Sounding a little bit 1984? Well, you’d be right. George Orwell’s dystopian novel was published in 1948 and used Senate House as the inspiration for the menacing Ministry of Truth.
As the home of wartime propaganda, it makes sense that it was where ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ was coined. A phrase which has stuck doggedly to its own mantra and continues to haunt internet memes, Etsy stores, and tourist markets across the world to this day. It was actually thought up before the war, in 1939, along with two other slogans which were to be produced in the event of war as a way of keeping up morale. The other two were ‘Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution; Will Bring Us Victory’ and ‘Freedom is in Peril; Defend it with all Your Might’. What I find so fascinating about the fact that ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ has survived over the other two and with such recently popularity is that it was never actually used. The design was never officially issued and originals are actually really rare because many of the 2.45 million posters were pulped and recycled in 1940 to help with a paper shortage!
I’m about to blow your minds.
‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ was only rediscovered in 2000.
In a bookshop in Northumberland.
And it was only in 2001 that reproduction began. Nineteen years ago. How we kept calm and carried on before then, who knows?
5) Bloomsbury has been home to some incredible women
There are more well-known figures like author Virginia Woolf and her sister, artist Vanessa Bell, both prominent Bloomsbury Group members in the early twentieth-century, and women’s suffrage campaigners Emmeline Pankhurst and Millicent Fawcett. There are so many others, as well, whose contributions to history have fallen into obscurity: Britain’s first qualified female dentist, Lillian Lindsay, 1920s jazz star, Florence Mills, and this country’s first female professional landscape designer, Fanny Wilkinson. You can also read about Second World War secret agent, Noor Inayat Khan in a separate blog post.
As much as I would love to wax lyrical for days about all of the phenomenal women who lived in Bloomsbury over the centuries, I am but mortal and confined by the capacity of my brain (and the socially accepted one to two hour length of a tour…), so I would like to take this time to shine the spotlight on a woman who I don’t have time to talk about on the tour: Hilda Doolittle. A poet, more commonly known as H.D., whose history is intertwined with many other famous names of the twentieth-century: Ezra Pound, D.H. Lawrence, and Sigmund Freud.
H.D. was born in Pennsylvania, but in 1911 went on holiday to Europe which turned into a permanent relocation. She eventually moved to London and into a shared boarding house at No. 44 Mecklenburgh Square with her husband, Richard Aldington, in 1916. She only lived in the square for two years and it was not a particularly happy time for her: her marriage was falling apart, living in constant fear of zeppelin raids during the First World War took its toll on H.D., and in 1918 her brother was killed in active service.
As dark a period it was for her, however, it was also during this time, shortly after moving in, that she began writing the poems which would comprise her first collection, Sea Garden (1916). Poetry which used the natural world to explore ideas of consciousness and spirituality.
H.D.’s work was greatly influenced by Modernism, emerging theories of psychoanalysis, and early feminism. She was an important voice in the Modernist movement, a literary and artistic movement which sought to escape the confines of nineteenth-century Victorian ideals in a tumultuous period of technological advancement and two world wars. Her contributions to a lesser-known movement, Imagism, were also very influential. She is considered one of the first in the movement, which was characterised by simplicity, intense imagery and clear, precise language. While Ezra Pound is often described as her mentor, the exchange was certainly reciprocal, and he considered himself artistically indebted to H.D.’s influence.
H.D. was also unapologetic about her sexuality. Her partners included both men and women. Early on, she had a brief engagement with Ezra Pound, there was her marriage to Aldington – though it ended with separation and ultimately divorce in 1938, the two remained friends – and from 1918, an affair and daughter, Perdita, with composer Cecil Gray. Her partners also included Frances Josepha Gregg, who at around the time their relationship started in 1908 was an art student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and probably most notably was H.D.’s long-term relationship with novelist Bryher (Annie Winifred Ellerman).
They’d met towards the end of the First World War and lived together until 1946. They both took numerous other partners – Bryher even married twice. The second marriage to Kenneth Macpherson resulted in them adopting H.D.’s daughter, Perdita. Bryher remained her lover for the rest of H.D.’s life.
She suffered a stroke in July 1961 and died a couple of months later in Zürich, Switzerland. She is still remembered in Mecklenburgh Square and you can find her plaque, almost hidden away, in the corner at No. 44.
Bloomsbury is such a beautiful and fascinating part of London and is really lovely to wander round and get lost in, even without knowing some of the history behind its squares and buildings. Hopefully this post will add that extra layer of curiosity next time you find yourself there.