What is Bloomsbury?
Bloomsbury is a district of Central London. Between Westminster and The City, it is the third and youngest district of pre-Victorian London, making it one of the oldest areas in the capital. Today, it roughly coincides with the WC1 postcode.
The Birth and Growth of Bloomsbury: 1660-1737
London grew up around the twin centres of the City of London and the City of Westminster. The City of London was founded in 43 AD by the Romans. The City of Westminster was founded upriver around 1060AD by the Normans, about 1000 years later. Holborn grew up on the connecting roads.
The area of Bloomsbury lay between those twin centres, north of Holborn. Bloomsbury’s history began as building commenced around 1660, as the Earl of Southampton built the first London square: Bloomsbury Square, which still exists today. Building on Great Ormond Street and the environs followed soon after, with many Stuart buildings that remain in that area.
Some buildings from as early as 1680 still survive on Great Russell Street.
One can see in this famous historical map of 1746 the beginnings of Bloomsbury.
We can already see Bloomsbury Square, Red Lyon Square, Gray’s Inn and The Foundling Hospital (now Coram’s Fields). At that time, Euston Road did not exist.
By 1795 development had reached further northwards and Euston Road had been newly built (then called ‘New Road’).
By this time much of Bloomsbury’s iconic historic building had already taken place – the British Museum’s current premises was built in 1759 and after some initial stuttering began to flourish. Bedford Square, perhaps Bloomsbury’s most well preserved square, had been completed in 1783. Gower Street was in the process of being built during the making of this map. The Boot and a Bowling Green (along with a bakery) were all that stood on Judd Street.
Following victory in the Napoleonic Wars, the British Empire became world dominant and its capital, London, began to expand rapidly. This map of Bloomsbury was drawn up towards the end of the Georgian period in 1827, and we can see all its essential features already built. Since that time, almost 200 years ago, the street plan of Bloomsbury has hardly changed.
Bloomsbury was one of the most respectable districts of London – not as fashionable as St James’ or Mayfair, but home to families of the aspiring middle classes, full of Georgian buildings which are widely considered some of the most beautiful in our history. With the founding of UCL in 1826, the first English university other than Oxford and Cambridge, Bloomsbury quickly took the role of London’s intellectual quarter, which it arguably still holds today. As Bloomsbury matured, many of the originally residential areas became more associated with institutions – educational, medical, and often even radical. North of Bloomsbury were fields and the hills of Hampstead and Highgate. This explains etymologies such as ‘Hampstead Town’ which still exist today – during that time, Hampstead Town was a town distinct from London, along with Camden Town and others. Steam locomotives were yet to become popular, with Euston being the first intercity railway station built in 1837, with King’s Cross to follow in 1852 and St Pancras in 1868.
Bloomsbury was and still is famed for its ‘Town Planning’. Rather than construction sprawling aimlessly, architects such as James Burton and Thomas Cubitt planned squares and gardens to organise houses around. Terraces often contained a number of different ‘Grades’ of buildings, suitable for different classes of people, so that the wealthy could live alongside the poorer in harmony. Grand terraces would often be built in the style of palaces and stately homes, but split up into individual houses, to maximise the architectural effect. Mews roads were built nearby to contain a stable for each house. Each of these separate things was somehow woven together in a beautiful harmony.
These architects were artists, and treated every detail of every building with care, drawing upon more than two thousand years of tradition of classical architecture, followed since the founding of the City itself – which explains the uniformity but also variation between all the Georgian buildings of Bloomsbury.
It is no understatement to say that the planning and building of Bloomsbury was an architectural feat which has not been repeated since, and perhaps will not ever be repeated again.
Many of the most beautiful areas in London were built during this time, and we have the privilege to still have them with us today.
The Victorian and Edwardian Development of Bloomsbury: 1837-1945
The Victorian inheritors expanded London even further northwards and brought rail to the capital. The squalor and filth associated with the Steam Age drove many of the affluent families living in Bloomsbury further outwards to places like Hampstead, and poorer working class families moved in, often many of them sharing a single room. This was against the terms of the leases – but the problem was so widespread that landlords couldn’t do anything about it. This was when the area called King’s Cross came into existence: an infamous red light district which arguably persists to this day. Argyle Square, once a respectable square home to judges, barristers, and architects, is now daily the scene of antisocial behaviour, a hotspot for drugs. Argyle Walk is often trashed with litter and fly-tipped waste. It is fair to say that we are still living with the social issues created by the Victorians almost 200 years ago, none the wiser as to how to solve them.
Many of the original Georgian buildings were demolished by the Victorians to make way for their grander and more ‘useful’ buildings. All the mansion and housing blocks in Bloomsbury were built during this time, and this practice carried on into the Edwardian period. These buildings were created to more efficiently house the working classes and also the lower middle classes. By building upwards, a higher population density could be achieved, without overcrowding which would spread disease.
These Victorian and Edwardian estates were built primarily towards the north – closer to Euston Road and the rail stations, which were, and still are, traditionally more deprived.
The rail termini were also built by the Victorians in both the classical and gothic traditions. Every building – even down to the telephone box and street lamp – was designed with the utmost care and elegance, each subsequent generation of architects seeking to improve upon the innovations and designs of the previous one; each of them talking to each other in the silent language of classical design.
And yet even though the Victorians redeveloped much of Georgian Bloomsbury, they still continued the architectural tradition that the Georgians had drawn on – and many of the Victorian buildings share identical features with those of the Georgian period, even if not obvious at first glance. Indeed, their intention was only to ‘outdo’ the Georgians in their interpretation of classical architectural principles.
Throughout the beginning of the twentieth century, architects furthered the national architectural tradition, and in that time built some of the most impressive housing blocks – in particular in the King’s Cross area.
The Fall of Bloomsbury: 1945 – Present Day
At the beginning of the War, Bloomsbury had been continuously evolving for almost three hundred years, each subsequent age carefully adding their own marks, each with the aim of preserving and enhancing the area.
But the beginning of the War marked the beginning of the end for Bloomsbury.
The area suffered much bomb damage during the Blitz and areas in the southeast were almost entirely destroyed.
It is hard to imagine destruction on such a scale as this, and even harder to accept that all this happened within living memory.
Much of the progress which had been made up until that time was lost, and all within a few years. Most of it is now only recorded in photos and plans, or not at all.
During the postwar period there was a great impetus to rebuild, especially in Central London.
But it is unfortunate that the destruction of buildings destroyed Bloomsbury’s identity – what Bloomsbury had always been – and postwar architects, rather than further the old tradition, as our ancestors had done for thousands of years – decided to impose on Bloomsbury something entirely different.
Modern Architecture arrived in Bloomsbury.
Where old buildings had been, new ones went up. No regard was paid to the surrounding area and style – the core tenet of the new architecture to bring discord to the environment rather than harmony. Bloomsbury had been famous for its ‘town planning’. Now the new architects actively sought to bring the opposite.
But even more tragic than this was the widespread demolition of Georgian and Victorian buildings which had hardly or not even at all been damaged by bombs. Brunswick Square was reported as being ‘minimally damaged’ by bombing – but not one of the Georgian buildings survives there, despite them surviving six years of sustained bombing attacks.
Postwar development attitudes proved far more potent in the destruction of Bloomsbury than the Blitz itself, and it is sad to say that these attitudes are still very much a part of modern development all over the country.
A fury of developers sought to tear every and any building to the ground and replace them with new ones, irrespective of their history or value – or indeed, whether a new building was necessary, or even wanted. It reached a climax during the sixties when Euston’s famous Doric Arch was demolished for no apparent reason – despite a huge public outcry and an appeal to the Prime Minister – and St Pancras Station itself was touted for demolition.
The demolition of the Doric Arch marked a turning point in this wanton destruction, and despite its loss, it has become somewhat of a symbol of how not to go about development, and did much at the time to raise awareness of the value of old buildings.
In response to this destruction sprang up conservation movements, eventually backed by the government. Buildings could become ‘listed’ which in theory protected them from demolition or unsympathetic alteration. Conservation areas came into existence: areas which would require special consideration for any type of alteration – even altering a tree – and local government would be forced to only permit development if it ‘preserved or enhanced the special character of the area’.
But by then, much of the damage had already been done. Many of the outstanding buildings from our history had been razed to the ground, and discordant and often just plain shoddy buildings had replaced them.
A great deal of Bloomsbury survived – but some areas, such as the far northeastern corner, are totally destroyed and not a glimmer of Bloomsbury survives there today. So much so, that when Bloomsbury got its own ‘conservation area’, some of those places were left out entirely.
Destruction and defacement seemed to cease. Relatively influential societies like the Victorian Society and Georgian Society sprang up. Conservation area committees were formed and new legislation ensured that their voices would be heard.
Much of Bloomsbury survived those turbulent times, but today, all these changes are being reversed.
Bloomsbury Today: 2020s
The 350 year history of Bloomsbury is immense and complex – but at the heart of it all is its architectural style, its beauty, and attractiveness. Its identity as a residential and respectable central district of London. The proper thought and consideration given to all modifications to the area, however slight, down to the lowly telephone box and even street lamp.
Bloomsbury is part of a conservation area, meaning that any alteration to any building, or new development, can only be permitted if it preserves or enhances the special architectural and historical nature of the area.
It also means that shopfronts and advertisements must be ‘in keeping’ with the area, so that shop signs should be of a historical nature, and excessive advertisement is not permitted.
The street environment: street furniture such as streetlights, pavement and road surfacing, should also all be in keeping with the history of the area, ideally drawn from historical examples.
To ensure this is the responsibility of the London Borough of Camden.
To help them is an advisory committee – the Bloomsbury Conservation Areas Advisory Committee – whose opinions on conservation matters should be taken as final.
There are a team of conservation officers, whose job it is to advise on the merits of applications based on Bloomsbury’s history and interests.
There is a governmental body, Historic England, whose role it is to administer listings and assess the condition and value of historic buildings, including those in Bloomsbury.
It is the responsibility of residents and businesses to properly preserve their own buildings in the area, whilst it is the responsibility of Camden to educate them about how and why that should be done.
And there are various other associations of enthusiasts over the country who take it as their duty to preserve buildings such as ours for future generations to enjoy, as we have the privilege to do currently. Many authors have published books on the history and architecture of Bloomsbury.
I use the word ‘responsibility’, but it can hardly be called that. To take a part in the history of this area should bring great pride to all who have that pleasure.
But today, all this stands for nothing.
A Cash Cow for Camden Council
Bloomsbury is now at the mercy of the London Borough of Camden, a local authority which has begun to flout all law and reason to do as it wills, knowing its constituents cannot pursue hundreds of court cases a year.
The special requirements of the conservation area are essentially disregarded. Planning applications are granted at will, even when they fly in the face of Camden’s own commitments to Bloomsbury, and when the advisory committee campaigns strongly against them.
When once heritage societies worked with Camden’s officers to ensure new development preserved the area, heritage groups have been shut out, now forced to campaign against those same officers and pursue legal challenges.
Planning violations occur so frequently that the situation is out of control, with Camden not even trying to fulfil their duty to care for the area.
Perhaps most insulting of all to the esteemed history of Bloomsbury, the local authority cannot even keep the streets clear of litter and graffiti.
Camden allowed a rooftop extension to the Town Hall Annexe which breached commitments to two conservation areas.
Camden are engendering reckless and unnecessary developments in the area of Euston Square – despite that being the site of the Euston Arch demolition – allowing the historic railings to be removed and the square to be used as a building site – even though it is listed.
At one point, Camden even proposed a modern rooftop extension for their listed Edwardian Town Hall.
But the real tragedy is not the individual cases of negligence – it is the general defacement and clutter present on every single one of Bloomsbury’s streets and squares, no matter their fame or beauty. The fact that Bloomsbury’s name is being crushed into dust, with businesses and residents not even vaguely aware of the strict regulations, even less of the history of the area.
Take a look at the founding place of Bloomsbury today. Not only have Camden tried to rename the square, but as can be seen, they take no care at all to maintain it.
Commitments have indeed been made by Camden to preserve and enhance the area – but they, in every way, are totally ignored.
Today, we are all a living and breathing part of the history of Bloomsbury. One day, our actions, or lack thereof, will be recorded and assessed in the history books, or indeed on websites like this one – and by then, we will have either destroyed or saved Bloomsbury.