Bloomsbury is famous as an area of garden squares and gardens.The residential square is a unique feature of London and is not matched by anything elsewhere in the world.
Although Covent Garden was built as a residential square and completed by 1631, the first site in London to be called by the name ‘square’ was Bloomsbury Square. It was first known as Southampton Square, as it was laid out in the 1660s by the 4th Earl of Southampton, who leased three sides of the forecourt of his London residence for building, before promptly escaping out of town from the plague.
In the following years, squares such as Queen Square (1716-1725), quickly grew popular as pleasant, airy places to live and houses around them were in demand. In Jane Austen’s Emma , Mr and Mrs John Knightley live in Brunswick Square: The neighbourhood of Brunswick Square is very different from almost all the rest. We are so very airy! Many squares like Brunswick Square, developed on the edge of the town, still had views of open country. The ideal was rus in urbe – to bring a feeling of the countryside into the town.The fields of the Duke of Bedford’s estate gave rise to modern-day Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia. The Bedford Estate contained 20 public gardens, all in the form of squares. The architect Thomas Leverton set a fashion in 1775 with the first of these, Bedford Square, where all the houses were united behind a continuous ‘palace front’, making the terrace look like a large country house. Russell Square gardens were laid out by Humphrey Repton in 1810; Gordon Square and Tavistock Square were developed as a matching pair with the same dimensions by Thomas Cubitt in the 1820s.
In the later part of the 19th century older squares began to deteriorate and in the 1920s, the garden squares were under threat. In Bloomsbury, a group of four squares at Endsleigh Gardens, south of the Euston Road, disappeared beneath Friends House. There was a public outcry which led to a Royal Commission in 1927 and resulted in the London Squares Preservation Act of 1931. The Act gave protection to 461 squares and other green enclosures, ensuring that they could not be built upon and were preserved for leisure and recreation. About one fifth of the enclosures protected by the Act were by this time in public hands.
However, the Act did not prevent alterations in the buildings surrounding squares over the rest of the century. In Bloomsbury, much of the original Bedford Estate housing disappeared in the 1930s beneath university blocks and modern hotels. Many houses were converted into offices, dramatically altering the appearance of many of these spaces.
During the Second World War, the railings of many squares were taken to be melted down and used for armaments. Their loss greatly affected the appearance of the squares, and pointlessly as most of the railings were thrown away unused. However, the removal of railings created greater access to squares, and after the war many remained open to the public. Some, like Bedford Square and Mecklenburgh Square, continued to be privately owned; others, like Russell Square, were privately owned but accessible by the public, while yet others, like Brunswick Square (which was originally part of the grounds of the Foundling Hospital), were leased or given to local authorities by landowners who could no longer afford their upkeep.
There were other green spaces. St George’s Gardens had been one of the very first burial grounds to be established away from a church, in open fields. The land was bought in 1713 to serve the parishioners of two churches: St George the Martyr, Queen Square, and St George’s, Bloomsbury, the latter (then still unbuilt) by the great architect Nicholas Hawksmoor. By 1855 it had become overcrowded and closed. It is now a small park, with some atmospheric chest tombs remaining.
Upkeep and maintenance of the squares and gardens was poor post-war and until the mid-1990s, when a massive effort to upgrade them was undertaken with the help of the Heritage Lottery Fund around the time of the Millenium. This successful and welcome regeneration is now under threat as a result of the cutbacks caused by the current recession. Nevertheless, interest in gardens and garden creation still continues, with the very newest to the Bloomsbury squares and gardens, the tiny Marchmont Community Garden, being developed in 2011, transforming an unloved and scruffy site into a green oasis.
For more information on individual squares visit their page on this site.
If you’d like more information on London Squares in general, go to http://www.londongardenstrust.org/history/squares.htm