Bloomsbury is an internationally significant quarter of London – it becoming a household name especially after the rise to fame of the ‘Bloomsbury Group’ – although it was well known for different reasons for a century before their influence. Almost everyone has heard of Bloomsbury – even if it only conjures up vague associations of Georgian terraces, literary names, and middle class affluence. The area is renowned for its beauty and interest, its streets being set out around and between green squares home to centuries old plane trees – something which is generally described as an ‘internationally significant’ example of town planning. Today, much has changed, and Bloomsbury has lost much of its initial ‘special character’, and certainly much of its middle class ‘affluence’ – but its historical importance remains internationally significant. Camden describe Bloomsbury as their ‘most prestigious’ Conservation Area.
Threat Level: Moderate
The Bloomsbury Conservation Area is under a number of significant threats. These pertain mainly to a pattern of irresponsible decision making from the local authority, Camden, and a tendency to ignore professional advice from both ourselves and the government’s heritage advisory, Historic England, in the face of large scale development. This coupled with Bloomsbury’s strategic position in the centre of London, and a number of large institutions such as UCL and the British Museum wishing to expand their premises, combine to place Bloomsbury under moderate threat. There are a number of other threats such as HS2 around Euston Square, and the increase in transient population due to high student numbers and holidaymakers, further exacerbated by the rise of AirBnb and similar companies. Small business is also being squeezed out with the proliferation of zero-tax multinational companies and increases in rent. Residents and residents’ groups, an essential part of monitoring an area, have begun to disengage from taking an interest in the area and its future feeling disenfranchised by Camden. There is little interest from Camden in resolving these issues.
History of Designation
Most of Bloomsbury proper – preserved Georgian Bloomsbury – was designated in 1968, only a year after Conservation Areas were created in 1967 with the passing of the Civic Amenities Act. However it took a long time for all of what we would now call Bloomsbury – with its Victorian and Edwardian heritage – to be designated, with the latest audit in 2011 adding 17 new areas to the Conservation Area. There were also some surprises along the way, such as the Brunswick Centre being included in the Conservation Area in 1999 and listed in 2000 before Victorian neighbours which it sought to demolish joined twelve years later.
Bloomsbury was born in the Georgian period, around 1800. Being conveniently placed between the cities of Westminster and London, and to the north of Holborn, it began life as a ‘light and airy’ residential area, home to the aspiring middle classes, but never as fashionable as the districts of St James’ or Mayfair, for example. Much of Bloomsbury was built speculatively – meaning that developers built houses without any prearranged buyer, but hoped that demand would fulfil the supply. This was largely successful and set the scene for much of London’s development.
However it soon became clear that developers would struggle to find occupants for all of the housing which had been built or was planned. Soon leases were sold to institutions such as UCL, which was founded in 1826, and built their magnificent premises on Gower Street. This was a marked departure from the initially intended residential nature of the area – the Bedford Estate cared about quality of life for residents, and their legacy can be seen today in the lack of public houses in the bulk of Bloomsbury.
Moving into the Victorian period, Bloomsbury assumed more of an institutional and intellectual character. The British Museum’s imposing Neoclassical building was completed in 1852. The great stations on Euston Road connected Bloomsbury to the rest of London, and the country, with Euston (1837), King’s Cross (1850), and St Pancras (1868) built along Bloomsbury’s northern border. The stations brought with them dirt, disruption, and poverty, and Bloomsbury’s character as being ‘light and airy’, and ‘healthy’ were destroyed forever. The dangerous and acidic London pollution cloaked Bloomsbury in grime and soot for a century, and forced the ‘affluent middle classes’ away from Bloomsbury, further north to Hampstead, or west to Marylebone. With the departure of the middle classes came the rise of slums and depravity, the mews now being home to ‘large numbers of immigrants’, ‘mainly Irish’, and nationally famed red light districts, such as King’s Cross. Further from the stations, in Bedford Square for example, respectability was maintained, although the Bedford Estate had trouble with leaseholders breaking the terms of leases to convert their homes into schools, or hospitals, for example.
Later in the period many Georgian terraces were demolished to make way for much larger ‘housing blocks’ (for the working classes) and ‘mansion blocks’ (for the middle classes). Vast areas around the stations were cleared for such ventures.
With the outbreak of war in 1939, Bloomsbury came under immense risk from the Blitz. There was much bomb damage, particularly along Holborn, and to the north-east of Bloomsbury. The legacy of this bomb-damage can be seen today – none of Bloomsbury’s character remains in the north-east, now modern social housing blocks, and much is the same along High Holborn.
In the post-war period, there became a fervour for destruction. Much of Bloomsbury’s Georgian buildings were demolished, on spurious grounds of ‘bomb damage’. For example around Brunswick Square, a few buildings had become ‘damaged beyond repair’, suffering direct bomb hits, and yet all the buildings surrounding the square were demolished. Much of this was motivated by ‘improvement’ and ‘progress’ – after all, those buildings were little better than slums, with little obvious ‘architectural merit’ and plenty of dereliction. In many ways the approaches to addressing social issues in these areas mirrored those of the later Victorians and Edwardians. However the need for ‘progress’ essentially erased Bloomsbury’s character in these areas. Before the war, classical style was still employed, so that connections could be made between the terrace block and the housing block. After the war, Modernists prided themselves in creating discord in the appearance of buildings and scorning public opinion. This has left an unfortunate architectural blemish in many of Bloomsbury’s areas.
Read more about the architectural history of Bloomsbury
The architecture of Bloomsbury is varied and diverse with examples of different styles, schools, and styles within schools from all throughout the past three hundred years.
The vast majority of buildings in Bloomsbury are derived from some sort of historical revival style.
During the initial development of Bloomsbury, clasical architecture was the norm – a school of architecture based on the architecture of Ancient Greece and Rome, and subsequent writings, interpretations, and developments by renaissance architects. The use of ancient Greek and Roman principles was seen as reflecting a new age of knowledge and refinement. Much emphasis was placed upon ‘proportion’ and ‘ratio’ – for example, that the height of a window should be exactly three times its width, and so on. Every part of a Georgian facade, now matter how simple, will relate to other parts in simple proportions. This is what makes them so appealing despite often being, on the face of it, the same as many later ‘Modern’ buildings which look so ugly. This in part tied into contemporary and ancient philosophical theories of ‘beauty’ which often held that beauty had its origins in mathematics – and hence proportions. Some ancient Greek philosophers particularly believed that mathematical certainty and proof had something of the divine about it – so much so that when an ancient Greek philosopher proved that the square root of two was not a simple proportion, we are told he was ostracised and possibly exiled.
The widespread adoption of Classical style in Bloomsbury relates to its developers – mainly the Dukes of Bedford, and other aristocrats – who would have been educated almost exclusively in the classics and sent on the ‘obligatory’ Grand Tour which was a tour around Europe, particularly Italy and later Greece, to learn about classical history and its architecture. It was also essentially obligatory for architects of the time to do the same. The culture of ancient civilisations, particularly ancient Rome, was high admired and extremely influential during the Georgian period.
Classical Architecture also made use of the ‘Orders’ – five ‘styles’ which every Classical building (or at least parts of them) can be categorised into. These orders consisted of the main three – Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian – and two further orders – Tuscan, and Composite. Each had their own uses, allusions, and ‘meaning’, so that different orders were chosen for different buildings with different uses.
In the Victorian period there began a backlash against classical architecture. Although classical architecture was still widely practised, influential writers and artists such as Ruskin and Pugin began to hold that classical architecture was essentially foreign, ‘Pagan’, and un-‘English’ and certainly unchristian. This was essentially due to classical architecture being derived from European sources, and this was during the height of the British Empire – the level of national pride and influence called for a renewed national style. Gothic revival filled the criteria, and we see its national influence in the Palace of Westminster, completed in 1870. Its influence can be seen in Bloomsbury, with St Pancras station on its border the most significant example, completed in 1868. Relatively few Gothic buildings were built in Bloomsbury during the Victorian era – Waterstones on Gower Street is perhaps the most magnificent example, but also the Church of Christ the King is notable.
The issue perhaps was that it took significant expertise and learning to compose in Gothic, so only significant and expensive buildings could afford to be Gothic. In general, any Tom, Dick, or Harry could compose a decent facade using Classical architecture, and this is what made it such a useful and long-lasting school. Simple and unpretentious buildings continued in the classical style, although some Gothic flourishes can be detected in even those buildings.
The Edwardians turned back towards grandiose classical buildings, such as those seen on High Holborn or the Kingsway. Gothic became unpopular, pretentious and strange, which perhaps explains the ridicule shown towards St Pancras in later decades and its threat of demolition.
The post-war period showed a marked shift in architectural thought. Up until the war, every style had something of the historical about it – classical from Rome and Greece, Gothic from medieval French, and English churches, and so on. There was a profound respect for history and its importance in society up until the destruction of the Second World War. With the search for a ‘new world order’, and a rejection of the ‘old order of Europe’, which was seen as bringing about the catastrophe of the world wars, there was again a search for a new type of architecture – and of course a new world order could hardly take inspiration from history. Modernism grew out of schools such as Bauhaus – Bauhaus of course holding the accolade of being ‘banned’ by Hitler.
Modernism was popular amongst architects and intellectuals and nothing short of an intellectual revolution took place, whereby classical architecture was completely pushed out of the curriculum in favour of superior modernist architecture, which placed emphasis on ‘function over form’, and creating discord in the environment, scorning public opinion. It is unfortunate that despite Modernsim placing function over form, many architects failed to create either, leaving the country with a huge wealth of poorly designed, and even more poorly built buildings, in the place of classical buildings genuinely admired and loved by the public. Bloomsbury saw its fair share of Modernist ‘progress’, with the Euston Arch being demolished and the new Euston station being built – which will now be demolished and replaced again, with the Euston Arch possibly being re-erected. Bloomsbury’s most significant Modernist building is the Brunswick Centre, which in a strange twist of fate is now listed and considered an heritage asset more significant than most of its genuinely historic neighbours.
Most of Bloomsbury’s buildings remain classical in some form or another – whether it be the restrained, elegant, Georgian terraces, or the boisterous and imposing red-brick mansion blocks of the Victorian era. There are a huge number of classical ‘allusions’ – whether that be railings in the style of spears, or telephone boxes inspired by classical tombs. To the trained eye, every street of Bloomsbury is a book of classical thought and such ‘allusions’, with of course the rude interruption of modernist buildings without any sort of language to speak for them.
Bloomsbury’s special interest varies throughout its area – which is both a significant asset but is also to its detriment. It is interesting to see varied examples of architectural styles, sometimes closely packed together, but this ambiguity in special character gives developers significant leeway to often design whatever they like and pass it off as being in some way like some building within a five mile radius (which unfortunately Camden all too greedily swallow without much question).
The architectural styles are essentially all historically influenced. This historical influence is almost uniformly classical. Part of Bloomsbury’s special appearance is thus one of classically designed architecture, of high quality and of high quality materials, such as stone and brick.
Generally its residential buildings are simple and unpretentious, relying on simple proportion to create a pleasing aesthetic effect, which can be appreciated by intellectuals and laymen alike. Explicit use of the orders is fairly sparing, although in more well to-do areas such as Bedford Square there are appearances of pilasters, and entrances are often adorned with full columns. Essentially all windows are sash windows.
Small residential buildings – terraces – are generally of London stock brick, and the greyness or dullness of the buildings, berated in the Victorian era, is an essential part of Bloomsbury’s special appearance in its Georgian areas. The uniformity of appearance is also an essential part of the appearance of these areas – Gower Street for example, the usual whipping-boy for ‘dullness’ in the Victorian era, is now an excellent reminder of how once all of Bloomsbury appeared.
There are some interesting variations in terraces, for example the western side of Gordon Square has a Georgian terrace faced in Bath stone, and is highly reminiscent of Georgian Bath. Great Ormond Street and its environs, one of the elder areas of Bloomsbury, is home to more eccentric terraces, such as an ‘Egyptian’ style building on the western end of Great Ormond Street (formerly Little Ormond Street). The areas of John Street and Great James Street are home to ‘Queen Anne Style’ terraces, distinguished by the light arches at the top of the sash windows.
The larger Victorian and later Edwardian housing blocks, in reaction to the dullness of Georgian buildings, are often built in red brick (also made possible by rail links to the north). These buildings are far bulkier and more ‘massive’ compared to the light and elegant Georgian terraces. The Victorians simply didn’t do terraces – if they built, they built massive and imposing buildings. The classical influences are again generally understated, with budget blocks such as Hastings House having a minimum of ‘detail’ but being evidently classically influenced, compared to mid-range blocks such as Queen Alexandra Mansions whose classical details are expressed in patterns of brickwork with sparing stucco applied to create cornices, compared to Gordon Mansions whose extravagant polychromy and restless facade express more obviously classical design, and a higher class of resident.
Bloomsbury’s large scale institutional buildings are some of the best examples of classical architecture in the country. The British Museum for example is a grand Neoclassical Ionic building, with an exceptional exterior and interior, with University College London being another fine example of this time a Corinthian composition, with an iconic portico and dome. UCL’s Cruciform Building is a case in point, being what the Georgians might have called ‘aweful’. It seems to have defied classification by every critic, showing classical details, but its plan is more reminiscent of some sort of fortification and the whole composition certainly appears somewhat fort-like, eccentric, but exciting.
Bloomsbury’s smaller scale institutions are also generally classically designed – with plenty of small hospitals, Bloomsbury being well known for medical advances during the Victorian era. The former Royal Free Hospital on Gray’s Inn Road is a notable example of a small quadrangle plan hospital – these designs being employed to increase ventilation, as it was initially thought that disease spread through stagnant and ‘foul’ air. Bloomsbury is peppered with various hospital buildings – such as the former Royal Free School of Medicine on Hunter Street, and the former Royal Homeopathic Hospital on Queen Square. All follow more or less the pattern set down by the housing blocks – red brick, but with varying levels of detail and colouring depending upon the budget (hospitals often were well funded as generous aristocratic philanthropy was fairly common). The former Royal Free Hospital, being somewhat older, is actually an example of a hospital built in London stock brick – its main buildings were built before red brick became the norm with the introduction of the railway stations around 1850.
There are few examples of planned commercial building in Bloomsbury. The Georgians tended not to do things that way, with markets such as those at Covent Garden or Smithfields being well used at the time. Woburn Walk is a notable example of a planned Georgian commercial area, which is very well preserved, and delightful. There are no other similar examples of its kind in Bloomsbury. Most commerical areas arose when residents applied to turn their ground floor into shops – and this is how streets such as Marchmont Street sprang up. Shopfronts were designed with considerable care and detail, with elegant cast iron supports, sometimes with remarkable details, and elegant muntin-bars. Of course there was no such thing as the large glass fronts which we have these days – in the Georgian times, large sheets of glass were extremely expensive, so it was preferred to use plenty of small sheets of glass and arrange them using muntin-bars or sash-bars. Often the Georgians then painted these sash-bars in dark colours, such as black even, or the appropriately named ‘Invisible Green’. The current fashion of white painted sash windows is nothing more than a fashion, and would have been considered eccentric in the Georgian era, just as we would consider green windows eccentric now.
The character of Bloomsbury is an interesting blend of institutional, residential, and commercial, which has made it famous and interesting for two centuries now. It is a busy, bustling, and sometimes overwhelming place to live, with world-class institutions, multiple green spaces, and thousands of residents all tightly packed together.
The residential character of Bloomsbury is perhaps the most pronounced, with the majority of Bloomsbury’s area being populated by various types of residential building, terraces and blocks alike. Bloomsbury was designed as a residential area, and was well populated by the aspiring middle classes, the area being ‘respectable’ but ‘unfashionable’, with aristocrats snobbishly making a joke of asking ‘but where is Russell Square?’ during the early Victorian period.
Bloomsbury was well designed, and it was designed with the amenity of its residents in mind. The famous squares and crescents of Bloomsbury were initially designed for the sole use of the residents of that square, which is still reflected in Bloomsbury’s two best preserved squares, Bedford Square and Mecklenburgh Square, which are not open to the public. In fact even many of the roads were private roads, for the sole use of residents, with gates and gate houses on many roads, which were eventually removed by the former LCC. The only remaining examples of these gatehouses are at the entrance to UCL.
The original lease to the Bedford Estate properties in fact forbade institutional use of any kind, although the Estate had a hard time enforcing this, and eventually gave it up altogether when institutional use all but took over most of their estate. There are interesting examples though of early interventions, whereby the Estate allowed buildings to assume an institutional role but forbade any indication of this, ordering the removal of a brass plaque at the entrance at one time, and ordering schools to stop the build up of queues in the morning on the street. Such a level of pride in residential amenity would nowadays be branded busybody-ish.
The initial type of residential character of Bloomsbury is no more – but it still forms an essential part of Bloomsbury’s character. Despite squares and roads being open to the general public, they were created with only residents in mind, and this is perhaps reflected in that it is now the residents who care for the public squares. Houses are not occupied solely by well heeled families, but are generally in multiple occupation, although there is now a trend of houses returning to their original use. It all combines to create a highly densely populated area, with residents who have a strong sense of pride in their patch of Bloomsbury, living shoulder to shoulder with each other and some of the largest institutions in the country.
Bloomsbury’s institutional character is significant, and it is perhaps the institutions who hold the most influence over Bloomsbury. There is hardly a road without some sort of institution, famous or not, with many of Bloomsbury’s Georgian terraces now being occupied by embassies or small institutions. The large institutions of the British Museum and UCL are essential parts of Bloomsbury’s character, along with the large number of small hospitals, which these days are generally walk-in centres or administered by UCL.
Bloomsbury’s commercial character is less pronounced, perhaps a reflection of the initial lack of planned commercial areas in Bloomsbury. Bloomsbury does not have any major commercial centres, save for the Brunswick Centre – but even that does not attract a great deal of footfall or interest. Historically, as individuals changed their ground floors into shops, they would have been individual or family companies.
Thanks to Bloomsbury’s international reputation, there a wealth of resources for learning more about the Conservation Area. Attempting to catalogue all the resources available would be a monumental task. Instead detailed below are some good places to start if you wish to learn more about the conservation area.
The Bloomsbury Project
Outstanding research carried out by UCL and presented on the Bloomsbury Project website is an excellent resource for learning titbits of information about your local area.
The Bloomsbury Project
The Survey of London
The Survey of London is a comprehensive survey of the historical fabric of London, an invaluable resource for learning about local history. The area of Bloomsbury is falls into two volumes.
Old and New London Volume 4
Victorian Bloomsbury, by Rosemary Ashton
An interesting social history of Bloomsbury in the Victorian Era, documenting how Bloomsbury took on an increasingly institutional and medical status throughout the Victorian period.
Bloomsbury Past, by Richard Tame
An overview of the history of Bloomsbury, for light reading.