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History of Russell Square

The first Earl of Southampton purchased the manor of Bloomsbury from the Crown.
Charles II granted the Earl a building licence allowing the first phase of construction in Bloomsbury to begin with Bloomsbury Square.
This was not only the first square to be so designated but Lord Southampton pioneered the system of development by hereditary landlords through speculative builders, which brought the rest of Bloomsbury (and half of London) into being.
The Russell family acquired the Bloomsbury Estate through the marriage of William Russell to Lady Vaughan, daughter and co-heir of the fourth Earl of Southampton.
William Russell was found guilty of being party to the ‘Rye House’ plot to assassinate Charles II and his brother, and was beheaded in Lincoln Inn Fields. A bronze tablet in the Fields commemorates the event and is succeeded by his five year-old grandson, Francis Russell (1765-1802).
Building agreements granted for Bedford Square marked the beginning of the second phase in the building of Bloomsbury. Development prior to 1776 lay to the south of Great Russell Street, while building to the north began in 1776 with Bedford Square.
Bloomsbury Estate plan marks the Duke’s decision to develop the rest of his estate, with his family home, Bedford House, as the plan’s central feature.
December 1799
Fifth Duke employs James Burton (1761-1837) as his builder to develop his estate and instructs him to demolish Bedford House.
Bloomsbury Estate plan shows the intended development of the estate to the north with two garden squares (Russell and Bloomsbury) as the principal new features.
24 June 1800
The Building Agreement of Russell Square was signed between the Duke of Bedford and James Burton. In it Burton agrees to set out the north side of Bloomsbury Square, the south and west side of Russell Square, and Bedford Place, and to set out and plant the two squares of Russell and Bloomsbury.
Russell Square Paving Act was passed. This provided for the maintenance of the garden square by an elected committee of rate-payers. Fifth Duke of Bedford moves from his Bloomsbury estate to St. James’s.
Future residents of Russell Square were to be:
1805-30: Sir Thomas Lawrence had his studio at number 67 (demolished for the Imperial Hotel) when he painted Platov, the house was guarded by Cossacks “on their small white horses with their long spears grounded”.
1818: Sir Samuel Romilly, the great law reformer killed himself at number 21 in 1818 when distracted by grief at the death of his wife.
1818-34: Lord Thomas Denman, Lord Chief Justice lived at number 50.
Circa 1830s: William Cowper, the poet, lived at number 62 (later demolished for the Imperial Hotel) when a schoolboy at Westminster.
1832: Lord Tenterden died at number 28 in 1832.
1836: Mary Russell Mitford, the novelist and dramatist, attended a dinner in Russell Square also attended by Wordsworth, Browning, and “quantities more of poet”’.
1880-1905: George Williams, founder of the YMCA lived at number 13.
Fifth Duke of Bedford dies.
Burton appoints Humphry Repton (1752-1808), England’s foremost landscape designer, to design and plant Russell (at a cost of £2,570) and Bloomsbury Squares (which were to be two of his three London square commissions).
J P Malcolm, antiquary and local resident, rejoiced in his ‘Londinium Redivivum’ on the “wonderfully rapid” increase in the population of the parish of St George, Bloomsbury: “Squares, and spacious streets of the first respectability are rising in every direction; and the north side of the parish will, in a few years, contain an immense accumulation of riches, attracted by the grand structures in Russell Square now almost complete....”
Russell and Bloomsbury garden squares completed.
Cadogan Square (now Place) was set out by Repton for Lord Cadogan (the last of Repton’s London Square commissions)
Repton’s ‘Inquiry into changes of taste in Landscape gardening’ is published, in which he describes his work at Russell Square:
“A few years hence, when the present patches of shrubs shall have become thickets, when the present meagre rows of trees shall have become an umbrageous avenue, and the children now in their nurses’ arms shall have become the parents or grandsires of future generations, this square may serve to record that the art of landscape gardening in the beginning of the 19th century was not directed by whim or caprice, but founded on due consideration of utility as well as beauty”.
Both squares proved very popular and Dobie describes in 1830 how Russell Square “has, from its first formation, been a favourite residence of the highest legal characters; and here merchants and bankers have seated themselves and families, the air and situation uniting to render it a pleasant retreat from the cares of business”.
Fifth Duke of Bedford’s statue by Sir Richard Westmacott is erected in Russell Square. The statue shows Francis Russell as the agriculturalist he was with a sheep beside him and his hand on a plough, surrounded by four figures representing the seasons of winter, spring, summer and autumn.
3 August 1809
Bloomsbury Square Paving Act was passed. This provided for the maintenance of the garden enclosure by a committee of ratepayers.
Thomas Cubitt (1788-1855), Burton’s successor, came forward to construct Tavistock Square, Woburn Place and Walk, and part of Gordon Square. With his own permanent paid craftsmen and workshops his houses represented a level of style and quality unprecedented among other speculative builders.
5 September 1823
A manuscript details:
“An estimate for painting works to be carried out in Russell Square:
“Paint all the iron rails round the pleasure ground and the statue and the Watch Boxes and the Pump twice in oil Lead colour.
“Paint the roof, sides, and seats of the eight alcoves in the centre of the pleasure grounds, and all the seats in the pleasure ground twice in oil green.
“Paint the stucco walls at the back of the alcoves four times in oil stone colour.
“The whole to be done for the sum of eighty eight pounds” - The Bedford Estate, 5 September 1823.
The reference to ‘Watch Boxes’ refer to the small police huts which were presumably located on the perimeter of the square. The ’pump’ was positioned on the east side of the Square within the shrubbery.
British Museum established in 1759 was entirely re-built by Robert Smirke. (Montague House was finally demolished in 1842).
There was a noticeable decline in the demand for ‘first rate’ houses in Bloomsbury. The Bedford Office increased their control over its property to try to preserve Bloomsbury as the ‘gentlemen’s private residence’.
The Bedford Office moves to the gardens at the rear of Bloomsbury House.
The Duke disturbed by “the unsightly state of the trees and plants in the gardens of several of the squares” hired a Mr Mann (“who had the care of the Grounds at Kensington Palac”’) to inspect Russell Square. On his recommendation, the Duke ordered the expenditure of £477 on drainage, the renewal of the soil “and re-planting and carrying the character of the garden”. The works were carried out in the autumn of 1861 and completed in 1862.
Gordon Square was completed (by Cubitt’s brother, Lewis) and brought the building history of the Bedford Estate to a close.
July 1864
A newspaper cutting dated 23 July 1864 from The Illustrated London News describes how the annual ‘Bloomsbury Flower Show’ was held in Russell Square with its aim to “encourage the taste for cultivating flowers among people of the working class” in the parish of St George, Bloomsbury.
The article explains how this “laudable event allows the customary barriers of exclusiveness to be thrown down for the time, and the gardens to be opened to the poorest parishioner”.
Trollope uses “the unfashionable quarters of Bloomsbury” to lodge one of his heroes, Harry Clavering.
Correspondence from residents of Russell Square to the Bedford Office outline maintenance works to be carried out to the Square.
In a letter dated January 1884 from Humphry Ward he explains that the Garden Committee had “now set the Square’s garden in order. You will see that the work has cost us £300. This has quite exhausted our resources and we have not been able to touch the plant house, which is in a ruinous condition. That house was never suitable for its purpose, and in its last days is a very shabby affair. What we would like is a new house, with a glass roof on a wood (not iron) frame and a system of heating, so that the plants might be kept through the winter without loss. The outside of the house will be adapted to the purpose of a summer-house, as at present” and were disappointed that “the Duke of Bedford as the freeholder would not undertake this permanent improvement for us”.
It is unclear from the first edition Ordinance Survey where this building was located, but it is possible that it was located in front of the Duke of Bedford’s statue, or in the centre where a gardener’s shed was hidden by trellis work and surrounded by seats.
In a letter from Frederick McPocter (treasurer) dated 5 November 1884 he explains the residents committee had insufficient sums to pay for a proposed “new garden house (only levying a rate of £339.18 for the past two years).”
“No estimate has been obtained of the cost of the new Garden House proposed, nor has any design been submitted to the Commissioners for one. The desire of some is to have a roomy comfortable place for shelter and preserving tennis more exhaustive than the present but these desires have to be controlled by the means at command - and the rates not being equal to the present needs, is the main course of the application to the Duke”.
It is uncertain whether this ‘garden house’ was ever implemented, and further research would need to be made. It is also the only mention of the gardens being used for tennis.
Indeed in a letter by the same Mr McPocter dated 24 March 1887 the Garden Committee had had to spend a further amount on repair works to the Square and railings “amounting to £790.12” of which £150 was still outstanding.
The Bedford office attempted, without success, to eject the cab ranks that had established in Russell Square.
Numbers 1-8 Russell Square east side were pulled down for the building of the Hotel Russell.
The late 19th century saw the alteration and adaptation of Burton’s north and south sides of Russell Square, while those on the east were replaced by the Russell and Imperial Hotels by Fitzroy Doll, in 1898. The Russell Hotel, impersonating a red brick French chateau, and the Imperial Hotel, a mix of art noveau gothic and art noveau Tudor.
Many of the private houses of Russell Square were converted into private hotels, solicitors’ offices, student hostels and departments of London University.
North and south-side elevations of Russell Square were altered, with the addition of decorative terracotta work to the facades. Numbers 38-43 on the west-side were sold to the trustees of the British Museum.
Sir Squire Bancroft presented a Cabmen’s Shelter, which was added to the north west perimeter of the Square. In 1987 it was restored by the Heritage of London Trust.
Russell Square in 1904Vanessa and Virginia Stephen moved to Gordon Square where Bell and Woolf, as they became, were to associate the area indelibly with the ‘Bloomsbury Group’ – “that linking of literary and artistic lions in the early 20th century who lived in squares and loved in triangles”.
East-side numbers 65-66 were pulled down.
Saw the biggest single change to occur in Bloomsbury, with the conversion of its private residences into the University of London’s campus, the most striking being Senate House built in 1932.
London Squares Preservation Act was passed. This included the protection of Russell and Bloomsbury Squares and a number of other Bloomsbury squares.
10 November 1941
The five-foot railings of Russell Square (along with Bloomsbury, Gordon, Bedford, Woburn Squares) were removed by the Ministry of Works as part of the war effort.
The Bedford Estate let Russell Square to Holborn Borough Council.
19 September 1946
H F Clark (1902-1971), a landscape consultant appointed by Holborn Borough Council, submitted a report on ‘The proposed improvements to Russell Square and Bloomsbury Square’. Within which he proposed that a new scheme consisting of a new path layout, central gravel area with raised flower borders and seating will replace the existing war-damaged gardens.
The Bedford Estate let Bloomsbury Square to Holborn. (Torrington and Woburn Squares were sold to London University).
Russell Square in 1955The Bedford Estate sold Tavistock and Gordon Squares to the Borough of St Pancras.
17 April 1957
The new scheme was opened by the Duke of Bedford.
Russell Square in 1960An updated scheme was put in place by S A G Cook, the borough architect. This new scheme included three circular fountains to provide the central focus to the Square.
A children’s playground was added to the square.
19 September 1968
Bloomsbury Conservation Area was designated.
11 November 1980
The Law Commission recommended the abolition of the Bloomsbury Square Act of 1806 which banned Hackney carriages because of their lowly social status from lowering the tone of the Square - London taxis were now able to stand or ply for hire in Bloomsbury Square without the risk of a £2 fine.
Traffic islands around corners of square were re-planted. These it seems were added around the corners of the wide carriageway on the 1950s (first appearing in the 1951 Ordinance Survey) for traffic calming reasons.
English Heritage’s ‘Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest in Greater London’ was published. This listed Russell and Bloomsbury as Grade II.
Updated telephone boxes, toilets and recycling bins were added to the pavement boundary and an air pollution monitor station was added to the centre.
March 1996
‘Friends of Russell Square’ group formed.
May 1996
Land use consultants appointed by London Borough of Camden’s Leisure and Community Department to produce a Heritage Lottery Bid for Russell Square.
September 1996
Heritage Lottery Application submitted.
April 2002
Park restored with funding from Urban Parks Programme – works completed.

Page last updated Jul 11, 2014 7:38 AM

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