07 July 2022
Brunswick Square has links
with queens, children,
writers and suffragettes
One of the other Bloomsbury squares two of us visited during a visit to London last week is Brunswick Square, although, properly speaking, this 3-acre public garden is just two sides of a larger area Bloomsbury.
Brunswick Square is overlooked by the School of Pharmacy and the Foundling Museum to the north; the Brunswick Centre to the west; and International Hall, a hall of residence of the University of London, to the south. On its east side is Coram’s Fields, an enclosed area of playgrounds and trees and which is just over double its size.
Brunswick Square is mirrored symmetrically to the east by Mecklenburgh Square, another three-acre area. Brunswick Square is named after Queen Caroline, the wife of George IV, who was born Princess Caroline of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, while neighbouring Mecklenburgh Square was named after her mother-in-law, contemporary Queen Charlotte, the wife of George III, who was born Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz.
Bloomsbury is notable for its garden squares, literary connections, and numerous cultural, educational and health care institutions.
Between Brunswick Square and Mecklenburgh Square, Coram’s Fields is a seven-acre enclosed area of playgrounds and trees. All three areas – Brunswick Square, Mecklenburgh Square and Coram’s Fields – are jointly listed Grade II on the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens.
What is now Brunswick Square was originally part of the grounds of the Foundling Hospital, the world’s first children’s charity. In 1790, the governors of the cash-strapped hospital lost their government grant and decided to develop their estate. They commissioned the builder James Burton to create a garden surrounded on three sides by town houses, beginning with the south side in 1801.
It was planned to lease both Brunswick Square and Mecklenburgh Square to build houses and to raise funds for the hospital in 1790. Brunswick Square was finished first, and was named after the Queen Caroline of Brunswick, wife of King George IV and the only British Queen to be tried for adultery – and she won the case.
None of the original houses built by James Burton in 1795-1802 remain. Over the years, all the original Georgian houses have been replaced by modern buildings, including two university buildings, the School of Pharmacy and International Hall, the cinema, apartments, shops and restaurants of the Brunswick Centre, and the Foundling Museum, with its close associations with Handel and Hogarth.
Brunswick Square is mentioned in Jane Austen’s novel Emma, where John and Isabella Knightley live. Isabella, the heroine’s sister, boasts that ‘our part of London is so very superior to most others … we are so very airy,’ being right on the edge of the town in those days.
John Ruskin was born nearby at 54 Hunter Streeton the corner of Brunswick Square in 1819.
The square was always ‘very respectable if not fashionable,’ although the brief presence of the ‘Bloomsberries’ in the early 20th century gave the square a bohemian cachet. Notable former residents include Virginia Woolf, Adrian Stephen, Duncan Grant, Leonard Woolf, EM Forster, John Ruskin, John Leech, Michael Wishart and John Maynard Keynes.
JM Barrie lived for a while in a house on the south-west corner of Brunswick Square, marked by a plaque on the building that replaced it. Here he wrote about Peter Pan as flying up from the gardens to visit Wendy at one of its windows. He left his royalties to nearby Great Ormond Street Hospital for children.
The Minerva Club was founded in 1920 at 28a Brunswick Square, on the site of the Brunswick Centre, by the suffragettes Dr Elizabeth Knight (1869-1933) and Alice Stopford Green (1847-1929), Irish historian and friend and mentor of Maire Comerford. The club was used for meetings of the Women’s Freedom League and as a hostel for suffrage activists and fund-raising annual birthday parties for the frequently jailed Irish suffragette Charlotte Despard (1849-1933).
For more than 200 years, Brunswick Square has managed to remain a garden without statues. But just outside the gardens is the statue of Thomas Coram, the philanthropist who was instrumental in founding the Foundling Hospital, which stood behind him, and a bronze sculpture of a child’s mitten by Tracey Emin sits on top of one of the railings outside the Foundling Museum.
The Garden was extensively refurbished by Camden Council in 2002-2003, including the restoration of traditional iron railings that were removed to be made into munitions during World War II. One of the trees is a beautiful plane tree that is thought to be the second oldest in London, and was declared one of the Great Trees of Britain in 2009.
The Friends of Brunswick Square was formed in 2008 to care for Brunswick Square and to increase community use of the gardens. The Friends of Brunswick Square are keen to promote bio-diversity and have persuaded Camden to install bird boxes, bat boxes and wildlife planting. Brunswick Square is maintained by Camden Council and is open to the public during daylight hours.