05 July 2022
Queen Square, a Bloomsbury
square that celebrates
queens, poets and doctors
I have often stayed in Bloomsbury in the past, usually in the now-closed Penn Club on Bedford Place, and enjoyed strolling through the elegant squares and gardens and enjoying the literary connections and the many cultural, educational and health institutions.
But when two of visited London last week, we visited Queen Square and Brunswick Square in Bloomsbury for the first time.
Queen Square was originally known as Devonshire Square and was laid out in 1716 on the garden of Sir Nathaniel Curzon’s private house. It was laid out as a square in the decade up to 1725, after the Church of Saint George the Martyr had been built by public subscription in 1706.
‘Square’ is something of a misnomer, however, as houses were originally only built on three sides from 1713 to 1725, with the north side left open to the countryside then still around it, with views out to the villages and hills of Hampstead and Highgate hills. Later in the Georgian period, the view was closed off by a ‘palace-fronted’ terrace of houses in what is now Guilford Street.
The square is said to have been renamed Queen Square in honour of Queen Anne, although she died in 1714, before the square was laid out. A lead statue in the square shows a queen in ornamental robes, and she originally held a sceptre. The plaque on the plinth is missing, and it was once is thought to be Queen Anne or Mary II. However, most guidebooks now agree this is a statue of Queen Charlotte, the wife of George III.
The Queen’s Larder, the pub at No 1, dates from 1710. According to tradition, Queen Charlotte rented a cellar under a beer shop to store the king’s food while her husband was being treated by his doctor, the Revd Dr Francis Willis, during recurrent bouts of madness.
The writer Fanny Burney (1752-1840) lived on the south side of the square in the 1770s, and wrote in her novel, Evelina, of the ‘beautiful prospect’ from her house ‘of the hills, ever verdant and smiling.’
This was a fashionable area in the 18th century, by the mid-19th century it had attracted many French refugees and the shops of sundry booksellers and print sellers.
An Act of 1832 provided that the square was to be ‘used and enjoyed by the inhabitants thereof in such a manner as the Trustees shall direct.’ It was maintained by a rate ‘not exceeding one shilling in the pound, assessed on buildings around the square.’
William Morris moved his furnishings business, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co, from nearby Red Lion Square into No 26 in 1865. Morris and his family lived ‘over the shop,’ and a ballroom was converted into workshops at the back. It was during this time that William Morris’s wife Janey and Dante Gabriel Rossetti fell in love.
Queen Square became a favoured centre for charitable institutions in the Victorian era. They included the Roman Catholic Aged Poor Society at No 31 and the Society of St Vincent de Paul. Elizabeth Malleson started the Working Women’s College there in 1864, and there too is the Mary Ward Centre for adult education.
Gradually, many of the mansions were turned into hospitals and other institutions, and Queen Square became known for its many medical institutions, including the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine, formerly the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital, the Italian Hospital, and the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, once the home of Jerome K Jerome (1859-1927), author of Three Men in a Boat (1889).
The former Italian Hospital on the south side of Queen Square is now part of Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, whose main buildings are in Great Ormond Street, the street leading east from Queen Square.
Several buildings on the west side of the square are devoted to medical research and are part of the Institute of Neurology and other departments of University College London.
A circular paved area on the north lawn of the square marks the spot where a Zeppelin bomb fell in 1915 during World War I. Although around 1,000 people slept in the surrounding buildings, no-one was injured. During World War II, around 2,000 people slept in an air-raid shelter beneath the square.
A women’s-only Turkish bath operated in Queen Square from 1930 to 1962. The site is now occupied by the Imperial Hotel.
The poets Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath were married in the Church of Saint George the Martyr in 1956. It was once known as the sweeps’ church because kind parishioners provided Christmas dinners for 100 chimney sweeps’ apprentices or ‘climbing boys.’
Close to the former Faber and Faber offices at No 3 Queen Square, lines from Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin, two Poets Laureate, are inscribed below a floral bowl commemorating Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee of 1977.
Ted Hughes wrote:
A nation’s a soul
A soul is a wheel
With a crown for a hub
To keep it whole
Philip Larkin wrote:
In times when nothing stood
But worsened or grew strange
There was one constant good
She did not change
Faber and Faber was originally located at 24 Russell Square, where a plaque still recalls that TS Eliot worked there. Faber later moved to 3 Queen Square, and in 2009 the firm moved to Bloomsbury House, 74–77 Great Russell Street.
A sculpture of ‘Sam the Cat’ was unveiled at the south-west corner in 1997 in ‘affectionate memory’ of Patricia (Penny) Penn (1914-19922), a local resident who was active in the area. ‘Mother and Child’ is a bronze sculpture by Patricia Finch, commissioned by Friends of the Children of Great Ormond Street Hospital in memory of Andrew Meller in 2001.
The shady garden has areas of lawn, rose beds and mature trees, and is much used by visitors to the hospitals.
Queen Square is owned by the Trustees and maintained by Camden Council, and is open to the public during daylight hours.