Bloomsbury

One of Bloomsbury's stylish squares teeming with history and an impressive list of former residents     Picture Hattie  Miles



By Jeremy Miles

Lawrence Owens, a man whose postal address includes the words “Human Remains Division”, has just introduced me to the mummified body of the early 19th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham. It’s that kind of Monday morning. 

Let’s backtrack a little. Lawrence, apart from holding a doctorate in morphological dentistry as related to the people of North Africa and the Canary Islands, is a London guide and he just happens to specialise in the weird and wonderful world of Bloomsbury.

The Miles’s have just spent an extremely comfortable night at The Academy, a boutique hotel  on Gower Street created from five Georgian town houses. 

Now, after a fortifying breakfast, we are about to hit the streets accompanied by the aforementioned Lawrence an imposing six foot five inch academic with a wealth of stories to tell. 

Bloomsbury is best known for its literary and artistic connections with past residents that. during the early 20th century, included Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey, Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell and Roger Fry. 

The good doctor however soon showed us that, fascinating as the shenanigans of this loose knit group of terribly upper-crust, liberal-thinking, free-loving dilettantes may have been, there is a whole lot more to discover about Bloomsbury. 

Noted for its fashionable garden squares it is unsurprisingly populated by a veritable blizzard of blue plaques placed by English Heritage to denote the former residencies of notable people.

The mix is fascinating.  Alongside artists like Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and William Holman-Hunt who founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in a house in Gower Street in 1848, there are novelists like Charles Dickens and  EM Forster (though his blue plaque lies elsewhere) and a rich smattering of engineers, scientists and pioneering medics.

These include James Robinson, the man who administered the first anesthetic in England and Thomas Wakley the surgeon, social reformer and sometime bare-knuckle pub fighter who founded the medical journal The Lancet.

Other curious residents include Forest Frederic Edward Yeo-Thomas, or to give him his wartime code-name, White Rabbit - the first secret agent to have his whereabouts loudly proclaimed from the front of his house. 

Stories abound. You can find the Gandhi ‘peace statue’ in Tavistock Gardens, apparently modelled on a bloke from the Eastend, and Charles Darwin lived just up the road. Back in the mid 19th century the Pre-Raphaelites would usher their flame-haired models into number 7 Gower Street via the tradesman’s entrance. Millais’s “greatest hit” Ophelia  - a mainstay of the Tate Britain collection - was painted in that very house. 

TS Eliot lived and worked in Bloomsbury. His office window afforded a fine view of Russell Square and the feral felines  that had taken up residence there. Their antics would inspire his 1939 work Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats.

 Years later a child called Andrew Lloyd Webber would love the stories and eventually turned them into a blockbusting musical. 

In more recent times notable residents  have included Ricky Gervais and Catherine Tate while in 1972 reggae star Bob Marley lived in Bloomsbury for several months. 

Bloomsbury has no official borders but essentially runs from the area north of Soho and Covent Garden to the Euston Road. It may be very much a part of central London but its leafy squares are a reminder of the days when it  was largely open marshland on the edge of the city.

It was developed into a fashionable residential area by the Russell family in the 17th and 18th centuries and is home to several hospitals and academic institutions.  

Within a few hundred yards you can find the British Museum, the British Medical Association, RADA, University College Hospital, Great Ormonde Street and several of the major colleges of the University of London.

It was at University College London, right in the heart of Bloomsbury, that we met Jeremy Bentham, the philosopher and founder of Utilitarianism.  A political radical, he advocated the abolition of slavery and the death penalty and even fought for gay rights. 

 When he died in 1830, Bentham left instructions that his body should be preserved, dressed in his usual clothes, placed firmly in his favourite chair and displayed for all to see.  It has remained on public view ever since and currently sits in a glass case in the UCL foyer.  To this day at meetings of the council of the University of London he is routinely recorded as being present but non-voting.

Factbox: Jeremy and Hattie Miles stayed at The Academy in Gower Street, Bloomsbury, on a package that includes one night’s accommodation for two people, breakfast, a complimentary glass of wine on arrival, the Garden Squares of Bloomsbury walk and VAT.  Prices start at £210 and are available until 31 August 2010. Based on double occupancy. Subject to availability. The ‘Bloomsbury Gardens’ package is available on the website, in the Hotel Offers section. Book by calling: 0207 631 4115  or email: resacademy@theetoncollection.com Alternatively you can  book online via the website: www.theetoncollection.com/academy  

© Jeremy Miles 2017