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Bloomsbury Project

Bloomsbury Streets, Squares, and Buildings

Duke of Bedford’s Estate

Estates in Bloomsbury

1 Duke of Bedford
2 City of London Corporation
3 Capper Mortimer
4 Fitzroy (Duke of Grafton)
5 Somers
6 Skinners' (Tonbridge)
7 Battle Bridge
8 Lucas
9 Harrison
10 Foundling Hospital
11 Rugby
12 Bedford Charity (Harpur)
13 Doughty
14 Gray's Inn
15 Bainbridge–Dyott (Rookeries)

Area between the Foundling and Harrison estates: Church land

Grey areas: fragmented ownership and haphazard development; already built up by 1800

About the Duke of Bedford’s Estate

For many people the Bedford estate and Bloomsbury are synonymous, although sales of land in the twentieth century have reduced the original 112 acres to a mere 20 (Survey of London, vol. 5, 1914; Shirley Green, Who Owns London?, 1986)

The Bloomsbury holdings of the Duke of Bedford originated as the estate of Thomas Wriothesley, later Earl of Southampton, who acquired them at the dissolution of the monasteries in 1545 (Camden History Society, Streets of Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia, 1997)

This estate was inherited by Rachel (née Wriothesley), daughter of the fourth Earl of Southampton, when the Southampton title became extinct; it passed into the Russell family, Dukes of Bedford, through her marriage to the heir of the first Duke of Bedford

It was the widow of the fourth Duke, Gertrude Leveson-Gower, who was a prime mover in the residential development of the estate, which began in the late eighteenth century and was continued by her grandson, the fifth Duke, in the early nineteenth century (Camden History Society, Streets of Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia, 1997)

Much of this development was in the form of “wide streets and grand squares fit for the gentry” (Camden History Society, Streets of Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia, 1997); Donald Olsen described it as “the systematic transformation of the pastures of northern Bloomsbury into a restricted upper-middle class suburb” (Donald Olsen, Town Planning in London, 2nd edn, 1984)

It was a well-timed development; the Bedford Estate’s Bloomsbury rental was worth about £13,800 in 1805, but jumped to £17,242 in 1806 because of all the new buildings (Donald Olsen, Town Planning in London, 2nd edn, 1984)

By 1816 it was nearer £25,000, and by 1819 the London rental income was as much as all the other Bedford estates put together; by 1880 it was worth £65,791 (Donald Olsen, Town Planning in London, 2nd edn, 1984)

The very northern part of the estate was, however, swampy and more difficult to build on, a problem exacerbated by the building slump of the 1830s, which led to areas like Gordon Square being part-developed and left unfinished for decades (Donald Olsen, Town Planning in London, 2nd edn, 1984)

For the crucial part played by Thomas Cubitt in the development of this estate, see Hermione Hobhouse, Thomas Cubitt: Master Builder (1971)

The size and quality of the houses meant that for the most part, the Bedford estate was never likely to turn into a slum: “Except for Abbey Place and the other narrow courts east of Woburn Place, the Bloomsbury estate had no slums. Even its narrow streets south of Great Russell Street—such as Gilbert, Little Russell, and Silver streets—were, if undeniably lower-class in character, far superior to the streets just west and south of the estate” (Donald Olsen, Town Planning in London, 2nd edn, 1984)

However, as the area became more popular and convenient as a location for institutions, the Bedford estate had to fight to preserve its genteel residential character; it found itself “with the task of preventing, or at least discouraging, the conversion of dwelling houses into private hotels, boarding houses, institutions, offices, and shops” (Donald Olsen, Town Planning in London, 2nd edn, 1984)

In 1886 the Bedford steward reported 140 tenement houses in Bloomsbury; Little Russell Street had 21 of them (Donald Olsen, Town Planning in London, 2nd edn, 1984)

“By the middle of the century many of the huge houses in Bloomsbury had been illegally converted into private hotels...By 1892 Stutfield [the Bedford estate steward] had come to regard Montague Place as a lost cause” (Donald Olsen, Town Planning in London, 2nd edn, 1984)

By the 1890s, too, the estate had lost the battle to keep itself separate from the flow of traffic and pedestrians, originally enforced by a system of lodges, gates, and residents’ tickets of entry: “The five lodges and gates on the Bloomsbury estate—in Upper Woburn Place, Endsleigh Street, Georgiana Street (later Taviton Street), Gordon Street (originally William Street), and Torrington Place—had all been erected by 1831, presumably by Thomas Cubitt” (Donald Olsen, Town Planning in London, 2nd edn, 1984)

The removal of all these gates, except the one in Endsleigh Street, was authorised in 1890 by Act of Parliament; that of Endsleigh Street itself was authorised along with any other remaining gates in London in 1893 (Donald Olsen, Town Planning in London, 2nd edn, 1984)

Developments in transport during the century had affected the estate for decades before the 1890s: “The suburban train and the season ticket reduced the significance of Bloomsbury’s proximity to the City and the Inns of Court. To make matters worse, three of the railways chose to locate their London termini virtually at the entrances to the Bedford estate, thereby depreciating its residential value” (Donald Olsen, Town Planning in London, 2nd edn, 1984)

However, the estate “was generally successful in keeping bus and tram lines off its residential streets. For a long time the estate was able to exclude omnibuses from Hart Street (now Bloomsbury Way)...The 1806 Bloomsbury Square Act forbade hackney coaches from standing for hire in the square or within 300 feet of it. In 1886 the Bedford Office attempted, without success, to eject the cab ranks that had just been established in Tavistock and Russell squares” (Donald Olsen, Town Planning in London, 2nd edn, 1984)

The estate’s desire to maintain a certain standard of living for its residents included attention to public health issues: “In 1854 the Duke had made at his own expense sewers in Tavistock Mews, Great Russell Street, Little Russell Street, Gilbert Street, and Rose Street. The estate also was engaged at the time in a programme of installing water closets in the houses on its property, and connecting them with the new sewers, as required by law...In a letter to the Lancet that year the physician to the Bloomsbury Dispensary praised the Duke’s sanitary projects, and attributed to them the mildness of the recent cholera epidemic on his estate” (Donald Olsen, Town Planning in London, 2nd edn, 1984)

Along with concerns for the health of the residents, the estate continued to try to impose restrictions on what kind of tenants would be allowed in its houses: “The number of public houses and hotels on the estate fell from seventy-four in 1854 to fifty in 1869. By 1889 there were forty-one, and in 1893 only thirty-four...Such practices followed logically from the consistent desire to maintain Bloomsbury as an area of decency, uniformity, restraint, and above all of respectability” (Donald Olsen, Town Planning in London, 2nd edn, 1984)

The desire to maintain the integrity and amenities of the estate persisted throughout the nineteenth century: “In 1895 the Duke decided to turn the waste ground north of Tavistock Place North and behind the houses in Upper Woburn Place into a lawn tennis ground” for some of the local tenants (Donald Olsen, Town Planning in London, 2nd edn, 1984)

Efforts to continue development and improvement in response to changing circumstances were assisted by the length of the leases granted on the estate right from the start of residential development in the 1770s: a standard 99 years: thus “[t]he later years of the century saw a great deal of new building in Bloomsbury as the original building leases fell in” (Donald Olsen, Town Planning in London, 2nd edn, 1984)

The estate seized the opportunity for wholesale redevelopment of streets which were no longer suited to their location or which no longer fulfilled their original purpose, mews premises being a good example of the latter

“In 1880 the estate took down the block of houses between Store Street and Chenies Street, from the City of London’s estate on the west to Chenies Mews on the east...The estate widened Chenies Mews and formed it into the present Ridgmount Street. It proposed to let most of the vacant ground for institutions or factories, as it did not think the location suitable for dwelling houses” (Donald Olsen, Town Planning in London, 2nd edn, 1984)

“In 1898 and 1899 the estate demolished the whole of the stable premises in Southampton and Montague Mews (between Southampton Row, Bedford Place, and Montague Street) and had the sites landscaped. The Duke had similar plans for Tavistock and Woburn Mews (east of Woburn Place) before he decided to sell the property to the London County Council for a housing scheme” (Donald Olsen, Town Planning in London, 2nd edn, 1984)

“Far from being typical, the Bedford estate may well have been the best managed urban estate in England” (Donald Olsen, Town Planning in London, 2nd edn, 1984)

Gilbert Street

Also known as Gilbert Place

Not to be confused with Gilbert Street, Grosvenor Square

It runs between Bury Street and Museum Street in the south of Bloomsbury, parallel to and between Great Russell Street and Little Russell Street, on the Bedford ducal estate

It was built about 1670, but no seventeenth-century houses remain

It was named after Gilbert Holles, Earl of Clare, who was the friend of the estate’s owner, William Russell, son of the fourth Earl of Bedford

It appears as Gilbert Street on Rocque’s map of 1746, on Weller’s map of 1868, and on Stanford’s map of 1897

Its name appears to have been changed in the twentieth century to avoid confusion with the Gilbert Street further west

Horwood’s map of 1819 shows consecutive numbering on the south side from 1 to 10, running from west to east, followed by some unnumbered buildings, then nos 15 and 16 going west along the north side, followed by some more unnumbered buildings, then another 2 and 1

It was clearly renumbered after this, and seems to have been rebuilt several times; the numbers given in the 1841 census seem equally erratic, probably because the residential properties were interspersed with industrial ones

In the early part of the nineteenth century, it was on the very edge of the reputable part of the Bedford ducal estate, very close to the slums of the Rookeries

In the 1841 census, its listed occupants were those of a typical mews: coach turner, cooper, whitesmith, carpenter, bricklayer, ironmonger, porter, laundress, dressmaker, needlewoman, butcher, fishmonger, mostly living in multiple-occupancy households

It was still being rebuilt; no. 20 was built in 1849–1850 for the leaseholder, Edward Abel Taylor, a house agent living at nearby 90 Great Russell Street; he held it on a 40-year lease from the Duke of Bedford for £60 per annum (The Times, 14 April 1858)

This house, no. 20, was the scene of a disastrous fire in 1858; in the early hours of the morning of 28 March 1858, a fire of unknown origin took hold of the premises (The Times, 31 March 1858)

It was sublet to T. Stubbs, carpenter, with the ground floor being his shop; this was therefore full of wood shavings and other flammable substances (The Times, 31 March 1858)

The rest of the house consisted of two further residential floors, the first occupied by Mr Eastwood, who worked at Kent’s Machinery Department, Holborn, and his family (The Times, 31 March 1858)

The second floor had two families: Mr Edger or Hedger and his family on the east side, and Mr Richard Smith and his large family in two rooms on the west side (The Times, 31 March 1858; 14 April 1858)

The alarm was quickly raised, and the local fire escape sent for from its station at St Georges, Bloomsbury; while they were waiting, the would-be rescuers (including John Curle of Bury Street) got a ladder from scaffolding at a house under construction opposite, but they were hampered in its use by beams in the street shoring up rickety properties nearby, and they could not make the ladder reach the desperate residents (The Times, 31 March 1858, 1 April 1858)

One rescuer even climbed the roof to try to help those trapped get out of windows at the back, only to find that there were no windows at the back of the property (The Times, 31 March 1858)

Instead, the back of the property was immediately adjacent to a room attached to 61 Great Russell Street, whose tenant, John Calvert, kept a museum of minerals in this room, which was separated from 20 Gilbert Street only by a wooden partition covered with some canvassing and old copies of The Times (The Times, 14 April 1858)

The presence of the mineral cabinets exacerbated an already catastrophic situation: arsenic in many of the samples vapourised, and effectively immobilised those of the inhabitants of no. 20 Gilbert Street who did not get out very quickly, and the inquest heard that this was the major contributory factor in their deaths (The Times, 14 April 1858)

In all, fifteen people died: William and Eliza Hedger and their two sons, William and John, and the whole Smith family, Richard and Harriet Smith and eight of their nine children (Harriet, Alfred, Harvey, Walter, Thomas, Maria, Mary, and Jessie) in the fire, and the eldest son (Richard) of his injuries shortly after admission to University College Hospital, having jumped from a first-floor window (The Times, 14 April 1858; report of Marsh Nelson, architect, to Thomas Wakley, Coroner of the County of Middlesex, 6 May 1858; Papers Relating to the Late Calamity in Gilbert Street, House of Commons, 1858)

He recovered consciousness long enough to say “What fire? Oh, the children!”, according to testimony at the inquest (The Times, 14 April 1858)

In his report to the Middlesex County Coroner, the architect Marsh Nelson noted that the use of part of the house as a carpenter’s shop was prohibited both by the terms of the Duke of Bedford’s lease and the fire insurance policy (report of Marsh Nelson, architect, to Thomas Wakley, Coroner of the County of Middlesex, 6 May 1858; Papers Relating to the Late Calamity in Gilbert Street, House of Commons, 1858)

It was the worst London fire for many years, and led to renewed calls for better working-class housing, as well as better fire escapes and fire prevention measures

Nos 8–10 were rebuilt as a warehouse some time after the 1841 census was taken

No. 29 was rebuilt in the 1880s and was the bindery of the Arts and Crafts bookbinder Douglas Bennett Cockerell from 1899 to 1902 (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography)

When George Henry Duckworth walked around the area on 17 October 1898 as part of the updating of the Booth poverty maps, he noted that the street was narrow and paved with cobblestones; only 5 of its houses on the south side were inhabited, and were still classed as pink (for “fairly comfortable”), while its north side by now was formed by the backs of the mansions in Great Russell Street

In the twentieth century its houses mainly became occupied by businesses or were converted into flats; the north side was also redeveloped

This page last modified 14 April, 2011 by Deborah Colville


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