Ramble London


Bloomsbury and Kings Cross Walk


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Walk information

The walk starts and finishes at Tavistock Square.

How to get to Tavistock Square:

  • The nearest Underground stations are: Euston (Northern and Victoria lines) / Russell Square (Piccadilly line) / Euston Square (Circle, Metropolitan and Hammersmith and City lines)
  • These main line train stations are less than 10 minutes walk away: Euston / King's Cross St Pancras
  • Buses stopping in the square: 168, 59, 68, 91, N91
  • For more detailed information see Transport for London website

Duration of the walk: 3 hours

Length of the walk: 6 km/3.7 miles

This walk should be accompanied with the walk map for a better understanding of the route and locations.




The focus of this walk is on connections between past and present in an area which has evolved from 18th-century urban fringe to 19th-century suburb to 21st-century inner city. What role do residential and commercial developments that survive from the past play in today's London? How desirable and how probable are proposals for economic regeneration, redevelopment and gentrification? Looking at a series of sites in Bloomsbury and around King's Cross, use the present-day landscape as a trigger for thinking about the historical development of the sites, how they fitted into the urban geography of London in the past, what functions they fulfil today, and how they might change in the future. For example, what has been the impact on the surrounding area of the British Library? Or of the terminal for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, which has involved renovating and extending St Pancras Station? Or of the ongoing redevelopment of the King's Cross Railway Lands?

Tips for successful completion:

• Audio Files are best listened to when you have found the point of interest noted on the map. Do not try to walk and listen at the same time, it is confusing and you'll ultimately miss the detail.

• At times road works may direct you an alternative route. It is best to just follow any diversions and make your way back to the walk instead of finding your own way around. The back streets of Bloomsbury and Kings Cross can be winding and confusing.

• Above all, enjoy!

The route

[Note] This route will then lead you through 15 different locations within Bloomsbury and King's Cross. However, after point 11 (Granary Square) you will have to opt between [12A] following directly to point 13 through the new Kings Boulevard or [12B] going to Camley Street Park, and from there to point 13 to rejoin the route (in this case note the park opening times: Winter 10am-4pm/Summer 10am-5pm, Monday to Friday and Sunday). In particular areas you will also have access to Richard Dennis' comments on the historical geographies of those places.

[1. Bedford Estate] Walk to the north-west corner of Tavistock Square from which you can look down Endsleigh Street. Particularly note the gatekeeper's lodge [1a] on the west side of Endsleigh Street, and the art deco frieze on Tavistock Court [1b]. The lodge dates from around 1830 and accommodated a gatekeeper whose job was to keep undesirable traffic - carts, wagons, omnibuses, animals being driven to market - out of the purely residential Bedford Estate. The gate, along with other gates on the parallel north-south streets, was not dismantled until 1893. Tavistock Court was built by the National Free Churches Council in 1935. Bloomsbury had originally been developed by the Duke of Bedford granting 99-year leases to builders to erect mainly residential terraces. When the leases fell in during the 1920s and 1930s, the Bedford Estate could choose either to renew the leases or to redevelop. On the west side of Tavistock Square the original buildings were retained, but on the north and east sides, the old terraces were replaced by Tavistock Court, Woburn House and Tavistock House (British Medical Association (BMA) Building) [1c].

Click to listen to Audio1

[2. Flaxman Court] Head towards the BMA building and from there, turn left along Upper Woburn Place and then right into Woburn Walk [2a]; note the shops originally built by Thomas Cubitt (one of the biggest builders of early 19th-century London) in the 1820s as an early kind of shopping mall. Because the centre of the Bedford Estate (west of Upper Woburn Place) was to be residential only, this site - on the very margins of the estate - was 'zoned' for commercial premises providing for the everyday needs of local residents - grocers, dairy, bookseller, upholsterer, dressmaker, etc. At the far end of Woburn Walk, the building on the north-east corner of Dukes Road used to be Callard & Bowser's toffee factory [2b]. Next to it, Grafton Mansions [2c] (1890) provided flats for lower middle-class clerks. Charles Booth's survey at the end of the 1890s noted '3 rooms in basement to let £45 a year'. There was only the narrowest of passages between Woburn Walk and the streets to the east, marking the eastern boundary of the Bedford Estate.

Click to listen to Audio2a

Now look at the council flats (Flaxman Court, originally Flaxman Terrace). Flaxman Court [2d] was built by St Pancras Council in 1907 (see plaque) on the site of a notorious slum - Draper's place, renamed Brantome place in 1885, coloured dark blue (very poor, casual, chronic want) and latterly black (lowest class, vicious, semi-criminal) on Booth's maps. Flaxman House, the 2-storey double-fronted house topped with cupolas, was originally the caretaker's lodge for Flaxman Court. The architects, Joseph & Smithern, also designed council flats for the London County Council and Westminster City Council. Note the St Pancras Council badge, showing Pancratius (Saint Pancras, beheaded as a teenager, c. 304, for converting to Christianity), set in the railings surrounding the flats. The street was given the name Flaxman Terrace to commemorate the sculptor, John Flaxman (1755-1826), much of whose work is held by UCL.

Click to listen to Audio2

Note the street names - Mabledon, Bidborough, Hastings, etc. As we are now moving into the Tonbridge Estate these are place names from Kent and East Sussex (from the area around Tonbridge).

Click to listen to Audio2e

[3. East End Dwellings Co.] As you cross Judd Street [3a] note the block of 'mansion flats' on your left. Queen Alexandra Mansions [3b] was built in 1912-14 by Abraham Davis's Central London Building company Limited. It was named after Queen Alexandra, by then Queen Mother, widow of the late Edward VII. Another of Davis's companies was the London Housing Society, whose initials can be seen on the more modest blocks of working-class flats on the south side of Hastings Street. Working-class flats were usually called 'Buildings' or, as here, 'Houses' (Sinclair House, Hastings Houses); middle-class flats were distinguished by being called 'Mansions'. For further information, see Watson (2004).

Look at the name of the pub on the corner of Hastings Street. The Tonbridge Estate, associated with Tonbridge School in Kent (hence all the Kent and East Sussex street names), originated with Sir Andrew Judd (hence, Judd Street), a "skinner" (dealer in skins and furs) hence the pub being called the Skinners' Arms [3c]. Judd became Lord Mayor of London in 1550. He endowed Tonbridge School and vested his London property in the Skinners' Company as trustees in perpetuity.

Click to listen to Audio3a

Walk further down Hastings Street and look at the plaque on the side of the school buildings [3d] facing the end of the Street. The School Board for London (or London School Board) was the body responsible under the 1870 Education Act for building and running schools in inner London. Its powers were transferred to the LCC in 1904. Argyle Primary School dates from 1880; the date '1902' is when the building was enlarged. If you look into the entrance yard you can still see three separate doors for 'Boys', 'Girls' and 'Infants'.

Turn right and compare the blocks of flats on either side of Tonbridge Street. Find the plaques telling you who built them and when - one is easy to find; for the other look on both sides of Midhope House. The flats on either side of Tonbridge Street were built by the East End Dwellings Company, one of the second wave of so-called 'five per cent philanthropy' companies, established in the early 1880s to build 'model dwellings' for the poor. A series of blocks was erected east of Tonbridge Street [3e] in 1892 (you can still see the plaques on Midhope House) on the site of a slum coloured black on Booth's original map of 1889. By 1899, Booth had recoloured the area purple (mixed: some comfortable, others poor), noting that two rooms in the new buildings cost 6s6d (32p) per week, and occupants now included policemen and postmen. Alternate blocks were designed with balcony access and internal staircases. The former had been favoured earlier in the 19th century, partly for tax reasons (each flat had its own front door, opening onto a 'street in the sky', and was too small to be charged brick tax), partly to aid ventilation; but by the 1890s these arguments were considered irrelevant. By the 1970s the EEDCo - East End Dwellings Company had been reconstituted as a (non-philanthropic) property company. What had become a very run-down estate was now managed by Hillview, a Stamford Hill estate agency, so when the estate was compulsorily purchased by Camden Council, it became known as the Hillview estate. Scheduled for demolition, the flats were handed over to a short-life housing association (effectively, licensed squatting), but when it was evident there was no money for comprehensive redevelopment and that the housing association had demonstrated the potential of rehabilitation, the estate was sold to the Community Housing Trust. Now it is an oasis of community. On the west side of Tonbridge Street are Tonbridge Houses [3f] (1904), also erected by the EEDCo on a site that had degenerated from purple (1889) to dark blue (1899) on Booth's maps, perhaps as a result of very poor families moving in when they were displaced by the first phase of redevelopment on the east side of the street. Tonbridge Houses was a much more modern (and higher class) set of buildings - self-contained flats with their own kitchens and toilets; completely enclosed internal staircases.

Click to listen to Audio3

Note the awkward dog-leg where Whidborne Street leads from Argyle Walk [3g] into Argyle Street, and the way that the houses facing Argyle Square turn their backs on the estate of flats - a typical social divide. This is another very obvious property boundary, like the one we crossed earlier between Woburn Walk and Flaxman Terrace. When the area around Argyle Square came to be developed, in the 1820s and 1830s, the streets to the south (where the EEDCo estate was built) were already turning into slums. Unsurprisingly, the much posher Argyle Square development (coloured red for middle-class on Booth's maps) turned its back on and restricted access by its southern neighbours. Subsequently, Argyle Square, too, went downmarket, converted to private hotels with often doubtful reputations, but now benefitting from the revival of the whole King's Cross area.

Click to listen to Audio3g

Continue along Cromer Street to the Gray's Inn Road passing recently refurbished council flats originally built in the 1950s.

[4. Cubitt's Calthorpe Estate] Thread your way through Thomas Cubitt's earliest building project along Ampton and Frederick Streets. Thomas Cubitt was the leading speculative builder in early 19th-century London, sometimes operating as a developer, simply laying out streets and services and then leasing sites to different small builders, but usually (especially in Bloomsbury) acting as a building contractor, employing his own specialist workers like plasterers, glaziers and plumbers. He established his own workshops on Gray's Inn Road where his carpenters could prefabricate standard parts like doors and windows. The 1774 Building Act classed houses into four 'rates'. Those Cubitt (and, later, his brother, William) erected on Ampton and Frederick Streets were mostly 'third-rate' (as compared to 'first-rate' houses facing Bloomsbury squares).

Here, also note the ornamental details on houses which are really just 'brick boxes', and the use of 'stucco' (plaster). Stucco was used to hide poor quality brickwork, and could be painted (usually white, though this would quickly show the grime from smoky chimneys, but occasionally in more fashionable colours). Note, too, the community gardens [4a] on former waste ground at each end of this group of streets.

Click to listen to Audio4

[5. Lloyd Baker Estate] Climb Wharton Street, laid out in 1832, towards Lloyd Square, noting the more 'suburban' style of pairs of classical villas. Make a brief diversion into Granville Square [5a], part of the same estate but a very different, much more urban style. If you look at how small the gardens/backyards of different kinds of Victorian houses along the route were, this will tell you something about their attitudes to private and public space compared to our attitudes. Well-maintained communal space in garden squares, whose use was restricted to the occupiers of houses facing them, meant that large private gardens behind each house were considered unnecessary.

Compare the present uses of Granville Square and Lloyd Square (that you will go to next). Note that Granville Square originally had a church in the centre of the square - so there can't have been much public open space either. Granville Square was the model for Arnold Bennett's 'Riceyman Square' in his novel Riceyman Steps (1923) - see his evocative description of an area that had deteriorated over time: 'The Square had once been genteel; it ought now to have been picturesque, but was not. It was merely decrepit, foul and slatternly' (chapter 10). On the south-west side of the square, note the steps leading back to King's Cross Road, now known as Gwynne Place, originally as Granville Place, and the steps that inspired Bennett's novel.

Click to listen to Audio5

Go back into Wharton Street and continue up to Lloyd Square [5b]. The awkward shape of some of these 'squares' reflects the layout of estate boundaries demarcating the Lloyd Baker and New River Estates.

[6. New River Estate] Take the alley (Cumberland Gardens) leading to Great Percy Street and the 'Percy Arms' [6a], standing one storey taller than the rest of the street. Robert Percy Smith was Governor of the New River Company from 1827 to his death in 1845. The houses on Great Percy Street date from around 1840, the pub (now a private residence) from about a decade later.

Percy Circus is part of the New River Estate. This area was heavily bombed and then part rebuilt in 19th-century style. The New River was constructed between 1604 and 1613 to bring fresh drinking water from the River Lea near Ware to Clerkenwell, from where it could be distributed to the customers of the New River Company (Londoners depended on private companies for their water prior to the formation of the Metropolitan Water Board in 1903). In the process of building the 'river', the company also became a major landowner in Islington: hence the development of the New River Estate in the early 19th century.

Click to listen to Audio6

To see who lived in Percy Circus, look for the blue plaque on the building's façade.

Go down Vernon Rise to King's Cross Road.

[7. Improved Industrial Dwellings Co.] On the east side of King's Cross Road, just beyond Wicklow Street, note the single small block of Improved Industrial Dwellings Company flats: Cobden Buildings [7a], erected in 1865.  Now walk back and down Wicklow Street. Then see how the same design was massively extended in the much larger estate of IIDCo flats ('Derby Lodge' [7b]) between Britannia and Wicklow Streets. In fact, the design of all these flats was based on a small 2-storey set of 'model cottages' commissioned by Prince Albert (Queen Victoria's husband), erected in Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition (1851), and subsequently re-erected in Kennington Park in south London.

Click to listen to Audio7

In the late 19th century, the IIDCo housed better-off artisans, policemen and their families, even some junior clerks and schoolteachers. In its estates around King's Cross, many of the tenants would have been railwaymen. Like many of the so-called 'five per cent' companies, dependent on shareholders prepared to accept no more than a 5% return on their investment, the IIDCo ceased to be obviously philanthropic in the late 20th-century housing market. In Camden and Islington, its buildings were purchased by the local councils in the 1970s. They proved popular with tenants working unsocial hours, for example, working in cafes, bars and clubs in central London.

Also note where you cross the railway (Circle Line + Thameslink) [7c].

Click to listen to Audio7c

This stretch of the Circle Line was part of the very first section of the London Underground - the Metropolitan Railway, opened in 1863 from Paddington to Farringdon and worked by steam locomotives until 1905: hence the need to keep tunnels to a minimum and, where possible, to build the line in deep cuttings to permit ventilation. Another transport use on Britannia Street was the bus garage (and, in the days of horse buses, stables) of the London General Omnibus Company. Today the area is replete with bars (e.g. Smithy's) and gallery space (e.g. Gagosian).

[8. King's Cross] Cross Euston Road by the subway to King's Cross Square in front of the station. King's Cross derives its name from a short-lived monument to King George IV, erected in 1830, demolished in 1845, at the junction of Pentonville, Gray's Inn and Euston Roads. Previously, the area was known as Battlebridge. Located at the very edge of the built-up area at the beginning of the 19th century, it was the site of the Smallpox Hospital and the London Fever Hospital until displaced by the building of King's Cross Station. Battlebridge also accommodated the Great Dust Heap, where London deposited its waste, mainly ashes from coal fires and bones. Given this reputation for physical dirt and disease, it is unsurprising that King's Cross acquired a negative reputation - for drugs and prostitution - through most of the 20th century. 

Note the elegant, functional simplicity of King's Cross station [8a] (1852), designed by another Cubitt brother, Lewis Cubitt, and now cleansed of all the accretions of the last century that have been removed to create a new public square in front of the station: two arches - one for arrivals, one for departures, and a clock tower between them. Note, too, the equally plain shell of the Great Northern Hotel [8b] (1854, renovated and reopened in late 2012), now linked to the station by a spectacular new domed concourse [8c].  Compare with the extravagant high Victorian Gothic of the former Midland (St Pancras) Hotel (1873) and the technological marvel of Barlow's train shed over the platforms at St Pancras (1868), the biggest single-arch span in the world when it was built.

Note that St Pancras Station is raised up above the surrounding area. Whereas the Great Northern chose to burrow under the Regent's Canal immediately north of King's Cross Station, the Midland decided to bridge the canal, consequently terminating high above Euston Road. The space underneath the station platforms proved ideal for the storage of beer barrels delivered to St Pancras from Burton-on-Trent (which in 1880 boasted 30 breweries and at one time supplied a quarter of all beer sold in Britain). With the renovation of St Pancras Station in the early 21st century, this vast undercroft has proved ideally suited to accommodating a modern shopping centre.

From King's Cross square you can also see the facade of St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel.  This began life as a hotel in the late 19th Century, then became offices called St Pancras Chambers, and after a long period of closure has been converted into a 5-star hotel and luxury apartments (The St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel).

Click to listen to Audio8

Make for York Way, running up the east side of King's Cross Station.

[9. Regent Quarter] Walk up York Way on the eastern side of King's Cross Station: an area 'in transition' - compare older surviving uses (what kinds of shops, cafes and other establishments?) with new arrivals. Explore the 'Regent Quarter', 'changing the face of King's Cross' on the east side of York Way.

Click to listen to Audio9

[10. Kings Place] Also on the east side of York Way, just before the canal: King's Place - an arts centre underneath offices including the offices for the Guardian newspaper. The complex was opened in 2008. Wander around inside - usually several art exhibitions; a cafe at the back of the building with a way out to the canal basin.

Continue as far north as the bridge over the Regent's Canal. When was the canal built? Why? What is it used for nowadays? For some of the answers, and if you have time, visit the London Canal Museum [10a] (New Wharf Road) (Tuesdays - Sundays, 10.00-4.30). Note the much hyped 'Ice Wharf' (a warehouse converted in the mid 1990s into luxury apartments, facing onto the canal).

Click to listen to Audio10

[11. Granary Square] Cross York Way into Goods Way. Note the new landscaping and some renovated buildings between the road and the canal, such as the Filling Station, an old petrol station converted into trendy restaurant. Climb to the temporary viewing gallery at the intersection of Goods Way and King's Boulevard to get a view of the whole area between the stations and the Granary (1852), which now houses Central Saint Martins (CSM), part of the University of the Arts [11a]. Cross the canal into Granary Square and enter the Granary. There is a small 'Visitor Centre' in Stable Street on the north-west side of the CSM campus, which opened here in September 2011. Explore as much as you are allowed to (you need ID to get into the new part of the CSM campus which lies hidden behind the Granary). For the latest plans for the whole area of 'Railway Lands' and for some historical guides, also available in paper form from the Visitor Centre, see King's Cross website.

There were originally several gasholders in this area erected by the Imperial Gas Light and Coke Company around 1880. They are listed buildings - so they have to be put back when all the redevelopment work has been completed. One is scheduled to become an arts space, three other, linked, gasholder frames, will accommodate a series of apartment blocks, all located in the area between the Visitor Centre and the canal.

Note the creation of 'heritage' features in Granary Square, such as the embedding of old railway tracks and wagon turntables (where goods wagons could be rotated by manual labour) into this new public space.

At the east side of the square there is also an open-air 'KERB' street food collective (i.e. take-away food stalls) operating Tuesdays-Fridays, 11.00-2.30.

Click to listen to Audio11

[12A. Kings Boulevard] Cross Goods Way into Kings Boulevard, a new road opened in 2011 which leads directly from CSM to the new entrances to King's Cross and St Pancras Stations. As of late 2013, the boulevard was lined with green-leaf hoardings and display panels charting some of the history associated with the area, but the construction of blocks of shops and offices (to include new London headquarters for Google) is now turning the boulevard into a canyon. Rejoin the guided route after the next paragraph - at 'The Gymnasium' (see [13]).

[12B. Camley Street Park] Alternatively, if you have time, continue along Goods Way to the junction just in front of the bridge under the railway (where St Pancras Station has been extended), turn right and follow Camley Street to the Natural Park, a designated Local Nature Reserve run by the London Wildlife Trust (note they are closed Saturdays. Please see opening times!). The site of the park was formerly occupied by railway 'coal drops' (an interchange for transferring coal from rail to barge or road traffic).

Click to listen to Audio12B

Click to listen to Audio12B soundscape

[13. St. Pancras Station] From Camley Street, return to the junction by the railway bridge, and continue south down the east side of St Pancras Station. Culross Buildings (built for railwaymen in the 1890s) were demolished in 2008, and so was most - but not quite all - of Stanley Buildings (another IIDCo estate, dating from 1865). You can see photographs of the changing landscapes at Angela Inglis. Nineteenth-century model dwellings - like Stanley Buildings [13b] and Culross Buildings - often had flat roofs. Flat roofs, protected by railings, functioned as yards where washing could be hung out to dry, and sometimes as playgrounds for children. They were above the noise and pollution at street level.

This area, with once-cobbled streets, model dwellings and gasholders, used to be a favourite film location, for both 'period' dramas and 'film noir' - see pp. 126-7 of Colin Sorensen, London on Film (Museum of London, 1996), for stills from 'The Ladykillers' (1955), 'Chaplin' (1992) and Ian McKellen's 1930s setting of 'Richard III' (1995).

Continue as far as 'The Gymnasium' [13a] (now being turned into yet another posh, expensive restaurant). 'The Gymnasium', originally 'German Gymnasium', was built in 1864-65 for the German Gymnastics Society. It is claimed to have been the first purpose-built gymnasium in England. There were more than 16,000 German-born in London in 1861.

Immediately to the south you will see the new entrance to King's Cross, covered by a giant dome. This is completely reorienting the area making what used to be the 'side entrances' to St Pancras and King's Cross into the main entrance, well away from the busy Euston Road.

Click to listen to Audio13

Then turn into the walkway on the lower level [13e] of St Pancras Station. At the far end, go up the stairs/escalator to the platform level [13f] of the station. Go to the south end of the station to see two statues/artworks: the smaller (and much-praised) statue of Sir John Betjeman (by Martin Jennings). John Betjeman was poet laureate from 1972 until his death in 1984. He was also a founder member of the Victorian Society (1958) and a passionate defender of Victorian architecture and Victorian railways. Today he is probably best known for his BBC film, Metro-Land (1973), celebrating the suburbs along the Metropolitan Line, north-west of London. But the previous year, 1972, he published London's Historic Railway Stations and is credited with playing a critical role in ensuring the preservation of St Pancras Station when it was threatened with demolition following the destruction and redevelopment of nearby Euston Station.

The larger (and much-maligned) couple embracing (by Sculptor Paul Day) intended to signify a 'meeting place' under the clock. More interesting than the massive couple is the frieze around the base of the sculpture which depicts a variety of railway-related scenes and encounters. After you have explored this level, return to the lower level (remember what this was used for when the station was first built in the 1860s), and exit the station to the west, onto Midland Road.

Turn left and continue along Midland Road with the station on your left (and note where they have added new rooms and apartments to the original Victorian Midland Hotel, now the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel [13c]) and the British Library on your right. Successive editions of large-scale maps show that the Library replaced the extensive Somers Town Goods Depot, built by the Midland Railway in the late 1870s; and that in turn replaced a warren of small residential streets.

Turn right through gate 5 into the piazza-style entrance to the British Library [13h] (and go into the foyer/exhibition/bookshop areas of the library [13g], accessible even if you haven't got a Reader's Ticket for the library itself). The British Library moved to the site in 1997, having previously been accommodated in the British Museum.

[14. LCC Ossulston Street Estate] Exit the library into Ossulston Street and walk a little way along the street so that you can see the impressive blocks of council flats and courtyards of the Ossulston Street estate (opened in 1929 and inspired by workers' housing in Vienna - see Pepper (1981)).

Click to listen to Audio14

Return to Euston Road, noting the Pullman Hotel [14a] (formerly Camden Council offices), and then cross into Mabledon Place and Cartwright Gardens, past Commonwealth and Hughes Parry Halls.

[15. Peabody Herbrand Street Estate] Turn right into Tavistock Place, and look for the Mary Ward Centre [15c]. Mary Ward was a Victorian novelist (known at the time as Mrs Humphry Ward), famous for her best-seller, Robert Elsmere (1888), and for her opposition to votes for women. Living in Russell Square, she founded the Passmore Edwards Settlement, renamed the Mary Ward Settlement after her death. 'Settlements' were philanthropic institutions aimed at 'improving' and educating the poor - the most famous was Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel. The building in Tavistock Place, opened in 1898, is one of the finest 'arts and crafts' buildings in London. Now it is a conference and exhibition centre, but the work of the settlement continues as an adult education and legal centre in nearby Queen Square. In 1894, in her novel Marcella, Mary Ward set scenes in 'Brown's Buildings', a thinly disguised version of the Peabody Estate in Herbrand Street.

While in Tavistock Place turn down Herbrand Street. This was originally Little Coram Street and was entered through a narrow arch. Compare the Peabody estate [15a] on the east side of the street with the LCC dwellings [15b] (erected to rehouse people displaced by the building of Kingsway) on the west side.

Opened in 1885, the Peabody Estate originally contained more than 200 'associated flats' (with adjacent flats sharing toilet and washing facilities) arranged in eight blocks (lettered A to H) facing onto a central courtyard which served as children's playground. Access to the estate was under the paternalistic surveillance of the Superintendent, whose own flat, A1, overlooked the entrance from the street. Across the street, the LCC estate comprises three parallel blocks - Thackeray, Dickens and Coram Buildings (now Houses), reminding us of three 'great men' associated with the neighbourhood: Thackeray lived in Great Coram Street between 1838 and 1843; Dickens lived in Tavistock House (where the British Medical Association building is now) in the 1850s, having previously lived in Doughty Street (where the Dickens Museum is now) in the late 1830s; and Thomas Coram (whose own lodgings were near Leicester Square) established the Foundling Hospital on the site now occupied by Coram's Fields.

Click to listen to Audio15

Return to Tavistock Square where the walk finishes.


Further information on some of the main themes of the trip

1. Bloomsbury:

The Dukes of Bedford owned all of Bloomsbury from Oxford Street to Euston Road, and from Tottenham Court Road to Southampton Row/Woburn Place. Their extensive holdings in London also included Covent Garden and a less prestigious area north of Euston Station. Bloomsbury was laid out as an upper middle-class suburb during the latter part of the 18th and the first half of the 19th century. Development gradually extended northwards: Russell Square was laid out in 1800 (by the famous landscape gardener, Humphry Repton), but houses in Taviton Street were not erected until the 1840s. The Bedford Estate granted building leases to contractors like Thomas Cubitt, who erected houses to specified standards, which were then offered to tenants on 99-year leases. Restrictive covenants also prohibited the occupancy of dwellings for the purposes of trade. There were no pubs and no shops in the central core of the estate. Until 1893, a series of gates and gatekeepers' lodges on streets leading south from the Euston Road ensured that no through traffic passed through the estate.

Terraced housing was laid out around a series of garden squares, including Gordon, Tavistock, Woburn and Torrington Squares in North Bloomsbury. Originally, access to the gardens was restricted to tenants. Note how this middle-class sharing of communal recreational facilities paralleled working-class sharing of communal sanitary facilities. From the mid-19th century onwards, the trend towards privacy involved both self-contained working-class dwellings (with their own kitchens, water supply and [outdoor] toilets) and middle-class dwellings with their own, now much more extensive, private gardens. This shift in taste, along with a general drift of high society westwards, to places like Belgravia and Bayswater, made it increasingly difficult for the Bedford Estate to attract well-off tenants, each able to afford the lease of a whole house. Under the system of 99-year leases, property in North Bloomsbury reverted to the Estate during the 1920s and 1930s. Fortunately, this coincided with the expansion of the university, which either acquired new leases on existing buildings, converting them to departments and halls of residence (e.g. along the west side of Tavistock Square) or redeveloped extensive parts of Bloomsbury (e.g. Senate House, 1932; SOAS, 1946; Birkbeck College, 1951). On the margins of the Bedford Estate, Tavistock Square was redeveloped by more diverse interests: Tavistock House (Lutyens, 1938), which is now the HQ of the British Medical Association; the Tavistock Hotel (1951); and a mixture of 1930s buildings on the north side of the square, including both Jewish institutional buildings and Tavistock Court, with art deco friezes, which also accommodates church offices. As indicated above, commercial premises were excluded from Bloomsbury in the 19th century, but a kind of early shopping mall was built to Cubitt's design in Woburn Walk (1822), on the very edge of the Bedford Estate.

2. Social housing:

Beyond Woburn Walk, the Tonbridge Estate (associated originally with Andrew Judd, a member of the Skinners' Company, who established Tonbridge School in 1553 - hence Judd Street, the Skinners' Arms, and a succession of streets named after places on the company's rural estates - Mabledon, Bidborough, Hastings) was less successful in attracting middle-class tenants. Whereas North Bloomsbury was almost entirely 'gold' on Charles Booth's poverty map of 1889, signifying a high income population, the Tonbridge estate was mostly a modest but respectable 'pink', with occasional patches of 'blue' and 'black', indicative of the very poor and even the 'semi-criminal'. Parts of the estate quickly degenerated into slums which were replaced in part by blocks of mansion flats (growing in popularity in central London from the 1890s) but also by various types of 'social housing'. In George Gissing's novel The Nether World (published in 1889, but set in 1882), Joseph and Clem Snowdon occupied rooms in Burton Crescent (now the west side of Cartwright Gardens):

"The lodgings were taken furnished...Dirt and disorder were matters of indifference to the pair, who represented therein the large class occupying cheap London lodgings; an impure atmosphere, surroundings more or less squalid, constant bickering with the landlady, coarse usage of the servant..."

Immediately behind Burton Crescent were mews cottages and a narrow passage (Brantome Place) which was demolished in a slum clearance programme announced in 1896 and replaced by Flaxman Terrace (now Court), council flats erected by the newly formed St Pancras Borough Council in 1908.

On the other side of the Tonbridge Estate, north of Cromer Street, even though redevelopment in the 1890s retained the existing street pattern, the street names were changed (e.g. Brighton Street became Whidborne Street) in an effort to erase the district's criminal reputation. In this case, redevelopment was the responsibility of the East End Dwellings Company, one of the housing agencies included under the umbrella of 'philanthropy at five per cent'. The earliest part of the estate included 'associated dwellings' - a mixture of 1-, 2- and 3-room flats, sharing sculleries and toilets, some built with balcony access, others with internal staircases. The company soon found the poor to be unmanageable, and moved upmarket, extending its estate with Tonbridge Houses (1904) and Hastings Houses (1910), which contained larger and self-contained flats. The East End Dwellings Company survived as a semi-philanthropic housing agency until the 1950s when it was transformed into a speculative property developer (under the new name of Charlwood Properties, later part of Town & City Properties Ltd), no longer interested in low-rent residential property. In 1972, the Cromer Street Estate was placed in the hands of Hillview Estate Agents of Stamford Hill, and two years later was acquired by Camden Council. The council's intention was to demolish what was by then a very rundown estate. To that end, flats were left vacant when tenants died or moved. But as finance for new council housing became scarce, so the council found itself playing the role of slum landlord. Vacant flats were occupied by squatters and the estate acquired a reputation for crime, drugs and prostitution, the latter spilling over from the longer established red-light district around Argyle Square, immediately to the north. The council was able to rehabilitate the more modern and higher quality part of the estate (Tonbridge Houses) during the 1980s and eventually placed the management of the 1890s flats in the hands of a short-life housing association. Now, even these blocks have been renovated under the auspices of a local housing association and demonstrate how under the right conditions the most awful slum housing can be turned into a very attractive place to live.

Cromer Street itself is lined with 1950s 'tall slabs of flats', praised by the eminent architectural historian, Nikolaus Pevsner: 'although they do not make a symmetrical composition, the informal way in which they range themselves and the lawns between them make them highly impressive'. The area has recently undergone renovation under the 'King's Cross Estate Action' improvement programme.

Two other, 19th-century, limited-dividend or philanthropic housing agencies merit a mention. The very first example of philanthropic housing in London was the Bagnigge Wells estate of the Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes, a mixture of two-storey houses, flats and lodging house erected in 1844-45 in what is now Cubitt Street, off King's Cross Road. This estate no longer exists, but the King's Cross area still retains several estates erected by the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company, including Cobden Buildings on King's Cross Road (1863), Derby Buildings on Britannia Street (1868) and (part of) Stanley Buildings, just north of King's Cross Station (1865). From the outset, the IIDCo, founded by Sidney Waterlow, sometime Lord Mayor of London and Liberal MP, aimed at a better-off clientele than the East End Dwellings Co. Its flats were all self-contained and more elaborately decorated, e.g. with ornamental ironwork, than other working-class flats. Its tenants included disproportionate numbers of policemen, skilled artisans and railway employees. But in the long term, the company suffered the same fate as the EEDCo. In 1958, it changed its name to Greencoat Properties and began selling off its housing interests. Derby Buildings were purchased by Camden Council in 1973 and experienced the same stuttering process of squatting and, not very convincing, rehabilitation as on the EEDCo Cromer Street estate. In the early 1980s, when I examined the tenants' records for Derby Lodge (as it was now called), it accommodated large numbers of single tenants and young couples, including many children of existing council tenants and people working unsocial hours (e.g. in restaurants and clubs) for whom a central location was obviously desirable. Few tenants had exercised their right to buy under the Conservative government's scheme of council house sales.

3. Private housing:

East of the King's Cross Road are several small estates, all developed in the early 19th century on 99-year leases. One stimulus for development was the construction of the New Road (now Marylebone Road-Euston Road-Pentonville Road) in 1756-7. The New Road may be envisaged as a kind of 18th-century M25, skirting the northern limits of London to allow cattle to be driven from the west to Smithfield (which continued as a market for live cattle until 1855) without going through the new residential districts around Oxford Street. But it also functioned as a magnet for ribbon development extending west from the City by way of City Road (1761). Pentonville was laid out in 1773 by Henry Penton. To the south lie the New River Estate, around the reservoirs of the New River Company - which brought fresh water to London's middle classes from springs in Hertfordshire, the Lloyd Baker Estate, and the Northampton Estate, all developed from the 1820s. Development was also boosted by the introduction of London's first omnibus service in 1829 - George Shillibeer's horse buses linking Paddington to the Bank. The cartoonist, George Cruikshank, was living in Claremont Square on the New River Estate when, in 1829, he made his famous cartoon, depicting the invasion of the countryside by an army of builders' implements, advancing under cover of fusilades of bricks, 'London Going Out of Town: The March of Bricks and Mortar'.

From the outset, this area was less fashionable than Bloomsbury, and could never attract more than middle-income clerks and tradesmen. But another problem of relatively small estates is that they could have no control over development on adjacent property. One way of trying to distance a hoped-for middle class estate from a neighbouring slum was to exclude through traffic, either by gates (as in Bloomsbury) or by omitting to build any connecting roads at all, providing at best a pedestrian alley between adjacent estates. Thus, there was no direct exit from Argyle Square (originally respectable, though later an area of cheap hotels and prostitution) south into Cromer Street (one of Booth's 'semi-criminal' areas); nor from Lloyd or Myddelton Squares south into the Northampton Estate.

Most leasehold estates proceeded by granting building leases to a variety of small contractors, who each erected only a few houses. The major exception to this rule was Thomas Cubitt. Unlike most builders, who subcontracted each stage in building to specialist trades, Cubitt employed his own bricklayers, carpenters and plasterers. In the early 1820s he opened his own workshops in Gray's Inn Road, alongside two streets of modest teraced houses - Ampton and Frederick Streets, which he also built. He lived in a house fronting the Gray's Inn Road. All this land was owned by Lord Calthorpe, who also provided the site for the SICLC houses in Bagnigge Wells (philanthropic housing was often located on sites provided free or very cheaply by aristocratic landowners). The situation of Cubitt's workshops (now occupied by a community garden) meant that doors and windows for houses in Bloomsbury could be prefabricated in bulk in the workshops and transported the few hundred yards west. In Bloomsbury, Cubitt acted as contractor. Elsewhere, in Islington for example, he took on the role of land speculator, purchasing and then subdividing land and selling individual plots to other builders. He also acquired land, from which he extracted brickearth to make bricks for his other developments, and then resold it, now, of course, several feet lower than previously. Note the common practice in Regency and Victorian London of the roads being several feet higher than the houses, which had basements below road level. Major estate developers usually reserved sites for churches, which were regarded as important amenities likely to improve an estate's marketability. In 1834, Cubitt donated one site to the Commissioners for Building New Churches, on which was erected the aptly named St Peter's in the Brickfields!

Cubitt and his contemporaries concentrated on building for the middle classes. But there were not enough middle class households to go round. With the drift of fashion westwards, and the beginnings of detached and semi-detached suburbia associated with the development of railway and tramway networks, areas like Pentonville and Clerkenwell rapidly degenerated into privately-rented multiple occupancy. Since the 1960s, however, gentrification has transformed many of these modest squares - partly a consequence of changing demand (more professional single people, more childless couples, with more disposable income, attracted by residence close to work and places of entertainment), but at least as critically a result of changes on the supply side - the break-up of private landlords' holdings in the face of successive Rent Acts in the 1950s and 1960s, the encouragement of home ownership and the easier availability of mortgage finance for what had previously been regarded as risky investments, and the involvement of property companies purchasing rundown property very cheaply and selling it off, improved, in small units. More recently, as the supply of 18th- and 19th-century terraced houses was exhausted, and in imitation of New York 'loft living', there has been a shift to converting industrial, warehouse and office buildings, particularly those with Art Deco or Modern Movement pretensions, into luxury apartments. This also reflects the availability of redundant industrial buildings in an area of de-industrialisation. Clerkenwell contains large numbers of buildings suitable for conversion - including the New River Company/later Metropolitan Water Board HQ marketed as 'Tribeca?', and the former offices of The Independent in City Road, revamped as 'The Lexington' and marketed with a view designed to evoke the more familiar (and more spectacular) view of apartments around Central Park in New York! King's Cross and Camden contain similar, if slightly less central, office and warehouse apartments, e.g. in the 'Regent Quarter' between York Way and Caledonian Road just east of King's Cross Station, and adjacent to the Regent's Canal ('The Ice Wharf').

4. King's Cross:

By the mid-19th century the New Road marked the limit for mainline railways. Euston was opened in 1837, replacing 'a quiet scene of nursery gardens'; King's Cross followed in 1851-2; and St Pancras in 1868, in this case replacing the slums of Agar Town. Like 'Stagg's Gardens', a shanty town on the route of the London & Birmingham Railway, described by Dickens in Dombey & Son, Agar Town is a useful reminder that not all Victorian slums were inner-city. There were also urban fringe equivalents of the shanty towns that ring many 'third world' cities. Another famous London example, also exposed by Dickens, was The Potteries, in Kensington. Not only were these sites cheap to acquire, but a Royal Commission recommended in 1846 that no further railway lines should be built into central London. Although this recommendation was occasionally breached, it does help to explain the ring of mainline termini and the absence of any 'union' or 'central' station in London.

St Pancras Station is raised high above the Euston Road because of the proximity of the Regent's Canal, which the railway crosses as it enters the station. But the area beneath the station, like a vast undercroft, was turned to good use as storage for beer barrels brought to London by train from Burton-on-Trent.

Rather like airports more recently, the railway termini also spawned major hotels - the Great Northern Hotel at King's Cross (1854) (designed, like the station, by Lewis Cubitt, Thomas's brother), and the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras (George Gilbert Scott, 1868-72). Subsequently, the Midland Hotel was converted into offices, but for many years it was vacant and in disrepair. Following on from the opening of the Channel Tunnel Rail Terminal at St Pancras Station, the hotel building has now been restored and converted back into a grand hotel (now with extra private luxury penthouse apartments). In the interim, it served as an exotic setting for parties and as an occasional film set. For example, parts of the 'fascist' updating of Richard III (1995, starring Ian McKellen) were filmed in both the station and the hotel. Other parts of the film were shot in Cheney Road, just north of King's Cross Station. In fact, the area was a very popular location with filmmakers seeking either a Victorian or a seedy, menacing-looking setting, and in the 1990s Cheney Road, 'near the listed and preserved gasholders behind King's Cross Station' was 'probably the most visited of all London locations' (Sorensen, 1996). Colin Sorensen, in London on Film (1996), also notes its use for The Ladykillers (1955) and Chaplin (1992), where it stood in for the south London of Charlie Chaplin's childhood.

5. King's Cross Railway Lands:

To the north of King's Cross Station was the extraordinary wasteland of the Railway Lands, perhaps the most 'gothic' of all London landscapes! Working north from the station, the site includes the (German) Gymnasium, the IIDCo estate of Stanley Buildings, the Great Northern Railway's Culross Buildings (1892) (now demolished), the Imperial Gas Light & Coke Company's range of Victorian gasholders (some now being relocated farther north), the Regent's Canal including St Pancras Lock and Cottages, Camley Street Natural Park (a local nature reserve run by the London Wildlife Trust), and, until the early 2000s, a variety of small businesses - distribution depots, craft workshops, night clubs - housed in the remnants of the massive Great Northern Railway Goods Depot. Within the depot are several impressive industrial buildings, including the Granary (now occupied by the University of the Arts) and the coal drops. Altogether, the site covers about 40 ha., perhaps the largest, certainly the most central site with potential for comprehensive redevelopment in inner London.

As in Docklands, proposals for redevelopment were vigorously contested by local people. In 1989, the London Regeneration Consortium (a combination of architects and developers who had originally submitted different plans) proposed a spectacular scheme for redevelopment, including offices for more than 22,000 office workers, and about 1,700 housing units, mostly private, ranged around a central park. Existing businesses would be displaced, and several buildings would be demolished or - in the case of the gasholders - moved to a more convenient part of the site. In contrast, the King's Cross Railway Lands Group promoted an alternative 'People's Plan' with much less emphasis on office employment, less environmental impact, more industrial jobs and more housing, most of it 'social housing'. In practice, the recession in the early 1990s killed off the most grandiose plans, but the area became much more attractive to developers again with the relocation of the Channel Tunnel Rail Terminal from Waterloo to St Pancras, in conjunction with the building of the direct rail link from London to the tunnel. The original scheme envisaged an underground terminal with a new concourse between King's Cross and St Pancras Stations, on the site now occupied by the Great Northern Hotel. When it was decided to bring the rail link into inner London by way of Stratford and the route of the North London line, attention shifted to building the new terminal above ground by expanding St Pancras, which had been relatively underutilised. However, because Eurostar trains are about twice as long as the ordinary intercity trains that also use St Pancras, and because it was also envisaged to route Kent commuter trains into the station, the rebuilding involved extending the station platforms northwards, and widening the station to include completely new platforms. This necessitated removal of the gasholders, and of some housing and small businesses along Midland and St Pancras Roads, rerouting Goods Way, and causing considerable noise, dust and other disruption to Camley Street Park. From the perspective of economic regeneration, the expansion of rail passenger traffic should have a major impact on the area and, in combination with other developments - such as the British Library, located on the site of the old Midland Railway Goods Depot, and the opening of Central Saint Martin's Campus - has already led to a change in the area's downmarket image.

6. Social Housing Revisited:

The last sites to be visited return to the subject of social housing. Between Euston and St Pancras Stations are several sites of interest - the London County Council's Churchway Estate (1901); the St Pancras House Improvement Society (now the St Pancras Housing Association) (started in 1925 by a local priest, Father Jellicoe), responsible for flats such as St Mary's and St Nicholas House, in parts of Somers Town, including Drummond Crescent, Werrington Street, Bridgeway Street, Aldenham Street and Chalton Street; but most impressively, the LCC's Ossulston Estate (1929), across the road from the new British Library, which 'seems to reveal the continental influence of the short-lived socialist regime in Austria, its buildings sharing something of the character of the Karl Marx Hof in Vienna' (Greater London Council (1978) Home Sweet Home, p.38). The earliest plans for this estate involved 9-storey blocks, based on American experience, mixing shops, offices and 'superior' flats with working-class dwellings, allowing a degree of cross-subsidy on what was a very expensive site. In practice, 6-storey, all working-class blocks were erected, partly reflecting the improbability of attracting middle-class tenants to a site overlooking the Midland Railway Goods Depot.

There are several other early philanthropic and council housing schemes in the area. For example, in Herbrand Street, are both a Peabody Trust estate (1885) (built under the Cross Act (1875), whereby the Metropolitan Board of Works was empowered to purchase and clear slums, but not to erect its own housing; instead it had to resell the cleared sites to private agencies willing to provide housing for at least as many people as had been displaced; hence the involvement of agencies like the Peabody Trust and the IIDCo); and an LCC estate (1904), built to accommodate families displaced by the construction of Kingsway and the Aldwych.

Some Suggestions For Further Reading:

This trip can usefully be combined with a study of historical maps.

National Library of Scotland http://maps.nls.uk/os/ provides free access to OS 6 inch to 1 mile maps from the 1840s to the 1950s, and also to 60 inch to 1 mile (1:1056) plans for 1890s London.

Digimap Historic http://digimap.edina.ac.uk/digimap/home provides a much more extensive range of large-scale (1:2500 and 1:1056) maps from the mid-19th to the late-20th centuries (but is normally only accessible to users registered with subscribing higher and further education institutions).

Printed maps for sale (mostly 1:2500 but some 1:1056) are available from http://www.alangodfreymaps.co.uk/

The London Topographical Society http://www.topsoc.org/home have produced a series of 'A to Z' atlases of London at different historical periods, of which the most useful for this walk are the 'A to Z of Victorian London' (reproducing Bacon's 1888 map) and the 'A to Z of Regency London' (reproducing Horwood's 1813 map). The LTS also publishes an edition of Charles Booth's Descriptive Map of London Poverty, 1889. The 1899 version of Booth's map (and the associated 'police notebooks') is freely available online at http://booth.lse.ac.uk/ and using the mobile phone app: http://phone.booth.lse.ac.uk/

MAPCO http://mapco.net/london.htm provide a free online version of Stanford's Library Map of London, 1872 http://london1872.com/ and numerous other historical London maps.

Other maps, books and original archives can be consulted at Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre, Holborn Library, 32-38 Theobalds Road, London WC1X 8PA (which also includes a shop selling an extensive range of local history publications and maps): http://www.camden.gov.uk/ccm/navigation/leisure/local-history/


On King's Cross/St Pancras:

Battista, K. et al. (2005) Exploring 'an area of outstanding unnatural beauty': a treasure hunt around King's Cross, London. Cultural Geographies, 12 (4), 429-62.

Bradley, Simon (2007) St Pancras Station (Profile)

Campkin, Ben (2013) Remaking London: Decline and Regeneration in Urban Culture (IB Tauris)

Edwards, Michael (1992) 'A microcosm: redevelopment proposals at King's Cross' in Andy Thornley (ed) The Crisis of London (Routledge), pp.163-84

Edwards, Michael (2009) King's Cross: renaissance for whom? In: Punter, J., (ed.) Urban Design, Urban Renaissance and British Cities. Routledge, Abingdon, UK. http://eprints.ucl.ac.uk/14020/

Hunter, R. and Thorne, R. (eds) (1990) Change At King's Cross from 1800 to the Present (Historical Publications)

Simmons, Jack (with a new chapter by Robert Thorne) (2003) St Pancras Station (Historical Publications)

On Bloomsbury:

Ashton, Rosemary (2012) Victorian Bloomsbury (Yale University Press)

Olsen, Donald (1982) Town Planning in London: the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Yale University Press)

Tames, Richard (1993) Bloomsbury Past (Historical Publications)

See also the Bloomsbury Project Website: www.ucl.ac.uk/bloomsbury-project/ which, as well as containing lots of gazetteer-type information about buildings, streets, institutions and people, also has a collection of papers given at Bloomsbury Project conferences: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/bloomsbury-project/articles/events/conferences.htm

On housing, especially 'social housing':

Dennis, Richard (1989) 'The geography of Victorian values: philanthropic housing in London, 1840-1900', Journal of Historical Geography 15 (1), 40-54

Pepper, Simon (1981) 'Early LCC experiments in high-rise housing 1925-1929', London Journal 7, 45-64

Tarn, John (1973) Five Per Cent Philanthropy (Cambridge University Press)

Watson, Isobel (2004) ''Rebuilding London': Abraham Davis and his brothers, 1881-1924', London Journal 29 (1), 62-84, esp. 70-73.

Another valuable source of factual information is:

Hibbert, C., Weinreb, B. Keay, J. and Keay, J. (eds) (2008) The London Encyclopaedia (3rd edn) (Macmillan)

For a recent assessment of the continuing transformation of King's Cross, see Rowan Moore's essay in The Observer (12th Oct. 2014) online at: