Queen Square in Bloomsbury is a little oasis hidden away close to the very heart of London. Now largely surrounded by hospitals, and often full of hospital patients and visitors, you can also spot a few surviving early 18thc houses on part of one side, amidst the institutions, hotels and outposts of medical empires.
The square itself is now not much more than a small public park with inscribed benches , statues and other memorials. But it has not always been like that. Indeed when it was built Queen Square was a prestigious residential address and remained so for well over a hundred years.
Read on to find out more about the history of one of London’s oldest squares: its foundation, slow decline and new role as a place of calm and quiet for Londoners today, as well as being virtually synonymous with The National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery.
Construction work began on what was originally Devonshire Square in about 1706, although the new development was quickly renamed in honour of Queen Anne. It was built on land that inherited by the Curzon family of Kedleston fame, and like most other early London squares it was a speculative development of small terraces and individual houses, rather than a well thought through unified scheme as was about to happen on the neighbouring Bedford Estate. Alongside the houses came a church – St George the Martyr – which was built on the south western corner plot, as a chapel of ease for the residents who were theoretically parishioners of St Andrew Holborn. It became a separate parish in 1723 because of the rapidly rising population and urbanization of Bloomsbury.
In fact the term square was a bit of a misnomer, because apart from the fact that it is a long rectangle anyway, when it was first laid out Queen Square was only built up on 3 sides. The northern edge was left open deliberately so that residents had an open view up to the the hills of Highgate and Hampstead. Nor was there anything like a garden in the central area. As can be seen this was left as a simple grass plot.
Queen Square was always rather quieter and less ‘popular’ or ‘illustrious’ than the squares of Soho and the West End, but it attracted the gentry as well as wealthy new professionals including lawyers, military men, and doctors. It had a popular heyday when George III’s doctor lived here and had the king to stay while he needed treatment during his illness. There is a pub, opposite the church, on the southwest corner of the square, called ‘the Queen’s Larder’, which was supposedly used by Queen Charlotte when she prepared food for her husband.
Although once thought to be of Queen Anne, the statue at the northern end of the square is nowadays thought to commemorate the concern and care of Charlotte, although the costume seems more appropriate for Anne. The face bears little comparison to other images of either of them!
Gradually during the 18thc the fashionable residential area shifted further and further west – from Cavendish Square into Marylebone and towards Kensington so those gentry families concerned about such things left Queen Square leaving it more and more to the middle and professional classes.
In 1797 the Curzons got into debt and looked for an easy source of cash. They found it by selling the freeholds of most of the Square’s houses. This instantly meant that the new freeholders – the house owners – had much more control – indeed virtually total freedom – over any future development. Although it doesn’t sound terribly important in fact this had a big effect on the future shape and appearance of the square.
The land immediately to the north of Queen Square was owned by the Foundling Hospital. Established by Thomas Coram in 1739 with the support of Handel and Hogarth by the end of the 18th century the hospital wanted to expand but was also running out of cash. The answer was, thought its governors, to build and rent out a small estate on the surplus parts of their land.
Apart from creating the elegant Brunswick and Mecklenburg Squares on either side of the main hospital building, this involved developing the land on what was to become Guilford Street, which ran along the north side of Queen Square. This was not popular with the square’s residents but despite their protests a terrace of houses soon replaced their view out to the countryside. The terrace was typical of its time, but as a concession, the section opposite Queen Square was given a much grander facade.
By the time that the Dukes of Bedford began developing their nearby Bloomsbury estate at the turn of the 19thc Queen Square’s still largely early 18thc houses were occupied by a solid middle class group who were able to use their homes as their professional base if they wished. This was anathema to the Bedfords. They laid down an overall plan which laid out a development in regular planned terraces, streets and square, and they imposed strict covenants on the new properties to ensure its residential character was maintained, with no commercial or even professional use allowed.
In 1832 Queen Square residents obtained a private act of Parliament to grant them the authority to enclose, maintain and improve the central gardens, in much the same way that many other London squares had done. The act established a board of trustees to manage the square and its gardens. However, as a result of the Bedford’s refusal to allow non-residential use, those streets and squares which were not so constrained, including Queen Square and its surroundings, were beginning to attract the interest of institutions and businesses who could not gain access to these newer developments.
The first to move into one of the large houses around the square was a residential school run by The London Society for Teaching the Blind to Read in the early 1840s. They were followed in 1846 by the College of Preceptors, and then sometime before 1850 by Dr Joseph Amesbury’s private Hospital for Spinal Deformities. By the 1860s many other institutions were acquiring properties on the square, and this happened so rapidly that by the 1870s there was hardly a house left in single residential occupation.
Amongst other things this meant that there were fewer and fewer residents to form the board of trustees. Actually ‘board’ is a bit of a misnomer really because there until the turn of the century there were usually only 3 or 4 trustees at any one time. They were, you probably won’t be surprised to hear, all men, bar a Miss Isabella Wild who attended just 2 meetings & about whom I have discovered very little.
The trustees minute books and accounts survive from 1873 onwards in London Metropolitan Archives. However they record very little apart from setting the rate precept and hearing the balance of the account from the Treasurer, and the gardens are rarely mentioned at all. Presumably this was because decisions about what was to happen there were taken informally.
Bylaws were introduced in 1873, and these included a surprising one banning smoking in the gardens. They were strengthened in 1877 when amongst other things children’s prams, all forms of games and specifically, for some reason, crossbows were forbidden. Of course servants were not allowed either. By 1884 attitudes had softened slightly because prams were allowed provided they had “india rubber tyres and were not driven two abreast”.
Things became even more liberal – but not until 1896 – when “permission was given to Lady and other cyclists to use the gardens from 9 until 12 in the morning.” I wondered why this should have been the case until this morning when I discovered an interesting blogsite run by historian Sheila Hanlon about women’s cycling. It may not sound your thing BUT you might be surprised at the connections she makes and the stories she tells.
Apparently cycling, particularly for women became popular in the mid-1890s but had been banned in London’s royal parks, including Hyde Park, Regent’s Park, and St. James’s Park, as well as over a few other green spaces under the Parks Regulation Act of 1872. As a result other parks, notably Battersea Park, which were not covered by the act attracted large numbers of cyclists. Perhaps the trustees were responding to demand for those residents who wanted to indulge in what had become the fashionable recreation of the day.
But the trustees also had bigger problems on their hands than cycling. Bloomsbury was not all respectable housing.There were plenty of poor streets and even slums nearby mainly to the south in Holborn. Indeed one of the most notorious was Little Coram Street, [now Herbrand Street] which began just a few dozen yards from the entrance to Queen Square. So you might wonder why wasn’t the square overrun by the area’s poorer inhabitants.
The answer is simple: it was railed with locked gates. Entry to the gardens was controlled by a variety of paid employees. At different times they were called beadles, square-keepers, gate keepers or just gardeners, but they were all tasked with keeping the square clear of riffraff and solely for the benefit of the residents. The moral tone was reinforced upheld by letters from the trustees to those residents who broke the rules by, for example, allowing their servants to walk in the square or whose children were noisy.
Of course this did not mean the square remained trouble-free. The biggest single cause for complaint was the public house, the Queen’s Larder. It became the centre of all sorts of misconduct and the police were regularly called to deal with “the disturbances and disgraceful conduct during certain hours of the evening.” The pub is still there and its website says “Queen’s Larder is a very small and intimate venue, characterised by its nearly private, club-like atmosphere.”
I’m sure it was that too in the 19thc but unfortunately that also meant it had what the trustees called “little or no interior accommodation”, so the drinkers were often outside on the side street – or worse the square itself. Its lack of “interior accommodation” probably also meant having few, if any, toilet facilities so, as the trustees put it in their complaints, the gardens and their railings “were used as a public urinal particularly in the evening”.
With several hospitals, homes for the indigent, as well as colleges and schools the character of the square and its surroundings began to be altered visibly as well as demographically. The turning point came in 1881. According to the square’s trustees what had become The National Hospital for the Paralysed and Epileptic had been “secretly acquiring neighbouring properties” and that year they launched a major expansion plan demolishing a large section of the western side of the square to make way for the purpose built Albany Wing. The trustees did not approve. So when the hospital requested permission for “a musical band on the occasion of some addition” this was refused point bank.
But attitudes change. The great and the good were behind the hospital. Princess May visited the hospital and presumably supported their applications, to open another extension in 1885. On this occasion – presumably because of her royal presence the Trustees deigned to allow “Venetian Masts and other simple decorations” providing enough police were employed “to prevent the intrusion of the public into the gardens.”
In 1903 they received a request for a key to the garden for general hospital use. And in that famous phrase “after considerable discussion” it was resolved that “the use of the garden be granted to staff but it not desirable that the patients should have the like privilege.” This was the proverbial foot in the door. The secretary of the National Hospital, Godfrey Hamilton, called on the other hospitals now established round the square – the Alexandra Children Hospital, the Homeopathic Hospital, and the Italian Hospital – to support him, and they asked for a joint meeting with the trustees. Their united voice almost carried the day. In June 1904 was resolved that “the epilepsy patients… but not more than 6 at a time shall be permitted to use the square gardens” providing “they were not outwardly objectionable”. At the same time both Hamilton and the secretary of the Homeopathic Hospital became trustees.
Of course that did not mean a free for all. In 1905 The rector of St George The Martyr requested permission for children from the parish school, which was within sight of the square to be allowed to do “physical drill” in the gardens. This was refused. A request in 1910 by the London County Council for their newly founded Trade School for Girls to be allowed to use the square was equally sharply dealt with, although a few months later following a personal request from the superintendent of the new school, up to 40 girls were allowed to have their lunch in the square provided they “left no litter and played no games injurious to the garden.”
Now the freedom was beginning to run out of control. There was a boarding house on the square run by Mrs Blue and in 1911 she received permission for up to 6 of her lodgers to use the garden. The permit to patients was extended to the Alexandra Children Hospital and even the Italian hospital. With the outbreak of war in 1914 the trustees became positively reckless about letting people in. The chairman of the trustees was authorised personally to allow “persons of desirable character, being wounded soldiers and sailors from the war, or refugees from friendly foreign countries” to use the square. That privilege was also given to guests at the Imperial Hotel in 1915.
However suggestions for a tennis court or a golf practice area both were tuned down flat . The Rector, now a trustee himself, proposed a platform inside the square itself for temperance speakers – opposite the pub presumably. This was also turned down on the ground that it might invite requests from less desirable causes.
Queen Square has another claim to fame for what happened during the First World War. A Zeppelin bomb dropped in the square in 1915 and exploded. Miraculously, although there were thought to be more than a thousand people sleeping in the vicinity, mainly in the hospitals not a single person was injured. However, even the Zeppelin failed to disturb the routine of the trustees.
Holborn Council offered them some captured German guns for exhibition in the square but these were refused on the grounds that it would encourage even more sightseers and would be visitors to the gardens. Instead they voted to leave the small crater “as a permanent memorial to German infamy and inhumanity, and with such object the indentation was to be turfed and surrounded by low railings”. Nowadays all that is left is a tiny metal plaque in a circle of crazy paving!
But from 1918 it was downhill all the way for the exclusivity of the square. More houses were converted to hospital use, the large private garden at the northern end of the square was finally built over. And hospital patients were allowed access to the gardens in increasing numbers. Finally, the railings were removed for scrap metal in the Second World War. With the railings gone, no control was possible, and like all the other previously exclusive squares all Londoners gained free access. As the war came to an end several landowners, including the Bedfords, tried to reestablish their rights and reinstate the railings. But for most, including Queen Square it was too late. In 1949 the trustees handed over the management – and the running costs – of the square gardens to Holborn Borough Council. Today they are managed as an ordinary public park by Camden, its successor local authority.
To find out more about the National Hospital and its history in the square take a look at their archive site which has many more photos:
To find out more about the other squares in Bloomsbury take a look at the website of the Association of Bloomsbury Squares which has links to the various friends groups and events as well as a lively blog :