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History of the Area

The area we know as Bloomsbury was given by King Edward III to the monks of London Charterhouse and was rural at the time. King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries between 1536 and 1541 and grabbed land and possessions alike. In the case of Bloomsbury, he granted it to Thomas Wriothesley (1505-1550), a totally unscrupulous politician who had worked for, and later betrayed Thomas Cromwell. He was created the 1st Earl of Southampton in accordance with Henry's will.

Russell Square, the second-largest in London, is named after the Russell family who were Earls of Bedford from 1550. William, the son of William Russell, 1st Duke and 5th Earl of Bedford (1616-1700), married Lady Rachel Vaughan, one of the daughters of Thomas Wriothesley, 4th Earl of Southampton (1607-1667). She had recently inherited the agricultural fields now known as Bloomsbury from her father.

Development in Bloomsbury started with Southampton Square in the 1660s; it was later renamed Bloomsbury Square. Next was Bedford Square, built between 1775 and 1783 as an upper middle class residential area. Russell Square was laid down in 1810 and quickly became a desirable place to live. The land was originally called Southampton Fields and the name survives in that of Southampton Row, one of the thoroughfares that joins the square. The square is the main setting for Thackeray's Vanity Fair and came to be inhabited by members of the aristocracy and the nearby Inns of Court.

Shaftesbury Avenue was built between 1877 and 1886 by architect George Vulliamy, better known for his design of the pedestal and sphinxes of Cleopatra's Needle and the dolphin lamp posts on the Thames Embankment, and engineer Joseph Bazelgette, better known for building a new sewer system for London and the design of Hammersmith Bridge. As with the Drury Lane area, a large number of poor-quality houses were demolished. It is considered the heart of the West End theatre district.

Russell Square

The following photos were taken at Russell Square, and you can just make out the street sign by magnifying the image. Having looked closely at Google Street View showing current buildings, I conclude that the first photograph was taken from an upper floor of a building in Russell Square and is looking along Southampton Row in a south-easterly direction.

Russell Square
Cable laying at Russell Square, Bloomsbury [1]

The location is confirmed by the West Central Hotel seen in the next photograph which I found on old records to have been at 101 Southampton Row. The next photograph looks back towards Russell Square which can be seen far right. A little pedestrian traffic refuge with four bollards and a lamp post can be seen in both photographs. The office between Russell Square and the hotel offers the services of messengers and sells theatre tickets. The trenches are shored up with timber to prevent them from caving in.

The range of transport shown here is interesting. The square-looking vehicle in the centre of the photo is probably a taxi based on the Ford Model-T design. There are two commercial tricycles of which one could be for ice-cream sales - though the other more likely for delivery.

Russell Square
Cable laying at Southampton Row, Bloomsbury [1]
Russell Square
Russell Square and Southampton Row marked on extract from a 1936 Ordnance Survey map [2]

Here is a current view from Google Street View showing the building on the corner which has been undergoing renovation for several years. The block of buildings that included the West Central Hotel has been redeveloped.

Russell Square
Corner of Southampton Row and Russell Square from Google Street View [7]

The Hotel Russell at the other end of the square is an impressive-looking building. I went to a number of Hi-fi exhibitions there in the 1960s and sometimes stayed there during the late 1990s whilst working in London. The hotel opened in 1900 and was very luxurious in its heyday but had gone downhill by the time of my visits. I can remember several occasions when the fire alarm went off in the middle of the night. Guests assembled on Russell Square in their pyjamas, shivering in the cold until the fire service checked the place out and the all-clear was given. The hotel has since been completely renovated and is now known as The Kimpton Fitzroy - a particularly awful name that I hope they will change soon.

Hotel Russell
The Hotel Russell - now The Principal London [8]

Shaftesbury Avenue

The next photo shows cable laying opposite the Princes Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue. The map below marks the theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue (that part of it was called Broad Street at the time), and Drury Lane which was just around the corner.

Princes Theatre
Princes Theatre, Shaftestbury Avenue and Drury Lane marked on extract from a 1936 Ordnance Survey map [2]

Princes Theatre was designed by Bertie Crewe and opened on 26th December 1911 with the play "The Three Musketeers". In 1963 its name was changed to the Shaftesbury Theatre. In the photo the theatre is playing Gerald Lawrence and Company in Secret Service with prices shown as from 1 shilling to 10 shillings and sixpence. This production played at the Princes Theatre from 20 May 1926 to 5 June 1926 so the date of this photo can be narrowed to that small window. Nothing to do with spies, this was 'A Romance of the Southern Confederacy'.

Shaftesbury Avenue
Princes Theatre Shaftesbury Avenue [1]

There are some amazing old cars on view and a London Policeman dressed in the uniform of the time. You could almost expect him to bend his knees and say 'Evening All!' like PC George Dixon in Dixon of Dock Green.

Shaftesbury Theatre
Former Princes Theatre from Google Street View [7]

The next page covers cable-laying at the Bermondsey.