The Blossoming of Bloomsbury

The Evening Standard (London, England), April 13, 2011 | Go to article overview

The Blossoming of Bloomsbury


Byline: Kieran Long

CHARLES DICKENS, William Makepeace Thackeray, George Eliot, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, political exiles, medical pioneers, Swedenborgians, Unitarians and other nonconformists, educational innovators, architects and more. This is the cast of characters animating a small district of London during the years of the capital's rapid growth in the 19th century, between Euston Road in the north, New Oxford Street in the south, and Tottenham Court Road and Gray's Inn Road in the east and west.

The scene is Bloomsbury, subject of a unique research project that documents the intense intellectual activity of the area and reveals how it has shaped the built environment. From Friday, the results of the Bloomsbury Project will be accessible online (at ucl. ac.uk/bloomsbury-project) and will give us all a chance to better understand the many hidden stories of the neighbourhood, and how they explain its extraordinary development.

Professor Rosemary Ashton, of University College London's English literature department, spent three years investigating some 300 institutions -- and many more addresses and individuals -- to find links between them, and how they had an impact on Bloomsbury, London, and in some cases, the country. At its heart, her A project is a gazetteer of every street and square in WC1, a timeline of its transformations and links to educational, medical and political thought. Ashton believes novelists are better than architectural historians at describing the life of a place and providing insights into its growth. In Thackeray's Vanity Fair, for instance, the social climbing of the Osbornes and Sedleys plays out against the background of Russell Square. Many lesser-known authors also used Bloomsbury as an archetypal setting for the emerging middle class, including the then wildly popular Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who L characterised the new-money decor of houses as "tea-chest taste".

But more profound insights came from greater writers who lived in Bloomsbury, pre-eminent among them Charles Dickens (one of his residences, on Doughty Street, is now the Dick museum). Influenced by the pio neering reports of fellow journalist Henry Mayhew on the terrible poverty of the rookeries of St Giles, just to the south of Bloomsbury, he wrote Oliver Twist, his first great campaigning novel, while living in the area.

Ashton points out that this "site-specific" London literature, alert to the subtle gradations of the city, continues today in the work of writers such as Zadie Smith and Monica Ali, Hanif Kureishi and K Andrea Levy. "These are writers dealing with changing London," she says. "A " nd that's what the 19th-century novel started doing; it read the clues by people's dress, by their carriages, by whether their front doors were a certain width, by whether they had a narrow basement. And we can still see some of those clues."

The particular character of Bloomsbury as a place of political and social agitation is prompted by the presence of UCL on Gower Street, and that institution's roots in reform politics in the first half of the 19th century. The first university in the country to teach modern languages, it attracted French, Italian and German political exiles, escaping the revolutions of 1848 and looking for jobs. As a secular institution, UCL was a better option for these newcomers than Oxford or Cambridge, where Anglicans were required.

One German couple, Johannes and Bertha Ronge, arrived in Bloomsbury in 1850 and three years later opened the country's first kindergarten in Tavistock Place. They later wrote a book on German education and by 1870 a kindergarten style was incorporated into the British schooling system. Later in the century the Passmore Edwards Settlement, also in Tavistock Place, offered the first after-school care for children of the working poor and the first school for the disabled in Britain. …

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