Bloomsbury in the Spring
Senate House was the last stop on our first Bloomsbury walk … it is also the location of the Nubian Jack Community Trust bronze plaque commemorating Mary Prince (c. 1788 –1833), the first Black woman in Britain to publish the account of her life and the first to file a petition to Parliament. Her story, published at a time when slavery was still legal in England, played a pivotal role in the campaign to abolish it. It’s not easy to spot. It’s on the Malet Street side to the left when you face the library. I ended up having to go up to the library on the 4th to find out the exact location. Walking on past the ‘Brutish’ Museum, it is worth noting, if you ever decide to visit, a selection of Benin bronzes can be viewed in the Africa Gallery. If you’re after an alternative history, however, check out George the Poet’s Huge History Lesson.
Our final destination is Gordon Square, but first a little detour via Queen’s Square, which somehow made me feel like I’d time travelled into the Victorian era – the name and sign certainly fit the bill. Here you’ll find the Mary (A) Ward Centre (not to be confused with Mary Ward House – see below), an adult education college and veggie café – possibly the main reasons for mentioning Mary Ward in a feminist blog.
Mary Ward was certainly a divisive figure. On the one hand, inspired by the ‘settlement movement’ (1880 – 1920), a reformist movement which sought to alleviate poverty (see Toynbee Hall in East London), she founded Mary Ward House to help poor students access education … but it’s all downhill from here! While she supported women’s education – hooray! - she vehemently opposed gender equality and the women’s suffrage. In her role as president of The National Anti-Suffrage League she debated suffragist, Millicent Fawcett – and lost! She became a novelist – writing under her husband’s name! Her novel, Delia Blanchflower, was a stark critique of the suffragettes. Her view was that winning the vote wouldn’t make any material difference to the lives of poor, working-class women. And, while she may have had a point, winning the vote was never just about voting about broader issues of equality, women’s rights and justice.
By 1929, ‘Mary Ward House’ had become a dedicated women’s settlement. Social work continued during the 1930s and 1940s, with growing focus on adult education and training. The legal advice centre which opened during the 1940s continues to operate, helping people who live in London to access their legal rights and entitlements by providing free and independent advice. Its services focus on debt, employment, housing, welfare benefits and general legal advice.
If the café is closed, so grab a sarnie locally and sit in the square, which takes its name from Queen Charlotte, King George III’s wife. Legend has it that she stayed in a house in the square storing food for him – now the Queen’s Larder pub- while he was receiving treatment for mental illness. The square has a rich medical history – including the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine and University College London, amongst other medical and research institutions.
This is a fascinating area, and you quite easily spend a couple of hours exploring its squares and history. A few steps in one direction will take you to Red Lion Square and the famed Conway Hall - home to the national secular society. A stone’s throw away is Lamb’s Conduit, a cute row of (rather overpriced) shops, which used to include the gorgeous Persephone bookshop … now, sadly for us Londoners, it has moved to Bristol, so you’ll need to order online – and the majestic Perseverance pub.
If like me you decide to go north – towards Tavistock Square – head to Grenville Street. At the end of March 2022, as part of International Women’s Month, Black History Walks unveiled a new Nubian Jak Community Trust blue plaque to trailblazing abolitionist, women's rights activist and doctor, Sarah Parker Redmond. She became an anti-slavery lecturer, delivering her first lecture against slavery at the age of 16. in 1858, she travelled to Britain to speak out against slavery, racial discrimination and the sexual exploitation of black women under slavery. She studied at Bedford College – just down the road – which features in the previous part of the walk. She then went to Italy where she became an obstetrician. Finally, her memory and incredible achievements are celebrated.
Head towards Russel Square underground – a place worth noting and located right behind the station is the progressive, underground art venue, The Horse Hospital. It’s on the corner of the picturesque cobbled Colonnade and is definitely worth a look – the building is really fab too and there is a lovely bakery with outdoor seating - a true hidden gem. I went a few weeks ago – for the first time! – and saw an immersive lecture / performance by the collective Grace Grace Grace on the intersection between femicide and age.
Turn into Marchmont Street, where at #66 you'll find the UK's oldest LGBT+ bookshop, Gay’s The Word, set up in January 1979 by a group of gay socialists as a community space where all profits were funnelled back into the business. And seeing we've been talking about blue plaques, you'll find one dedicated to LGBT activist Mark Ashton, who, in 1984, co-founded the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, to raise cash for Welsh miners striking against Maggie Thatcher’s decision to close down mines. The story has since been immortalised in the film Pride - with a brilliant 80's soundtrack! Turn the corner into Tavistock Place … you can’t miss the trans flag crossings! – and you’ll see an unusual red brick building, that's Mary Ward House (see above) – now a conference centre.
Keep going until you reach Tavistock Square, now dedicated to ‘contemplation’. The centre piece is a statue of Mahatma Ghandi, by Polish sculptor and actor Fredda Brilliant, who refused to work with Picasso after he sexually harassed her and wanted to depict more women. There is a cherry tree to remember the victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings, as well as a commemorative stone to conscientious objectors … but one the main reason we are here is for Louisa Aldrich-Blake (1865 – 1925) – a woman of many firsts. Born in Chingford, she graduated in medicine and obstetrics and, two years later, she became the first woman to be awarded the degree of Master of Surgery. She decided to serve in World War I, leading a group of women to establish a hospital, and upon return she pioneered methods to treat cervical and rectal cancers – oh and then went on to become the first woman anaesthetist!
On the same side, in the opposite corner, you will find a rather unflattering bust of Virginia Woolf (1882 – 1941) - it doesn’t quite capture the Bloomsbury Set bisexual, feminist of my imagination ... Born at 22 Hyde Park Gate, South Kensington, she moved to bohemian Bloomsbury after her father’s death in 1904. Not long prior, she’d finished studying classics and history at the ‘Ladies’ Department of Kings College London, where she met members of the women’s rights movement. She stood out for her feminist, humanist and anti-war views. Three Guineas and A Room of One’s Own are often regarded as her most important feminist pieces.
Virginia Woolf moved to a number of addresses in the Bloomsbury. First, she lived at 46 Gordon Square with her siblings - this also became the initial meeting point for the eccentric group of novelists, poets, painters known as the Bloomsbury Set. After her sister Vanessa’s wedding, she moved to 29 Fitzroy Square and from there to Brunswick Square, where she met her future husband, Leonard Woolf. Together they founded Hogarth Press, which they ran from 52 Tavistock Square. The Bloomsbury Set were known for their open approach to relationships, which earnt them the description: ‘they lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles’. Virginia Woolf also had a number of relationships with women, including author and gardener Vita Sackville-West. Both women’s writing became inspired by their relationship – in particular Orlando. Virginia Woolf suffered from mental illness from a very young age and faced multiple struggles throughout her life that led her to commit suicide.*
And we are now getting close to the finishing line – with one of my favourites - Gordon Square. It is particularly lovely in spring with some gorgeous trees flowering, lots of bluebells and a super cute little kiosk, Momo's garden café. Our main reason for visiting is Noor Inayat Khan (1914 – 1944) - Codename: Madeleine, a truly global citizen: born in Moscow to an American mother and Indian father - who was a direct descendant of Tipu Sultan, the 18th century Muslim ruler of Mysore State. She grew up in France where her family had moved in 1920 until they fled to England in 1940, after the fall of Paris. A pacifist and anti-colonialist, she fought against fascism, by joining the Secret Operations Executive, where she became the first female wireless operator. In 1943, she was sent to occupied France to support the efforts of the resistance - becoming Britain’s first Muslim female spy. In 1943, the Gestapo captured, imprisoned and later executed her. She was only 30. She was posthumously awarded the French Croix de Guerre and George Cross in 1949. The memorial bust was unveiled in 2012 – it is believed to be the first memorial to either a Muslim or Asian woman in Britain. She shares this beautiful space with the Indian poet and campaigner Rabindranath Tagore.
And this closes the second and final leg of our walk. Both sections are easily combined and you can them in any order. And there are plenty of pit stops along the way. I’ll leave you with this hot tip: for those with a penchant for cocktails – be sure to squeeze in a visit to the Bloomsbury Club. When I last checked the menu, it had changed from Bloomsbury Set themed cocktails to something altogether more intriguing: the latest mixes are inspired by the famous Pamela ‘Pixie’ Colman Smith’s tarot deck …