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Bloomsbury's Fearless Women

Fitzroy Square with view of BT tower euphorbia in foreground London Spring
Fitzroy Square in spring

Stepping slowly into spring and out of lockdown – is so refreshing and also a little scary. Who would have thought that to be able to peek outside your own neighbourhood would feel quite so daring? It made me realise just how numb I am feeling after 3 months of ‘Stay at Home’. Actually, being in central London felt odd - it was still so eerily empty when I went in early April - but that’s now fast changing.

For my first ‘proper’ walk, I headed to Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia - an area which I am familiar with – having both worked and studied there – but, in the hustle and bustle of the city, of rushing from one place to the next, I hadn’t spent much time exploring its many hidden treasures.

This is a walk is about places and people, spots for lunching and drinking & I have included a few blue plaques too and is in part inspired by a walk in Rachel Kolksy’s brilliant Women’s London – a tour guide to great lives - a wonderfully researched resource, which I definitely recommend. The first thing, that springs to mind when you hear ‘Bloomsbury’ is of course ‘The Bloomsbury Set’ – a group of writers, artists and intellectuals who met at the Bloomsbury home of Vanessa Bell and her sister Virginia Woolf in the first half of the 20th Century - and the air of mystery, bohemia and queerness that is still attached to the arty collective … but I found plenty more to spark my interest.

Agent provocateur

I started from Warren Street station - on the Victoria Line - and headed to Fitzroy Square which, like Bedford Square, is a private, ‘resident only’ square – in sharp contrast with the late 19th century when radical refugees and political migrants resided in the neighbourhood – such as the French Communard, Louise Michel (1830 – 1905). She first came to London in 1882 on her way back from New Caledonia, where she had been deported, and returned to live here several times – often for long periods.

“London! I love London, where my exiled friends have always been welcomed,

London, old England standing in the shadow of the gallows,

is still more liberal than the French bourgeois Republicans are.”

She established the International Anarchist School at No. 19, Fitzroy Square, while living nearby at 59 Charlotte Street. The school was closed when the police raided it in 1892 and found bombs in the basement. It was suspected these had been planted by the school’s assistant, who transpired to be a police spy. Louise later moved to South London.

I attended a fascinating talk ‘Anarchist in the UK’, by the excellent Naomi Clifford and which I recommend, remembering 150 years since the Paris commune and celebrating the extraordinary life of Louise Michel – a compassionate, feminist, atheist, teacher, philanthropist and anarchist – a strange combination driven by an incredible thirst for justice. Her legacy lives on in France – naturellement – but, here in London, there is no place to commemorate her …

One of the many places in Bloomsbury where Virginia Woolf lived was at No. 29 from 1907 – 1911, in a house previously owned by the writer George Bernard Shaw. As you peer through the metal fence (RAILINGS) you will see ‘View’ by artist Naomi Blake - a British sculptor, whose work reflects her experience as a Holocaust survivor.

"Keep your rosaries off my ovaries"

From there, I headed to Charlotte Street. If at this point it’s lunchtime and you’re peckish (or even better, ravenous) – stop at the Indian YMCA for a feast (see below). As I walked down Whitfield Street, approaching Marie Stopes House – a working sexual health clinic - I was astounded - infuriated actually – but not surprised to see two older men, holding rosaries, ready to intimate women they suspected may be seeking abortion services. The problem persists due to the lack of buffer zones.

Marie Stopes (1890 – 1958) herself was a controversial figure - an influential ‘birth control’ advocate, talking frankly about sex and contraception, but sadly motivated by racist and eugenicist ideas. She opened the first family planning clinic in 1921, in Holloway, north London, offering a free service to married women. The clinic moved to its current spot in 1925. Marie Stopes International who operate sexual reproductive health services globally, recently changed their name to MSI Reproductive Choices, to distance themselves from foremother’s abhorrent views … though it did take them until 2020 to do so!

Bohemia mania

Taking a right and then left into Charlotte Street, I noticed a gorgeous little side street, Colville Place. If you are looking for a quiet place to sit and ponder, you will find Crabtree Fields tucked away at the end. Retrace your steps and continue towards Fitzroy Tavern. A pub since 1887, it was frequented by eccentrics, gay people, artists and the ‘Queen of Bohemia’, Nina Hamnet (1890 – 1956) herself. Her flamboyant lifestyle, open bi-sexuality and general joie de vivre had her rub shoulders with Picasso, Cocteau, Modigliani, and Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf’s sister. Barbara Castle, the Labour politician who supported the Ford Dagenham sewing machinists, also drank here. Cross the road for a full view of what remains a very fine-looking London establishment and lovely spot for a pint (once pubs re-open). Though expect a very different atmosphere in today’s sanitised world.

Keep going until you reach the Bourne and Hollingsworth Bar on the corner of Rathbone Place. It was undergoing renovations when I walked past it – but make a note of it you fancy a special cocktail (see below). Previously known as the Tour Eiffel restaurant, a favourite of London’s bohemian clientele, including writers Ezra Pound and Aldous Huxley, it was immortalised in a painting by artist William Roberts - The Vorticists at the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel, Spring 1915 (Tate).

Rebellious Heiress

nancy cunard

It was also Nancy Cunard’s (1896 – 1965) London base - heiress to the Cunard shipping fortune who moved to London at 15 where she attended the private school run by Virginia Woolf. The two women, connecting over their passion for the written word, became life-long friends. As a young woman, Nancy rebelled against her privileged background – too defiant, provocative and radical to fit into the stiff upper lip echelons of British society, she dedicated herself instead to poetry - to become a published poet! - parties with the ‘corrupt Coterie’ and unusual fashion – her looks and style epitomised the 1920s and 30s. She was also a muse to many illustrious writers and artists – some became her lovers. But she was so much more. In 1919, Nancy fell prey to the Spanish Influenza and suffered the effects for many years. She moved to France in 1920, where set up The Hours Press, publishing some of the most notable Modernist, Surrealist, and Dadaist writers of the era. But it was meeting African-American jazz pianist Henry Crowder that opened her eyes to racial injustice and transformed her into a fearless anti-racist – and anti-fascist – campaigner. No ordinary poor little rich girl! Reading about her life, I couldn’t help but notice the parallels– the ‘flu’, the racism, the rise of fascism - with Nancy Cunard’s story.

If you are interested in finding out more, you can in Lois G Gordon’s biography: Nancy Cunard - Heiress, Muse, Political Idealist; Columbia University Press.

Women's Education Matters

We are now nearing the end of the first part. Turn into Percy Street and walk towards Bedford Square. At No. 48, you will see the commemorative plaque of Bedford College founder, Elizabeth Jesser Reid (1789 - 1866) - another extraordinary woman. The college was the country's first higher education college for women - a radical institution with the ambition of broadening women's cultural and intellectual life, rather than simply providing a vocational training. Early students of the college included American abolitionist Sarah Parker Remond (1826 - 1894) and the women's suffrage campaigner Barbara Bodichon (1827 - 1891). Bedford College became a constituent member of the University of London in 1900. Elizabeth Jesser Reid was also a prominent anti-slavery campaigner and friend of Sarah Parker Remond - the first black woman to undertake a public lecture tour in Britain.

Senate House Moody Sky Bloomsbury London
Senate House, Bloomsbury

Keep walking around the square until you reach the corner with Montague Place, cross Gower Street and on the corner, at No. 2, you will find suffragist Millicent Fawcett’s last abode. Continue on Montague place and, on your left, you will see Senate House – an imposing building, where author George Orwell worked during WWII, when it was the Ministry of Information … inspiring his novel 1984. A bit further on the right you will see the back of the British Museum – the largest hangar of stolen goods. In my many years in London, I’ve never actually visited it. I am hopeful that momentum built last year during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations and that once again has brought to the fore the systemic racism of our institutions is finally forcing some urgent conversations about decolonising museums. The Museums’ Association provides some resources and information for this this work. Let’s see whether changes will actually happen.

From here your closest underground station is Russell Square on the Piccadilly line.

Stay tuned for Part II.

You will be spoilt for choice with so many food and drink options in the area ...

Indian YMCA London

Looking for a quirky, delicious lunch time spot?

41 Fitzroy Square, London, W1T 6AQ

There is no step free access.

Quick pint?

16A Charlotte Street, London, W1T 2LY

Step free access.

Or a cheeky cocktail ...

28 Rathbone Place, London, W1T 1JF

There is no step free access.


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