10 Historic London Garden Squares…8. Russell Square

The largest garden square in Bloomsbury (and one of the largest in London), Russell Square was first laid out by Humphry Repton in 1806 and was located on what were the gardens of the home of the Dukes of Bedford, Bedford House.

Duke-of-BedfordIts name is that family name of the 5th Duke of Bedford, Francis Russell, who initially ordered the creation of the square and owned the land upon which it stands. The Russell family still hold the title today – the current duke, the 15th, is Andrew Russell – and still run the Bedford Estates upon which the square still stands.

The square was originally lined with grand terraced homes aimed at the upper middle class – the survivors, which can be found largely on the southern and western side of the square, are these days occupied by offices and the University of London. The eastern side of the square is these days dominated by the French Gothic Hotel Russell – designed by Charles Fitzroy Doll, it was built in 1898.

Famous residents and inhabitants have included TS Eliot, who worked at a building in the square’s north-west corner when he was poetry editor at Faber & Faber, 19th century painter Sir Thomas Lawrence who had a studio at number 67, poet William Cowper, who lived at number 62 in the 1830s as a schoolboy, and George Williams, founder of the YMCA, who lived at number 13 in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It also appears in William Thackeray’s novel, Vanity Fair, and Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day.

The gardens were overhauled in 2002 in view of Repton’s original design and a new ornamental fountain installed in the middle. A cafe was also added.

Russell Square still houses one of London’s 13 extant Cabmen’s Shelters while monuments within the gardens include a small memorial to the 7th July, 2005, bombings – two of which occurred nearby – and a statue of the 5th Duke of Bedford, another which is the work of Sir Richard Westmacott and which was erected in 1807-08 (pictured).

What’s in a name?…Covent Garden

Now a favored place for people-watching among Londoners and visitors alike, Covent Garden takes its name from the ‘Convent Garden’ which occupied the site in medieval times.

The ‘convent garden’, said to be a 40 acre kitchen garden, belonged to the Abbey or ‘Convent’ of St Peter in Westminster (Westminster Abbey was once the church of this religious foundation) which owned the site from the 13th century until 1548 when the land passed into control of King Henry VIII during the Great Dissolution.

He granted much of the land to John Russell, the 1st earl of Bedford, and it was the 4th earl, Francis Russell, who commissioned Inigo Jones to design a great public square. The new square featured grand houses along the northern and eastern sides and a church – St Paul’s (pictured right) – on the west while to the south, between the square and the Strand, stood the mansion of the Bedford family.

A fruit and vegetable market was licensed in 1670 but its growth – and the development of other squares offering a much greater level of privacy – led the wealthy who had originally occupied the houses to move elsewhere. The market, meanwhile, continued to grow and in the 1830s, the main market building which still stands there today was constructed.

Further buildings followed in the 1800s and the market continued to occupy the site until as recently as 1973 when it was finally moved out to Nine Elms and the area began a transformation into the shopping precinct it now is.