Initially known as Southampton Square, Bloomsbury Square – located just to the east of the British Museum – was first developed in the mid-1660s, making it London’s oldest formal square.

Bloomsbury-SquareIt was the fourth Earl of Southampton, Thomas Wriothesley, who developed the square – his rather grand house, Southampton House, was located on the northern side of the square which initially featured gardens at the centre laid out in a cruciform pattern.

In 1723 – via the marriage of Southampton’s daughter, Lady Rachel Vaughan, to the ill-fated William, son of the 5th Earl of Bedford (he was implicated in the Rye House Plot and beheaded) – it passed to the Dukes of Bedford, becoming part of the Bedford Estates (and with it the earl’s house, later renamed Bedford House). The square took on its new name of Bloomsbury Square around this time.

Initially popular among the well-to-do, it had fallen somewhat from favour by the 19th century and with the 5th Duke preferring to live in the West End, in 1800 Bedford House was auctioned off and demolished. Terraced houses were later built along the now vacant north side of the square.

About 1806, the 5th Duke commissioned Humphry Repton to redesign the square and by the 1820s a garden including trees in the centre and a perimeter shrubbery. The gardens have gone through several makeovers since, including in the 1960s when an underground carpark was built underneath.

Most recently refurbished in 2006-2007 so they once again reflect Repton’s design, the gardens – which have been open to the public since 1950 – also contain a bronze statue of Whig politician (and friend of the Dukes of Bedford) Charles James Fox, which was designed by Sir Richard Westmacott and erected in 1816 (pictured, it was restored in 2006 to mark the bicentenary of Fox’s death).

It remained popular among middle class professionals, however, and among its most notable residents were the writer Isaac D’Israeli, father of the future Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, who lived at number six in the early 19th century (his son with him) while architect Sir Edwin Lutyens lived and worked at number 29 for more than 15 years after his marriage in 1897. Literary and artistic figures like Leonard and Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey, who became part of what was known as the ‘Bloomsbury Group’, were also famously known to have lived in the area around the square.

Most of the houses in the square are now used as offices but among the notable buildings there are the former home of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain (based in a building partly credited to architect John Nash) and, dating from 1930, Victoria House.

One of the more famous events to have taken place in the square occurred in 1780 during the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots when rioters burned down the house of the Lord Chief Justice. Almost 100 years earlier, in 1694, the square was site of a deadly fencing duel between Scottish financier John Law and Edward Wilson. Law killed Wilson, was subsequently convicted of his murder and sentenced to death but escaped by fleeing to the continent. He later become the founder of the Mississippi Company.

Advertisements

A 17th century public executioner famed for his botched executions, Jack Ketch looms as an infamous figure in British history and a byword for brutality and executioners in general.

Ketch’s origins are unknown (he’s also known as John Catch) but he is believed to have received his appointment as a public hangman sometime in the early to mid 1660s – the first recorded mention of him in that role, in a pamphlet celebrating his handiwork, dates from 1678. Such was his self-importance that he apparently adopted the title Esquire and apparently asked for his letters to be addressed to Dr John Ketch.

Among those who died at his hand were those accused of involvement in the Popish Plot against the Crown – a Catholic conspiracy to assassinate King Charles II which was all apparently fabricated by Titus Oates. These included William Staley and Edward Coleman both of whom were hung, drawn and quartered in 1678 (Ketch was also charged with whipping Oates following his perjury conviction).

But Ketch’s most infamous executions, the only two beheadings he is known to have performed, became notorious because of the botched manner in which they were carried out.

It was reported that it took Ketch three blows to strike off the head of William, Lord Russell, when he was executed for treason on 21st July, 1683 (he had opposed the succession of James II and was accused of involvement in the Rye House Plot), although Ketch apparently denied suggestions he had turned up drunk and blamed Lord Russell for flinching.

The beheading of James Scott, the Duke of Monmouth (and illegitimate son of King Charles II), on 15th July, 1685 (pictured above in a print from the time), was apparently even worse – it took Ketch five blows to take off his head and he apparently finished the job with a knife after having almost given up halfway through. Monmouth had been captured following the Battle of Sedgemoor in July 1685 in which he led an army having declared himself king (more on that another time).

Ketch fell out of favor with the authorities later that year and was briefly gaoled in Bridewell prison. He was reinstated but his return to the job of public executioner was only short-lived for he died in 1686 and is believed to have been buried in St James’ in Clerkenwell on 29th November, 1686.

He was survived by his wife Katherine, who apparently stood by her man despite the public feeling against him, and is it generally assumed a girl Susanna who was baptised at the church in Clerkenwell in 1668 – some 18 years before his death – was his daughter.

Following his death, Ketch’s name was adopted by subsequent public hangmen – he even appeared as an ongoing character in Punch and Judy shows.

For more on Ketch, see Tim Wales’ article Jack Ketch in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (a subscription is required for access).

PICTURE: Wikipedia.