Bloomsbury is a rather indistinct area to clarify but part of Bloomsbury is recorded in the Doomsday Book as having vineyards and “wood” for 100 pigs. The name derives from the manor of Blemond and came into the hands of Edward 111 who gave it to The Charterhouse. At the dissolution of monasteries it was granted to Thomas Wriothesley who became Lord Chancellor and Earl of Southampton. His descendant the 4th Earl moved into a house on land called Southampton Fields and rebuilt the house at the bottom of “Long Fields”.
The Russell family, Earls of Bedford from 1550, gained possession of Bloomsbury by marriage into the Southampton family in 1669. Lady Rachael Vaughan, the widowed daughter of the Earl of Southampton and heiress to Bloomsbury married William Lord Russell, second son of the 5th Earl of Bedford, who became heir to the Russell fortune when his elder brother died in 1678. William got involved in the Rye House Plot and was executed at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The family were reinstated in 1694 when William’s father the 5th Earl of Bedford was created Duke of Bedford so Rachel and William’s son inherited as 2nd Duke of Bedford.
The area remained mostly open fields until the mid-18th century. The square was laid out in 1801 by Humphrey Repton and James Burton was the designer of the original buildings that surrounded the square, only a few of which now remain on the west side. Those on the east were demolished for the Russell Hotel. It was named after the Russell’s and is one of London’s largest squares.
Russell Square quickly became one of London’s most desirable places of residence, home to the highest of high society. It was also much favoured by lawyers and other professional men. Thomas Denman who became Lord Chief Justice lived at No 50 in 1818-34 and Sir Samuel Romilly, the great law reformer, killed himself at No 21 in 1818 when distracted by grief at the death of his wife in the Isle of Wight. In his agony he fell into a delirium, and in a moment, when unwatched, he sprang from his bed, cut his throat, and expired in a few minutes. Lord Tenterden, who presided at the trial of the Cato Street conspirators, died at no 28 in 1832. William Cowper, the poet, lived at No 62 and Sir Thomas Lawrence, the painter, lived and had his studio at No 67 from 1805 till his death in 1830. He painted here the series of portraits of princes, generals and statesmen who contributed to Napoleon’s downfall. His picture of Wellington was on a British £5 note from 1971-91. (Both above properties were demolished for the Imperial Hotel). The poet Thomas Gray, the suffragette Emmaline Pankhurst and the theatrical impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte also lived here at one stage.
It is the prime setting for the events of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, which is set at the time of the Napoleonic Wars. “But the tide of fashion has rolled westward,” wrote Charles Knight in 1843, “and left Russell Square to be inhabited by the aristocracy of the City and the Inns of Court.” Knight added that “the scientific section of London literary men” had been attracted here too, by the square’s proximity to the London University and the British Museum.
In 1852 the trustees of the British Museum proposed to extend the building north-eastward – a plan that would have involved buying and demolishing a number of houses in Montague Street and at the south-west corner of Russell Square. In the end they decided to create more internal space by filling in the central quadrangle, while at the same time moving the natural history collection to a new home in South Kensington.
The squares were closed by gates until these were abolished by Act of Parliament in 1893. A cabmen’s shelter was erected at the square’s north-western corner in 1897 – and survives to the present day. Built at the start of the 20th century, the Russell Hotel (or the Hotel Russell, as it later styled itself) is a chateau-style terracotta extravagance, regarded as the finest work of the architect Charles Fitzroy Doll. It had 342 bedrooms but is currently being revamped and it is set to open in April 2018 as “The Principle, London”
Russell Square Gardens were re-laid in 2002, returning them to something like their appearance in the early 1800s by reproducing the original twisting paths and planting new lime trees. Low branches were removed from some older trees and the park was better lit and once again railed and gated.