Free Walking Tour around Bloomsbury and Holborn

The area around Holborn and Bloomsbury is a great place to walk around and explore. Personally we’ve got to know pretty well over the past year or so. Packed full of history. It’s also the location of the popular Sunday Assembly which bases itself out of the Conway Hall every second Sunday. It’s fun and something we’ve enjoyed going to for the past couple of years. As a result we wanted to get to know the area a little bit more.

Bloomsbury essentially sprawls from Holborn up towards Euston Road and so that’s where this walk will be heading. The area’s name dates from Norman times when William De Blemond acquired the land. The suffix ‘bury’ denotes an area of land or manor that belongs to a person. Bloomsbury therefore is simply William De Blemond’s manor. Back in the day of course there would have not been much to see other than marshy fields. But the name has stuck.

Old map of Bloomsbury showing the Foundling Hospital. This is part of our walking tour of Holborn and Bloomsbury
An old map of Bloomsbury showing the location of the Foundling Hospital established by Thomas Coram and which first began taking children in 1741. The site is now known as Coram’s Fields

The name Holborn meanwhile is thought  to derive from the old English words ‘hol’ meaning hollow and ‘bourne’ meaning brook. Given the area’s proximity to the old River Fleet. This could be a reference to the once fairly substantial river just to the east. Or it could be a reference to another tributary called the ‘old brook’. The historian John Stow speculated that this could have run into the Fleet at Holborn bridge. London was once a city of many rivers. It’s just that most of them have been lost to development over the years.

Walking Tour of Holborn and Bloomsbury

So, for this walk we’ll start from Holborn tube station. Walk up towards Russell Square and then finish at Euston Road tube station. We’ll stop at some cool historic places of interest along the way.

Start – Holborn Underground Station to Red Lion Square via Red Lion Street

From the exit at Holborn immediately cross the main road known as High Holborn. Then keep heading down towards the direction of Chancery Lane until you meet the junction with Red Lion Street. There on the corner is the Old Red Lion Pub which now dates from 1899. However this was originally established much earlier in the 16th century. Then it was known as the Red Lyon Inn and it has a unique place in history.

The Old Red Lion pub where Oliver Cromwells body was kept. This is part of our walking tour of Holborn and Bloomsbury
The Old Red Lion as it looks like today where Oliver Cromwell’s body was supposedly kept on its way to the gallows

The hanging of Oliver Cromwell

Following the execution of Charles I on 30 January 1649. The ‘Commonwealth of England’ (1649-1653) was established. This was dominated by Oliver Cromwell. In 1653 Cromwell then took full control and established the Protectorate. He would then serve as ‘Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland’. Following his death in 1658 he was succeeded in the post by his son Richard. That however was only until 1659 when he was ousted by parliamentary troops. In 1660 Parliament then offered to restore the monarchy to Charles II.

After Charles II returned to the throne, parliament passed the Indemnity and Oblivion Act 1660. This act basically restricted any reprisals against anyone who had committed crimes during the Civil War to those who had been involved in the death of Charles I. For those involved in his trial. Indeed those had signed his death warrant. It meant that they now would go on trial themselves. Many were found guilty and hung, drawn and quartered.

Exhumation of the Lord Protector

As a result the exhumation of the bodies of Cromwell and two other men who had signed his fathers death warrant were ordered. They were Cromwell’s son in law, Henry Ireton (1611-1651) and the judge John Bradshaw (1602-1659). All were to be taken to Tyburn and then posthumously executed as traitors. The plan was to gibbet and behead the corpses before throwing them into a pit,

On the way to the gallows the bodies were stored overnight in the Red Lyon Inn’s yard. It is rumored that during the night of their internment, the bodies were swapped. Then re-buried in a pit in the fields which used to surround the pub. It’s impossible to know for sure of course but it’s possible that that pit was in the area of today’s Red Lion Square. Giving rise to many a story of the ghosts of the men haunting the area to this day.

The Battle of Red Lion Square

Head up Red Lion Street until you come to Princeton Street where you should turn left. The square is immediately ahead. It gained notoriety when on 10 June 1684 a pitched battle broke out. This was between workmen developing the site and around 100 lawyer’s from the nearby Gray’s Inn. The lawyer’s had protested at the development. They claimed that if the fields were developed they would lose their ‘wholesome air’ and be detrimental to their health. The lawyer’s turned up armed with bricks and whatever else they could get their hands on. However they were fought off by the workmen who won. It cleared the way for the site to eventually be developed.

Red Lion Square is also the site of the Conway Hall which occupies the north-eastern corner. Opened in 1929 it is owned by the Conway Hall Ethical Society. It was established as a centre for free thought and debate. It was named after Moncure Daniel Conway the American anti-slavery campaigner. He was a man who, whilst in London, was a staunch supporter of women’s suffrage. It now also hosts the famous Sunday Assembly.

Conway Hall on Red Lion Square, Part of our walking tour of Holborn and Bloomsbury
The Conway Hall on Red Lion Square

Red Lion Square to Great Ormond Street

From Conway Hall on the square walk up the little passage heading east next to the hall. There you’ll rejoin Red Lion Street. Turn left and then cross over the main road and continue along Lamb’s Conduit Street. Named after the philanthropist William Lambe, who in 1564 gave £1500 to support the rebuilding of the Holborn Conduit. This was an Elizabethan dam made in a tributary leading to the River Fleet. The intention being to bring fresh water into London. The remains of the conduit pump can still be seen. This is on the corner of Lamb’s Conduit Street and Long Yard at the top end of the street. The exact route of the conduit is however now long gone and unknown.

Rugby Estate

The street is a lovely little find. It is full of independent retailers and the ‘little bird’ website features a number of them here. Keep walking up the street to the turning with Rugby Street. The name remembers the establishment of the Rugby estate by the grocer Lawrence Sherrif. He had sold spices to Elizabeth I in the days before she became queen. Rewarded by her with his own coat of arms in 1558. He eventually bought an undeveloped plot of land known as Conduit Close. Developing it prior to his death in 1567. He then left the land as an endowment to help build a school and almshouse in his home town of Rugby. This effectively established the Rugby estate of today.

Lamb's Conduit Street. Part of our walking tour of Holborn and Bloomsbury
Lamb’s Conduit Street

Great Ormond Street to Russell Square Tube Station

Carry on up Lamb’s Conduit to the junction with Great Ormond Street and there turn left. The street gives its name to the famous children’s hospital. This can now be seen on the right hand side of the street. It’s also mid way through our walking tour through Holborn and Bloomsbury. Originally opened in 1852 by Charles West. It was the ‘Hospital for Sick Children’. Charles Dickens was a big supporter writing “Our children perish out of our homes, not because there is in them an inherent dangerous sickness… but because there is, in respect of their tender lives, a want of sanitary discipline and a want of medical know.ledge.”

The Madness of George III

Carry on down Great Ormond Street towards Queen’s Square. The area was named after Queen Anne and laid out in 1716. However it actually contains a statue of Queen Charlotte the wife of King George III. He had been treated at a house in the square between 1788 and 1789 by his physician Francis Willis who lived there. Sadly I can’t seem to identify exactly which one the house was. The ‘Queen’s Larder‘ pub is named after Queen Charlotte as she had rented a small cellar beneath the building. There she would cook and make ‘special foods’ for her husband as he received his treatment.

The cause of George III’s illness has been much debated. He had experienced a number of bouts of mania with one leading suggestion being that he had bipolar. The episode for which he was treated by Francis Willis was so serious that it led to a Regency Bill passed by parliament. His recovery was so dramatic though that the bill was pulled before it could pass the House of Lords. The apparent success in alleviating George III’s illness was seen as a major step in the recognition of the developing specialty of psychiatry

A statue of a mother and baby in Queens Square

Medical Associations

The area does of course have a long association with medicine. In addition to ‘Great Ormond Street Hospital’. The square also adjoins the ‘National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery’. Also the ‘Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine’. Itself formerly known as the ‘London Homeopathic Hospital’.

Exit the square via the northern end of the square via the alley known as ‘Queen Anne’s Walk‘. Turn left on Guilford Street and then take a right after a few minutes on Herbrand Street. Walk up there until you reach Bernard Street. Turn right and there is the Russell Square tube station.

The Hospital for Sick Children on Great Ormond Street. This is part of our walking tour of Holborn and Bloomsbury
The Hospital for Sick Children on Great Ormond Street

Russell Square Tube to the Foundling Museum

Russell Square itself is named after the family name of the Dukes of Bedford. In particular the 5th Duke, Francis Russell. He owned the land and was responsible for developing much of the area in the 17th and 18th centuries. Russell commissioned the developer James Burton to make the area available for residential use. Burton has his stamp on much of the properties around Bloomsbury to this day as a result.

Roger Fry and Post Impressionism

Across the road from the tube station look out for the Pret a Manger on the corner. There is a plaque to Roger Fry (1866 – 1934). A painter and art critic he was a leading member of the Bloomsbury Group. Fry, used to live in a property on the site and was a scholar of the old masters. He became an advocate of the developments in French painting. He coined the term ‘post-impressionism’ and was seen as the first figure to raise awareness of modern art in Britain. According to the Tate. “The taste Fry influenced was primarily that of the Anglophone world, and his success lay largely in alerting an educated public to a compelling version of recent artistic developments of the Parisian avant-garde.”

The Grade 2 listed Brunswick Centre on Marchmont Street. Part of our walking tour of Bloomsbury and Holborn
The grade II listed Brunswick Centre on Marchmont Street

Marchmont Street

Continuing our walking tour of Holborn and Bloomsbury. Carry on down Bernard Street and take the first left onto Marchmont Street. To the immediate right is the grade 2 listed Brunswick Centre. It was designed by Patrick Hodgkinson and completed in 1972. Originally meant to be a holistic community incorporating housing, shopping and general amenities in a single development. It fell into disrepair before being renovated in 2000. Now it stands as a vibrant place to shop and eat.

Carry on up Marchmont Street and you’ll see a number of blue plaques which the residents themselves have arranged. This followed a project with the Marchmont Association to reconnect with the history of the street. Famous residents who you will come across include the comedian Kenneth Williams at number 57. Mary Shelley the author of Frankenstein at number 87. Richard Greene the actor who starred in the ‘Adventures of Robin Hood’ lived at number 65. There are also plaques to less well known residents of the street. Take your time and have a look as you wander up.

A token in the pavement of Marchmont Street. Spot these as part of our walking tour of Holborn and Bloomsbury
A token embedded in the pavement on Marchmont Street

Tokens on Marchmont Street

Another cute little quirk about Marchmont Street are the little tokens embedded in the pavement as you walk up. These tokens are replicas of ones found in the Foundling Hospital which was nearby. They are now remembered with the Foundling Museum a short walk away. The tokens would have been left with abandoned children. When, in 1741, the Hospital first opened its doors. Mothers were asked to ‘affix on each child some particular writing, or other distinguishing mark or token. This was so that the children ‘may be known thereafter if necessary’.

Thomas Coram and the Foundlings

At the top end of the Brunswick Centre take a right into the Marchmont Community Garden. Then enter Handel Street .The street remembers one of the foundling hospitals earliest supporters the composer George Frideric Handel. A concert arranged by Handel in 1749 raised money for the hospital and the year after he became a governor.  Carry on straight down until you reach Henrietta Mews. There at the end is the Foundling Museum where the Hospital is now remembered. The term ‘foundling‘ is historic. It would have been applied to babies which had been abandoned by their parents and cared for by others.

The Foundling Museum part of our walking tour of Holborn and Bloomsbury
The Foundling Museum with a statue of Thomas Coram

To the south of the museum is Coram’s Fields, so named after the benefactor Thomas Coram. This was the original location of the hospital itself. It was established by Coram in 1739 when the site had formerly been known as ‘Lamb’s Conduit Fields’. Coram had been frequently shocked by the sight of infants exposed in the streets. Often in a dying state. He began to agitate for the foundation of a foundling hospital. A place where children and orphans who could not be properly cared for could be looked after. The resulting hospital was the result of years of campaigning and in 1741 the first babies were admitted. Another little quirk of Coram’s Fields is that even now, access is only permissible by adults, if they are accompanied by a child.

The Foundling Hospital to Gordon Square Gardens

From the museum retrace your steps back to Handel Street. Then take the junction with Hunter Street and then turn left down Tavistock Place. Walking straight down until you come to Tavistock Square. The square was developed by James Burton in 1820’s as part of the development of the Bedford estate. Thomas Cubitt was also responsible for the build of a number of the houses around the square.

Statue of Virginia Woolf inside Tavistock Square. This is part of our walking tour of Holborn and Bloomsbury
A statue of Virginia Woolf inside Tavistock Square Gardens

Tavistock Square

Turn right on the road also known as Tavistock Square. Then walk up towards the middle of the square where there will be an entrance. At the opposite side of the road is a memorial to the victims of the 2005 London Bombings. This was where a bomb was detonated on a London bus. It killed 12 innocent people as part of a wider co-ordinated terrorist attack in London on 7 July 2005.

Opposite the memorial, in Tavistock Square itself there are a number of statues and monuments. There are statues to Mahatma Ghandi. He supposedly studied at the nearby UCL although the evidence as to whether he did any studying is unclear. The square also contains a bust of Virginia Woolf. The famous author and member of the Bloomsbury Group once lived nearby. Louisa Aldrich Blake, the first British woman to obtain the degree of ‘master of surgery’ is also remembered. She played an important role in surgical efforts during the First World War. Other notable memorials in the square include ones to the victims of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There is also a stone which commemorates conscientious objectors from all over the world.

The BMA building on Tavistock Square also the site of one of Charles Dickens former homes

Where Dickens once lived

Head towards the north eastern end of the square. Then look towards BMA House the headquarters of the British Medical Association since 1925. It was designed by Edwin Lutyens in 1911. The site was formerly one of the homes of Charles Dickens. He lived there from 1851 to 1860 though now extensively redeveloped. Here Dickens wrote ‘Bleak House’, ‘Little Dorrit’ and ‘A Tale of Two Cities’.

Gordon Square

Head west along the top of Tavistock Square towards Endsleigh Place and then take a left down Gordon Square. The square was another to be developed by Thomas Cubitt in the 1820’s. A number of the buildings were also once the homes of a number of different members of the Bloomsbury Group. The house at number 46 in particular is notable. This was where the first evenings of discussion were held. The home was lived in between 1904 and 1907 by the siblings Thoby, Adrian, Virginia and Vanessa Stephens. The latter two now being better known as Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell. A number of the buildings are now owned by the nearby University College London (UCL).

Houses on Gordon Square where many of the Bloomsbury Group lived

Gordon Square to Euston Road

At the bottom of the square turn right towards the impressive Grade I listed Church of Christ the King. Built by John Raphael Brandon between 1851 and 1854. Head straight on along Byng Place. Head past an entrance to the UCL where if you’ve got time you could take a detour to see the famous Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology. This is a university museum which is free to the public. Its also packed full of one of the most amazing collections of Egyptian and Sudanese archaeology in the world. Established by Flinders Petrie. He was one of the foremost egyptologists of his generation. In 1892 he was made aprofessor of Egyptology at UCL. He had made a whole raft of discoveries during his excavations much of which are now in the museum.

Grant Museum of Zoolology

Soon our walking tour from Holborn to Bloomsbury will conclude. Walk to the end of the road to the junction with Gower Street, turn right and walk up. There is another museum on the left hand side of the junction with University Street which is also worthy of note and also free. There, the Grant museum of Zoology can be found. Established in 1828 as a teaching collection of zoological specimens by Robert Grant. On his death he left the collection to the university. These resulted in one of the most unique and slightly disturbing collections around.

The impressive portico of the Wilkins Building at UCL

Walking from Holborn to Bloomsbury

Further up Gower Street to the right is the entrance to the UCL itself. Hidden away from the road it is the impressive main entrance to the university itself. Known as the Wilkins building it was designed by William Wilkins, the architect also responsible for the National Gallery. Work began in 1827 and then ended in 1829. That was when the funds ran out with only the portico and dome finished. The building was eventually finished in 1985 a full 158 years after the first stone was laid.

Keep going straight up Gower Street and you’ll come to Euston Road. The Euston Road and Warren Street stations nearby.

The walk around Bloomsbury and Holborn was researched during October 2017 and updated in December 2019. It was inspired by a free walk provided as part of the Bloomsbury Festival. Many thanks also to Isabel Cameron who provided a number of additional spots and tips about the area.

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    1. Thanks Mitch, it’s a fascinating area with some great artistic links particularly with the Bloomsbury Group. Am hoping to do a follow up but we’ll see how much time I get 😉

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