Free Walking Tour around Bloomsbury and Holborn in London

It’s been a while since we put together a walking tour but the area around Holborn and Bloomsbury is an area we’ve got to know pretty well over the past year or so. It’s a place packed full of history and 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 and so 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 and so Bloomsbury 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.

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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 may or may not be a reference to what in it’s day would have been a fairly substantial river just to the east or it could be a reference to another tributary called the ‘old brook’ which the historian John Stow speculated could have run into the Fleet at Holborn bridge. London of course is a city of many rivers it’s just that most of them have been lost to development and now flow underground.

So, for this walk we’ll start from Holborn tube station, walk up towards Russell Square and then finish at Euston Road tube station stopping 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 to get to the other side and 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 but was originally established much earlier in the 16th century when it was known as the Red Lyon Inn and it has a unique place in history.

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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

After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 which followed the end of the protectorate established by Oliver Cromwell. The bodies of Cromwell, his son in law Henry Ireton and judge John Bradshaw, the men seen as being principally responsible for the death of Charles I, were dug up from Westminster Abbey on 30 January 1661 with a view that they would be taken to the Tyburn Gallows so that they could receive a macabre posthumous execution.

The bodies were supposedly stored overnight in the Red Lyon’s yard on the way to the gallows prior to their corpses being gibbeted, beheaded and thrown in a pit. Their head’s then ended up being displayed on a spike outside Westminster Hall until 1685. It is rumoured though that during the night of their internment in the Red Lion’s Yard, their bodies were swapped and re-buried in a pit in the fields which used to surround the pub. It’s impossible to know for sure of course and of course it’s given rise to many a story of the ghosts of the men haunting the Red Lion Square of today.

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 and gained notoriety when on 10 June 1684 a pitched battle broke out between workmen developing the site and around 100 lawyer’s from the nearby Gray’s Inn. The lawyer’s had protested at the development claiming 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 only to be fought off by the workmen who won, clearing 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 and was established as a centre for free thought and debate. It was named after Moncure Daniel Conway the American anti-slavery campaigner and who, whilst in London was a staunch supporter of women’s suffrage.

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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 where 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, an Elizabethan dam made in a tributary leading to the River Fleet so that fresh water could be brought into London. The remains of the conduit pump can still be seen on the corner of Lamb’s Conduit Street and Long Yard at the top end of the street although the actual route of the conduit is long gone and unknown.

The street is a lovely little find and 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 of which remembers the establishment of the Rugby estate by the grocer Lawrence Sherrif who 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, developed it and then prior to his death in 1567, left the land as an endowment to help build a school and almshouse in his home town of Rugby effectively establishing the Rugby estate of today.

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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 which can now be seen on the right hand side of the street. Originally opened in 1852 by Charles West as the ‘Hospital for Sick Children’, Charles Dickens no less 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 knowledge.”

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 although it contains a statue of Queen Charlotte the wife of King George III who had been treated at a house in the square by his physician Francis Willis who lived there, sadly I can’t identify exactly which one that was. The ‘Queen’s Larder‘ pub is named after her as she once rented a small cellar beneath the building and there she would cook and make ‘special foods’ for her husband as he received his treatment.

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A statue of a mother and baby in Queens Square

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 and 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.

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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 and in particular the 5th Duke Francis Russell, who owned the land and was responsible for developing the area in the 17th and 18th centuries. Russell commissioned the developer James Burton to make the area available for residential use and Burton has his stamp on much of the properties around Bloomsbury to this day as a result.

Across the road from the tube station look out for the Pret a Manger on the corner where there is a plaque to Roger Fry (1866 – 1934) the painter and art critic who 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 which he termed ‘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.”

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The grade II listed Brunswick Centre on Marchmont Street

Marchmont Street

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 and was 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 and 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 following 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 and Richard Greene the actor who starred in the ‘Adventures of Robin Hood’ at number 65. There are also plaques to less well known residents of the street so take your time and have a look as you wander up.

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A token embedded in the pavement 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 and which is 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, 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 and enter Handel Street itself paying homage to 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 itself where the Hospital is now remembered. The term ‘foundling‘ is historic and would have been applied to babies which had been abandoned by their parents and cared for by others.

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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 and the original location of the hospital itself, originally established by Corman in 1739 when the site had formerly been called ‘Lamb’s Conduit Fields’. Coram had been frequently shocked by the sight of infants exposed in the streets, often in a dying state and as a result he began to agitate for the foundation of a foundling hospital 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 and 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 with Thomas Cubitt being responsible for the build of a number of the houses around the square.

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A statue of Virginia Woolf inside Tavistock Square Gardens

Turn right on the road also known as Tavistock Square and 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 when a bomb was detonated on a London bus killing 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 who supposedly studied at the nearby UCL although the evidence as to whether he did any studying is unclear. There are also busts to Virginia Woolf, the famous author and member of the Bloomsbury Group, who lived nearby and Louisa Aldrich Blake, the first British woman to obtain the degree of ‘master of surgery’ and who played an important role in surgical efforts during the First World War. The square also has memorials to the victims of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as a stone commemorating conscientious objectors from all over the world.

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

Head towards the north eastern end of the square and look towards BMA House the headquarters of the British Medical Association since 1925  and designed by Edwin Lutyens in 1911. The site was formerly where one of the homes of Charles Dickens from 1851 to 1860 was before the site was redeveloped. There Dickens wrote Bleak House, Little Dorrit and A Tale of Two Cities amongst a number of other works.

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 with a number of the buildings having once been the homes of a number of different members of the Bloomsbury Group. The house at number 46 in particular is notable in that this is 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. 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).

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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 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 a university museum free to the public and packed full of one of the most amazing collections of Egyptian and Sudanese archaeology in the world. Established by Flinders Petrie, one of the foremost egyptologists of his generation, he was made professor of egyptology at UCL in 1892 having made a whole raft of discoveries during his excavations much of which are now in the museum.

Walk to the end of the road to the junction with Gower Street, turn right and walk up. There is another museum which is very worthy of note and also free on the left hand side at the junction with University Street. 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 resulting in one of the most unique and slightly disturbing collections around.

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The impressive portico of the Wilkins Building at UCL

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 with work beginning in 1827 and then finishing in 1829 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 with the Euston Road and Warren Street stations nearby.

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

For more historical tours from Inspiring City check out these:

A Free Historic Walking Tour around Old Street and Moorgate in London

A Curious Route Walking Tour around Whitecross Street and the Barbican

Free Walking Tour of the East End of London