History of the Bloomsbury Estate

The Bloomsbury Estate came into the Russell Family’s ownership in 1669 when William, son of the 5th Earl of Bedford, married a young widow, Lady Rachel Vaughan, one of the daughters of the 4th Earl of Southampton. Lady Rachel had recently inherited from her father the agricultural fields we now know as Bloomsbury. It comprised the area roughly between Tottenham Court Road, Euston Road, Southampton Row and New Oxford Street (though the last three were not then in existence) with two detached portions, one on the other side of Tottenham Court Road and the other across Euston Road.

Lady Rachel’s father had begun the development of Bloomsbury in the 1660s.  First he had built for his own occupation Southampton House, a large mansion on a site called the Long Field. Around the sides of the open space before it he had let plots for building a residential square, emulating the 4th Earl of Bedford’s development in Covent Garden, though without a church. Bloomsbury Square (at first called Southampton Square) was the result. Great Russell Street was laid out to connect the house and square with Tottenham Court Road. 

Thus, when Lady Rachel married Lord William, her father’s ‘little town’ was already begun and formed a welcome addition to the Bedford Estates. Lord William was one of the leaders of the political struggle to secure the Protestant succession to the throne. After he was implicated in the Rye House Plot, he was convicted of treason and beheaded in Lincoln’s Inn Fields in 1683, but his widow remained in Bloomsbury and continued its development and management. In 1688, after James II had fled the country, William and Mary ascended the throne and established the Protestant succession. In recognition of Lord William’s great sacrifice, his father, the 5th Earl, was created Marquess of Tavistock and 1st Duke of Bedford in 1694.

1st Duke of Bedford

5th Earl and 1st Duke of Bedford

The 1st Duke died in 1700 and was succeeded by Wriothesley, son of Lady Rachel and Lord William.  The Russell’s London mansion had, for over a hundred years, been located on the north side of the Strand.  Its close proximity to the Covent Garden market did not endear it to Wriothesley and so it was abandoned and demolished.  By 1706, Southampton Street had been laid out over its site, all the way to Southampton House in Bloomsbury.  It was to here that he moved his household and all the family’s business papers.  He died in 1711 but Lady Rachel continued to manage the Estate until her death in 1723.

There followed a period of neglect while her grandson, the 3rd Duke, frittered away his money and life, indifferent to his inheritance.  He died in 1732, just in time to save the Bloomsbury property from being sold.

4th Duke of Bedford

4th Duke of Bedford

His younger brother John, the 4th Duke, was quite different.  Far from disliking Bloomsbury, he established Southampton House as his town home and under his hand it came to life again.  Improvements and additions were made to the fabric and the interior was refurbished.  In an office in the house a chief agent, with a London steward and a staff of clerks, supervised all the Bedford Estates and conducted the Duke’s political business. Once again, the head of the Russell family was involved in state affairs and Bedford House (as Southampton House had been re-named) became the headquarters of the political group known as the ‘Bloomsbury Gang’. It was from here too that the great work of re-building Woburn Abbey was co-ordinated

When the 4th Duke died in 1771, Bloomsbury was still very much as Lord Southampton had planned it.

Duchess Gertrude, widow of the 4th Duke, was a formidable lady and shared the reins of government of the Estates with the excellent chief agent, Robert Palmer.  Together they proceeded to extend the built-up area of Bloomsbury west and north.  The much admired Bedford Square and Gower Street (the Duchess was a member of the Leveson Gower family) were built at this time.

5th Duke of Bedford

5th Duke of Bedford

In 1786 the 5th Duke came of age.  He was a lavish spender and a gambler, but his ruling passion was farming and he built a model farm at Woburn.  Bedford House in Bloomsbury held no attraction for him; he preferred to live in the smarter West End and, besides, the area was ripe for development.  The contents of the house were auctioned off in 1800 and it was demolished.  In its place a broad avenue (Bedford Place) was built leading to a square (Russell Square), much larger and more magnificent than Duchess Gertrude’s, with a flanking narrower street to the west (Montague Street).  The Duke’s statue, adorned with farming emblems was erected in Russell Square after his death in 1802 looking down the broad avenue towards a statue of Charles James Fox, his political hero, in Bloomsbury Square.

The development of Bloomsbury was continued by his brother, the 6th Duke, latterly by the firm of Cubitt, until the whole estate north of Russell Square was filled with squares and island blocks of houses.  This Duke was also responsible for the building of the Covent Garden Market in the Piazza, which survives today.

8th Duke of Bedford

8th Duke of Bedford

The 7th Duke discovered when he succeeded in 1839 that there was need to practise economy, in order to restore the family finances. His son and heir, being an invalid and a recluse, did little to improve or to waste the Estates and left their supervision to his livelier and more able cousin, who became the 9th Duke in 1872.

11th Duke of Bedford

11th Duke Of Bedford

By the time that Herbrand, the 11th Duke, succeeded to the title in 1893, political and popular feeling against the owners of large estates, who lived in a style so remote from the way in which the mass of the population lived, was gaining ground.  He decided that land could no longer be regarded as a reliable source of income.  Accordingly, he began to sell off the Estates which his ancestors had enjoyed for nearly four hundred years.  A contract for Covent Garden’s sale was signed in 1914 and it was conveyed in 1918.

In Bloomsbury, the British Museum and the University of London swallowed up large parts of the estate. The Museum, begun in a house that had been built for the Duke of Montagu, which had been purchased for the nation in 1753, had already expanded at the Estate’s expense at the beginning of the 19th century.  The Bedford Office had been absorbed at that time and was rebuilt on its present site in 1842-4.  The Museum’s expansion continued and more property, to the south of Great Russell Street, was relinquished for the then proposed site of the British Library (subsequently built adjacent to St. Pancras Station).

 The Estates could not withstand pressure to sell land for the Museum, the University or the British Library sites since compulsory powers were available for the purposes of educational use and the University bought more land in 1945-1951.  What remains in the possession of the Bedford Estates is residential property converted to office and small hotel use and private residential property.  The street names survive, however, and so does the Bedford Office in Montague Street.  There is some satisfaction to be derived from the fact that the administration the Office conducts and its archives can be traced back to the day in 1705 when the 2nd Duke ordered the contents of the ‘evidence room’ by Bedford House in the Strand to be conveyed up to Bloomsbury.

The current Duke, the 15th, succeeded to the title in 2003.