The Science Tourist tagged along on a recent ‘Dead Famous’ Bloomsbury walking tour, organised by the Wellcome Collection and led by historian Richard Barnett (Wellcome Trust Public Engagement Fellow, and author of Medical London), below. The subtitle of the talk was, ‘A glimpse into the genius and depravity of Bloomsbury’s elite’.
The route went from the Wellcome Collection, past St Pancras New Church, through Woburn Walk and Cartwright Gardens, down Marchmont Street to the Horse Hospital, behind the Hotel Russell. From there it went to Queens Square, Bloomsbury Square, the British Museum, and then west along Great Russell Street, north to Bedford Square, then to Windmill Street, Charlotte Street, and Colville Place, before finishing at Gordon Square. The whole thing lasted two hours, from 11am – 1pm.
The ‘Dead Famous’ people that Richard Barnett spoke about were:
W. B. Yeats (1865 – 1939), playwright and poet.
Yeats has a bronze plaque on Woburn Walk, above a cafe called Wot the Dickens, above. Barnett concentrated on Yeats’ fascination with the occult. During one séance, he supposedly met his ‘anti-self’ or nemesis from ‘the other side’. He also pursued some quack rejuvenation procedures such as the infamous Steinach operation which we now believe to be a vasectomy. Despite all this, Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and served as an Irish Senator.
Edwin Chadwick (1800 – 1890), social reformer.
A quintessential Victorian ‘do gooder’, Chadwick believed in the misguided medical notion of miasmas (‘bad’ air), became instrumental in government policy to clean up the state of the dirty poor via work hourses. He lived at No. 1 Cartwright Gardens – now Harlingford Hotel - and later retired to Richmond.
Kenneth Williams (1926 -1988), actor and comic.
There is a blue plaque to Williams at No. 52 Marchmont Street, above CV Hair & Beauty. His diaries revealed deep loneliness due to the stigma of homosexuality, and his most famous line was,‘Infamy, infamy, they’ve got it in for me’.
Shaw used to stay at the Hotel Russell when in London. Obsessed with his health, he thought all orthodox medicine was quackery, and was convinced that sweat was the body’s means of expelling toxins. Shaw believed that if one wore tight-fitting clothing, one was inadvertently keeping the toxins within the body. So Shaw developed a propensity to wear ‘sanitary’ wool to draw out sweat, even in the summer months.
Charles Fitzroy Doll (1850 – 1929), architect and interior designer.
Doll designed the lavish dining room of the ill-fated Titanic, which was based on the restaurant at the Hotel Russell, which he also designed. If you want to know what the interior of the Titanic looked like, visit the hotel and splash out on high tea or a cocktail.
Charles Burney lived in Queen Square, below (named after Queen Anne). His daughter Fanny described the surgical operation that removed her breast tumour in Paris in the 1790s, and related the intense pain of the procedure, which was without anaesthetic. Richard Barnett read out an extract from the letter. Amazingly, Fanny survived the operation and the cancer.
Sloane has a blue plaque at his former residence, No. 4 Bloomsbury Place, off Bloomsbury Square. He had adventures in Jamaica as physician to the Duke of Albemarle (1653 – 1688), pioneered drinking chocolate as a health tonic, and became extremely wealthy in the mid-18th century. Ultimately, he became physician to King George II (1683 – 1760). Sloane’s extensive collections formed the foundations of the British Museum, British Library, and Natural History Museum. He was also a patron of the Chelsea Physic Garden.
Lindow Man was buried in a peat bog in Cheshire for 2,000 years, before being moved to the British Museum (below) about two decades ago. There’s a saying, ‘If you’ve lived in London for 10 years, you can call yourself a Londoner’. Is poor Lindow Man, a resident of Bloomsbury these past 20 years, a Londoner?
Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812 – 1852), architect, designer and proponent of Gothic style.
Pugin was a champion of the Gothic style of architecture, which was out of fashion in the early part of his career, having been supplanted by Baroque in the 17th century, Neoclassical in the 18th century, and Philhellenism in the early 19th century. Gothic was condemned due to its association with the ‘ancien regime’, as well as invoking a return to pre-Enlightenment superstition. Pugin was born at 39 Keppel Street in Bloomsbury (first map – a street now taken up almost entirely by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine), and later lived down the road at 106 Great Russell Street (second map), next to art supply store L. Cornellisen & Son. No. 106 is now the Artemide lighting store. Throughout his life, he advocated a return to Gothic (dubbed Gothic Revival) and his influence even extended as far as Australia. While Pugin didn’t design the current Houses of Parliament at Westminster, he had significant input into the project, including its decorative aspects, interior design, and the look of the Big Ben clock tower itself.
Wakley lived where the Architectural Association now is, in Bedford Square. He was an English surgeon who campaigned against incompetence, privilege and nepotism. He was founding editor of The Lancet medical journal, and a radical Member of Parliament (MP).
Crowley used to drink at the Fitzroy Tavern in Windmill Street. An astrologer and self-proclaimed prophet, he believed humanity was entering a new “Aeon of Horus” and founded the Thelemite philosophy.
Dylan Thomas (1914 – 1953), poet and author.
Thomas, a Welsh writer of poems, short stories and scripts, was another big drinker at the Fitzroy Tavern, Windmill Street.
Richard Barnett gave his talk on Burroughs in Colville Place, a pretty, secluded, old-style street around the corner from the Church of Scientology’s headquarters on Tottenham Court Road.Burroughs had an eventful life, involving murder, drugs, and other wild times. He moved to London and joined Scientology in an attempt to cure his heroin addiction. He then believed that L. Ron Hubbard was trying to kill him. Scientology first opened in Fitzroy Street, and later moved to Tottenham Court Road.
George Orwell (1903 – 1950), journalist and author.
Orwell, the author of Animal Farm and 1984, died at a private wing of University College Hospital (which was then UCL’s Cruciform Building – the red building above), after a life-long battle with tuberculosis. Unfortunately, he was allergic to the first TB antibiotic, streptomycin. We can only imagine what other great works he would have produced, had he lived beyond 47. A few streets away, Bloomsbury’s famous Senate House building (second map) was the inspiration for 1984′s Ministry of Truth. There is a story (perhaps apocryphal) that Hitler planned to use it as his London HQ after invading Britain, and for that reason it was never bombed during the London Blitz.
Darwin has a blue plaque on Gower Street (first map), where he lived from 1838 – 1842, in the rough location of what is now the Darwin Lecture Theatre at University College London. He played with his children in nearby Gordon Square, above (second map), while making observations of their behaviour. He was plagued by illness, and suffered excessive flatulence. Many theories abound as to the cause of his symptoms e.g. perhaps it was from a tropical bug bite, or psychosomatic in nature.
Our guide, Richard Barnett, was well-spoken and engaging. I would highly recommend you take part in one of his upcoming tours – check the Wellcome Collection events calendar for details.
To watch video clips of Richard Barnett and colleagues on other historical London walks, click here.