“The Duke of Bedford… has stopped up the road from Southampton-row to Somers-Town. This, though called a private road, and as such, not open to carriages, has been a footway from time immemorial. It is hoped therefore, that the Duke, without waiting for a legal process, will restore that privilege…”
(Annual Register, 29th September 1798)
The fourth Earl of Southampton first started to develop the area around his mansion in modern Bloomsbury in the 1650s, pioneering a trend for hereditary landlords to develop new London streets and whole neighbourhoods by employing speculative builders; new houses for Lords, knights and other worthies began to spring up. By 1665 the Bloomsbury area was already described as “A fit place for the nobility and gentry to reside”. The 1666 Great Fire of London brought well-to-do refugees seeking new, safer housing out of the City – the next twenty years saw houses spread along what is now Great Russell Street.
According to local resident J. P. Malcolm, “Squares, and spacious streets of the first respectability are rising in every direction; and the north side of the parish will, in a few years, contain an immense accumulation of riches, attracted by the grand structures in Russell Square now almost complete….”
Inheriting the estate in 1669, the Russells, the Earls of Bedford, named the new streets of their estates after their various titles and estates, and banned the building of pubs and shops, which they thought would lower the tone of the neighbourhood. Even a genteel bookshop was apparently closely screened before being allowed to open. In fact they not only attempted to control the atmosphere of their streets: they imposed barriers on who could even pass through it. Upper Woburn Place, originally a private road for the Dukes, had gates in the eighteenth century. By 1798 this road was closed off to traffic, and from the early 19th Century, parts of the Bedford Estate had gates at all entrances. [The Duke was concerned to enclose not only his exclusive urban estate; he had tried in 1794 to enclose part of his lands in south London, on Streatham Common, so he could profit more from selling the gorse that grew there, and had to back down when locals rioted).
In 1826, gates at the northern edge were erected so as to “shut out the low population” of the working class neighbourhood of Somers Town.
Uniformed gatekeepers were employed by the Russells to keep out undesirables; only those with tickets issued by the Estate, (silver discs, embossed with the Bedford coat of arms, obtainable by tenants or certain other privileged people for a guinea deposit), could pass down the roads. Empty cabs, or carts, drays, wagons, cattle and exercising horses were banned from entering; gentlemen’s carriages, cabs with fares and persons on horseback were allowed through. For decades the Bedford Estate managed to prevent trams and omnibuses from being run through their streets, even main streets like what was then Hart Street (now Bloomsbury Way). Private Acts of parliament banned hackney cabs from ‘standing for hire’ within 300 feet of some of the Estate’s poshest squares.
The gates stood at the north end of Gordon Street, half way down Taviton Street, (then called Georgiana Street, after the wife of the sixth Duke) and Endsleigh Street, and Upper Woburn Place, and at Torrington place near the corner of Torrington Square. Lodges built for the gatekeepers can still be seen on the west side of Endsleigh Street.
The Bedford Estate’s continued attempts to maintain the wealthy and ultra-respectable character of Bloomsbury must have been to some extent influenced by the sharp (and growing) contrast of this prosperous island with the neighbourhoods that surrounded it. St Giles to the south-west, Holborn to the south-east, Clerkenwell to the east, ‘Fitzrovia’ to the west, and, later, parts of St Pancras and Agar Town, to the north, all had an overwhelmingly working class population by the 19th Century; many of their streets were labeled as slums, rookeries or criminal haunts by the better-off classes. No doubt the increasing sense of being surrounded by the poor, desperate and possibly rebellious must have had some bearing on the gradual flight of the rich westward, to areas further from the dark threat of mob violence. The successive invasions of Bloomsbury in 1765, 1780 and 1815 by riotous crowds may only have been the sharp reminder of a deeper held fear and loathing… The increased control over open spaces, building on fields used for rowdy recreation, fencing off of squares’ gardens, can be seen partially as responses to both the class violence of the London Mob, AND the widely perceived ‘immoral’ nature of unlandscaped space – two sides of the same coin to the wealthy. The gates were popular with the mainly up-market tenants of the Bedfords; in fact some residents were pushing the Estate to toughen up the social control. Around 1750 a petition to the Duke from Silver Street, (roughly where Barter Street is now) complained that an alley running behind their street through to High Holborn, was frequented by “wicked and disorderly people of both sexes”, and called for it to be bricked up at both ends. This area, around the now-disappeared Bloomsbury Market (under the eastern end of present-day New Oxford Street), was increasingly lowering the tone of the Russells’ vision: although we couldn’t discover if this petition was acted on, the building of New Oxford Street through the St Giles Rookery would later obliterate some of these unrespectable streets.
Gradually opposition to the Dukes’ gates built up: they were obviously unpopular with cabbies and poorer folk, and even some local official bodies. The St. Pancras Vestry, under whose administration part of the Estate fell, became fed up with applying for permission to the Duke to enter the streets for works, cleaning etc. However the two other Vestries covering the area, St Giles and St George’s, defended the gates, mainly because removing them would lower rateable values and increase pavement costs, thus hitting the Vestry and wealthy ratepayers hard in the pocket.
The private road built for the duke’s personal use alone, Woburn Place, led to disputes even with other local nobility. It was originally laid in the 1750s, to connect to the spanking New Turnpike Road (now Euston Road) to the north so the duke could travel between his London pad and his country estates in Bedfordshire. At the edge of his land, however, to reach the new thoroughfare, it had to cross land owned by the Duke of Grafton, who wasn’t keen to allow it to bisect his property. For a while in 1759 there was a mini-civil war between the respective servants of the dukes, with Grafton’s men building barricades with instructions to block anyone coming over the border between the two estates; barriers repeatedly broken down by lackeys of Bedford (the words ‘hoist’ and ‘own petard’ springing to mind), but they settled in the end, with Bedford’s road being permitted to cross Grafton’s estate to meet the Turnpike road.
Eventually in slightly less forelock-tugging times, private gates across streets in a busy capital became unsustainable. Barring the majority of traffic from a strategically placed area just south of two main London railway stations had become economically anomalous. Even the prime minister complained in 1890 about the inconvenience of having to travel around the estate: “I am a constant passenger of the Great Northern Railway… and I must say that I have never passed the Sacred Gates in going to the Great Northern Station without mental imprecations against the persons who originally set them up and the persons who have since maintained them there.” (Which is interesting – was even the prime minster considered not respectable enough to pass through?)
Legislation ended this restriction of access, in 1893, and the gates came down. The Duke’s posh tenants, still keen to keep the riffraff out, campaigned for the gates’ retention, writing letters of protest, but happily in vain.
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online