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London Squares

Updated: Jul 14, 2021

An Archival Assignment that I did with two other colleagues during my MA. It focuses on the historical, political and social dynamics of London squares from the archives of various sources. The blog contains research about Trafalgar Square and Russel Square.

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Since the beginning of urbanisation processes, public spaces (whether parks, squares, green or paved spaces) have been an important part of the development of the city. The role of these spaces in the urban context is a varied and complex one. Some act as the gardens, or semi-private green spaces of residential areas, while others become part of the public purview, an area for assembly, transport and demonstration: the role of both proving to be crucial in improving the lives of a city and its citizens.

Alongside the iconic buildings and monuments of the city of London, many of its squares have become recognisable and integral points inside the city, providing a pause, a respite, an open space to breathe, the streets like rivers meandering through the buildings empty out into the open space, an estuary in the city. The fact that many of these squares have been in their current locations, in one form or another, since the very beginnings of London’s urbanisation, made them an intriguing potential research topic: they are a part of the city’s history, testimony of a time in the past that survives in the present, even when the buildings around them have undergone changes in form, fashion and function, the squares have stayed mostly unchanged.

To narrow down the angle from which to look at the squares, and the more easily determine which catalogues, archives and sources to look in, we decided to focus our investigation to two disparate squares that were built around the same period of time but would be familiar to most denizens: Russell Square, in Bloomsbury (early 1800s) and Trafalgar Square, in Westminster (1840s). Our aim here was to compare the impacts of two very different approaches to a square: one that is green space, and therefore based on historical precedent more private and more introverted (a private space leased to the local government rather than a public endeavour), and one that is completely paved and that is home to a very iconic monument inside the city, and the definition of a public city space.

After doing general research about the development and history of squares in London, through the use of the library’s catalogues and web databases, we decided that the London Metropolitan Archives was a good place to look to explore questions relating to the bureaucracy and conception of these squares. First, how did they came to be: the first plans, the reasons why they were commissioned, the reasons for their location, who were the designers or planners, what was the context surrounding their creation (economical, political, social contexts), what were the points of view of both the commissioners and the designers.

While searching through the archive’s database we made a number of discoveries that helped lead us to the next step.

Firstly, after finding quite a bit of information regarding the conception, design and redevelopment of Trafalgar square (through plans, official declarations, acts of parliament and some financial records, etc.) it became clear that the only records at the archive relating to Russell Square had to to with documents of sale, lease, and estate planning for the residential buildings surrounding the square, as opposed to information about the square itself. We then figured out because Russell Square is part of the Duke of Bedford’s private estate most documents relating to the square would be found in the records of The Bedford Estates, a private institution that owns and manages many properties than once belonged to the Duke of Bedford in Bloomsbury. After inquiring about getting access to the archive, we were told that at a cost of £150 a day researchers could gain access to the materials within, or one could pay a £25 hourly rate for the private archivists to do the research for you. Had we known this from the beginning, we probably would have chosen another “garden square” to serve as counterpoint to Trafalgar Square, either one whose documents had been collected by either the Met or some other more readily accessible archive and/or a garden square that was public in its conception.

Secondly, while researching at the Met Archives we found that the majority of the possible information on Russell that we could access was held at the Guildhall Library in the City of London. Guildhall gave us access to a publication on Russell Square called Russell Square: A Lifelong Resource for Teaching and Learning, by Richard Clarke, Elizabeth McKeller and Michael Symes. It was the most interesting we could find on the history and evolution of the square since its beginnings. Inside it, we learned of a map of London made by Richard Horwood in the beginning of the 19th century, which shows one of the very first plans of Russell Square. The third edition of the whole map of London was also available at Guildhall Library.

Thirdly, our visit to the Guildhall Library proved to be really fruitful. Though we expected most of the information about Trafalgar square to be in the Met Archives, but in our process of going to the Guildhall Library square we ended up finding this really interesting report done by the Council of London about the bus re-routing experiment. The experiment was carried out for a month and then they concluded that had the commission accepted this proposal their might be a benefit for the travel times, though the benefit was going to be negligible. Not only was the content of the document interesting, but it shows the importance of going to search in archives you might not originally have intended to search.

And, Fourthly, we found that the most intriguing documents at the Met Archives, in our opinion, were plans and drawings that talked about the development of Trafalgar Square as a public service. For example, we found a plan for “Proposed Drinking Fountains for Trafalgar Square”, part of the collection of the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association. Having to do with aspects of public health and social welfare, as the result of initial inquiry by this association following the cholera epidemics of the mid 1800’s, these plans began to answer and create new questions around the ideas of the evolution of these squares throughout time. And though the most visually compelling documents were drawings done in the 1960’s, it still brought up questions of what roles London squares played historically, politically, socially, urbanistically, etc. Did they play a role in the development of the area in which they are sited, or did the area drive and influence their construction? How did the function of the buildings surrounding the squares change over time? And did the squares themselves change their function to adapt to new requirements from the city and society?

If one was to actual research the topic, the investigation could also be interested in comparing the modern usage of the square to its historical role. Are they more intended for the use of the adjacent community? As was the historical case with garden squares like Russell Square and their upper-class users? Or do they target more of a touristic crowd or serving a role as a meeting place for the public? As is the case with publicly created and funded squares like Trafalgar Square. But, in this case one would have to focus more on contemporary research and literature, which we found through the UCL Libraries and online databases like the Avery Index and the RIBA archive.

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