A Lone Woolf

“I am rooted, but I flow.”

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Virginia Stephen (Woolf) in 1902 Photo: George Charles Beresford

Considered to be the most important modernist writer of the 20th-century, Virginia Woolf is continuing to inspire feminism long after her death. Born in an era when women were fighting to be seen as equals to men, Woolf was influenced by women’s rights movements whose ideals are reflected in many of her novels. Known for the phrase “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” from her essay A Room of One’s Own (1929), the author has been honoured by statues, societies and a building at the University of London in her name.

Whilst her popular novels and ongoing feminist movements keep her memory alive, her struggle with mental health problems and death by suicide, no longer the taboo subject it once was, is gradually being understood and accepted. Yet what is repeatedly overlooked is the woman herself. Who was Virginia Woolf? Everyone has heard of her regardless as to whether they have read her books, but who was the woman behind the pen?

Virginia Woolf was born Adeline Virginia Stephen on 25th January 1882 in South Kensington, London. Her mother Julia (née Jackson) (1846–1895), originally from Calcutta, British India, had once been a model for the Pre-Raphaelites and had three children from a previous marriage: George (1868-1934), Stella (1869-97) and Gerald (1870-1937). An exhibition last year (2018) at the National Portrait Gallery, featured a photograph of Julia taken by her aunt and celebrated photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79).

Virginia’s father had also married prior to meeting her mother. Leslie Stephen (1832–1904), a writer, historian and mountaineer, married Harriet Marian (Minny) Thackeray (1840–1875), the youngest daughter of the famous novelist William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-63). Unfortunately, Minny died in childbirth leaving Leslie to care for their only child Laura (1870–1945) who, due to developmental handicaps, was eventually institutionalised.

Julia and Leslie were married on 26th March 1878 and welcomed their first child, Vanessa (1879-1961), the following year. The next four years saw the arrival of three more children: Thoby (1880-1906), Adrian (1883-1948) and the second youngest, Adeline Virginia in 1882. Fortunately, the family was wealthy enough to cope with eight children and, whilst the boys were sent off to schools and universities, the girls were homeschooled in subjects such as English classics and Victorian literature.

Most of the details about Virginia Woolf’s childhood can be found in her own writings. These include essays, such as A Sketch of the Past (1940), but she also alluded to some of her childhood memories in her fictional novels. Woolf also kept a diary for twelve years beginning in 1897, “the first really lived year of my life”.

Due to the nature of their father’s career, Virginia and her siblings were brought up in a household often frequented by well-known members of Victorian literature society. Amongst these were writers Henry James (1843-1916) and Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), the poet Alfred Tennyson (1809-92), and the pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98), Virginia’s honorary godfather. As a result, the Stephen children were keen readers and writers, making their own magazine in 1891 called Hyde Park Gate News to record the events that occurred within their family. Their mother was recorded saying the magazine was “Rather clever I think”.

Naturally, Virginia Woolf showed an early proclivity for writing and was later encouraged by her father to pursue a career as an author despite his disapproval of educated women. From the age of five, Woolf was penning letters and making up stories that she often recited to her father, which, along with her love of books, created a strong bond between them.

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Talland House, St. Ives, c. 1882–1895

Every year from 1882 until 1894, Leslie Stephen rented Talland House in St. Ives, Cornwall from mid-July to mid-September. He referred to it as “a pocket-paradise” and stated that his happiest memories were passed there. This was also the same for Virginia who, when writing about her childhood, mentioned fond memories of Talland House more than years spent in London. For Virginia and her brothers and sisters, it was the highlight of the year. It was also a setting that inspired a handful of Virginia’s novels, including To the Lighthouse (1927).

“Why am I so incredibly and incurably romantic about Cornwall? One’s past, I suppose; I see children running in the garden … The sound of the sea at night … almost forty years of life, all built on that, permeated by that: so much I could never explain.”
The Diary of Virginia Woolf Volume Two 1920–1924

Virginia Woolf’s childhood ended in 1895 with the death of her mother after a three-month battle with influenza. Having felt her life had fallen apart, this moment sparked the beginning of Woolf’s mental health issues that would plague her future. To make matters worse, her pregnant step-sister Stella, who took charge of the younger siblings died two years later. Suffering from nervous breakdowns, Woolf became dependant on her older sister, Vanessa.

In 1902, Leslie Stephen underwent an operation but never recovered, leaving his children as orphans in 1904. This sparked another breakdown for poor Virginia who later described the feeling of grief as being a “broken chrysalis”.

The family home was now a dark, gloomy place of mourning and the siblings were desperate to escape, which they did by travelling to the village of Manorbier on the Pembrokeshire coast in Wales. A couple of months later they decided to holiday in France and Italy, spending time with their friend Clive Bell (1881-1964), who would later become Vanessa Stephen’s husband. Unfortunately, Virginia’s mental health was still fragile and she suffered another nervous breakdown resulting in her first suicide attempt on 10th May 1904.

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46 Gordon Square

On returning to England, the Stephen children decided to sell their South Kensington property and look for accommodation elsewhere. Vanessa found a house in the leafy, bohemian district of Bloomsbury and she and Virginia moved into 46 Gordon Square before the end of the year. By now, Virginia had recovered from her most recent mental health ordeal.

Life began to feel more positive for Virginia, helped with the Thursday Club that her brother Thoby began hosting in the girls’ house from March 1905. This was initially made up of a group of Thoby’s intellectual friends from university, including writers such as Saxon Sydney-Turner (1880-1962) and Lytton Strachey (1880-1932). Together, they discussed various matters from literature and the importance of arts, to feminism and sexuality. The Thursday Club later became the famed Bloomsbury Circle, which included well-known members, for instance, the economist John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946), whose English Heritage blue plaque can be seen in Gordon Square, the painter Ducan Grant (1885-1978), the novelist E. M. Forster (1879-1970), and the political theorist Leonard Woolf (1880-1969).

Later that year, Virginia began teaching at Morley College of adult education whilst Vanessa started up another group, the Friday Club, which met at their house to discuss the fine arts. Although things were beginning to look up for Virginia, she was soon to receive another blow. In 1906, Virginia lost her brother Thoby to typhoid fever, which he had caught on their recent holiday in Greece.

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29 Fitzroy Square

Whilst trying to come to terms with Thoby’s death, Virginia had to deal with the news that Vanessa had accepted Clive Bell’s proposal of marriage (his third attempt). The couple were married in 1907 and Virginia needed to find a new place to live. In April 1907, Virginia moved to the Fitzrovia district in central London, where she lived in a house once owned by the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) – 29 Fitzroy Square.

In her new home, Virginia and her brother Adrian resumed the Thursday Club, which began to explore more progressive ideas than before. More importantly, however, Virginia began working on her first novel. With the intended title of Melymbrosia but the eventual publication title of The Voyage Out (1915), it was “… a strange, tragic, inspired book whose scene is a South America not found on any map and reached by boat which would not float on any sea, an America whose spiritual boundaries touch Xanadu and Atlantis.” (E.M Forster, 1926)

Although living separately from her sister, Virginia continued to go on trips abroad with Vanessa, for instance, to the French capital and other areas of France and Italy. Unfortunately, there began to be a little rivalry between the sisters, perhaps spurned from jealousy, not helped by Virginia’s flirting with Clive. This may have contributed to the breakdown of Vanessa and Clive’s marriage, however, Vanessa’s affairs would have had a greater impact on the situation.

On 17th February 1909, Virginia was proposed to by Lytton Strachey but, although she accepted, he quickly withdrew the offer. This blow along with the stresses of daily life prompted her close family and friends to suggest that Virginia needed a quiet country retreat. Accompanied by her brother Adrian, Virginia had a brief stay in Lewes, Surrey, where she set about looking for a place to buy that would be easy to reach from London whenever she needed to retreat from the city. She eventually settled on a house in Firle, which she named Little Talland House.

Back in London, however, the lease was coming to an end of Virginia and Adrian’s house and they needed to move once again. Rather than buying a home just for the two of them, the brother and sister moved into a four-storey house in Bloomsbury, which they shared with Maynard Keynes and Duncan Grant. Their new home, 38 Brunswick Square, was adjacently opposite the Foundling Hospital, which Virginia found oddly amusing, however, the three-acre public garden provided the house with a beautiful view from the front facing windows.

In June 1911, Leonard Woolf, a friend of Thoby who Virginia had met in 1904 before he took up a position in the civil army in Ceylon, returned to London on a one-year leave. Yet, he was never to go back to the army. After renewing old friendships, Leonard met Virginia once again at Vanessa’s house along with many other members of the future Bloomsbury group. In fact, Leonard, when asked the date the Bloomsbury group formed, responded with the date of that very meeting – 3rd July 1911.

Leonard once described Virginia and Vanessa as “formidable and alarming”, recalling their “white dresses and large hats, with parasols in their hands, their beauty literally took one’s breath away”. Therefore, it did not take much persuasion to convince him to join Virginia at Little Talland House for a long weekend. By the end of the year, Leonard had moved into the Brunswick Square household and in less than a month had decided he was in love with Virginia.

On 11th January 1912, Leonard Woolf bared his heart to Virginia and asked her to marry him. With the failed engagement to Lytton Strachey still on her mind, Virginia told him she would think about it, however, time was running out for Leonard. The one-year period of leave from the civil army was coming to an end and despite continuing to pursue Virginia, she had not yet made up her mind. Leonard’s application to extend his period of leave was refused, so he sent in his letter of resignation instead.

Eventually, Virginia agreed to marry Leonard and their wedding took place on 10th August 1912 at the St Pancras Register Office. They continued living at Brunswick Square, however, Leonard was gradually becoming aware of Virginia’s mental health problems, which he had previously not known about. Within the next few months, Virginia’s mental ill health had increased rapidly and in 1913 she made another suicide attempt.

After these events, the couple decided to move away from Brunswick square, first in October 1914 to Richmond in the suburbs of London, and then, in early March 1915, to Hogarth House, Paradise Road also in Richmond.

Since the age of 19, Virginia had enjoyed bookbinding as a pastime. Knowing of his wife’s passion, Leonard suggested setting up a publishing company as well as publishing Virginia’s own works, thus The Voyage Out was published in 1915 – unfortunately followed by another suicide attempt. Hogarth Press, as it began to be called, was not fully set up until 1917, although, at this stage, it was merely a printing press on their dining room table.

The first publication under the name Hogarth Press was Two Stories which consisted of two short stories, one by Virginia, The Mark on the Wall, and one by Leonard, Three Jews. Although only 32 pages, the publication process took over two months, each of the 150 copies being hand bound and sewn. The stories were accompanied by woodcut illustrations designed by Dora Carrington (1893-1932), which helped to make the publication a great success. Other short stories quickly followed, such as Kew Gardens written by Virginia and illustrated by her sister Vanessa.

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Woolf’s bust in Tavistock Square

To begin with, Hogarth Press only concentrated on small publications, often works that commercial publishers would reject or overlook, however, the Press eventually moved on to bigger things. In 1924, the Woolfs took out a lease at 52 Tavistock Square, Bloomsbury where they used the basement space to run Hogarth Press in a more efficient manner. Virginia also had a personal room where she could concentrate on her writing, which was published by the Press. Subsequently, other notable authors began to approach Hogarth Press with their own work, particularly the poet T. S. Eliot (1888-1965).

A large number of publications by Hogarth Press were, of course, written by Virginia. Her second novel, Mrs Dalloway was published in 1925, which describes a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a middle-aged high-society woman in post–War England. The story, which is arguably Virginia’s best-known novel, alternates between Clarissa’s preparation for a party in the evening and the psychiatric problems of Septimus Warren Smith, a war veteran with severe PTSD.

Her third novel, To the Lighthouse (1927), was published the following year and rates at 15th place on the Modern Library’s 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century selected in 1998. The story focuses on the Ramsay family and their visits to the Isle of Skye, however, it contains very little dialogue or action. Instead, the novel is formed of a series of thoughts and observations that recall childhood memories and adult relationships. To the Lighthouse has many similarities with Virginia’s own childhood and it is believed she began writing it in order to deal with unresolved issues concerning both her late parents.

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Vita Sackville-West, 1934

Just as To the Lighthouse was inspired by her own life, her third novel Orlando (1928) was sparked after learning about the turbulent family history of her close friend and lover, Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962). Virginia and Vita’s relationship was recently studied at the Barbican Centre in an exhibition called Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde. Despite being married, Virginia began an intimate relationship with the poetess Vita after meeting her through Bloomsbury Group connections in December 1922.

Virginia and Vita’s relationship was strongest between 1925 and 1928 but by the 1930s they had evolved into good friends rather than intimate lovers. During this time, Vita attempted to raise Virginia’s self-esteem and, regardless as to whether she was successful, Virginia’s work began to flourish. As well as To the Lighthouse and Orlando, Virginia also completed The Waves (1931) and wrote a number of essays.

Orlando is an eponymous novel that describes the centuries-long adventures of a poet who changes sex from man to woman. Despite being a work of fiction, the reference to Vita was obvious, causing her son to comment “The effect of Vita on Virginia is all contained in Orlando, the longest and most charming love letter in literature, in which she explores Vita, weaves her in and out of the centuries, tosses her from one sex to the other, plays with her, dresses her in furs, lace and emeralds, teases her, flirts with her, drops a veil of mist around her.”

Around the same time as her relationship with Vita, Virginia lectured Women & Fiction at Cambridge University. As well as exploring her own sexuality, Virginia was concerned about the rights of women and the importance of independence. From these lectures, Virginia penned the essay A Room of One’s Own.

The 172-page essay published by the Hogarth Press in 1929, argues both literally and figuratively for a space for women writers in a world predominately dominated by men. At the time of publication, women had only just been given the freedom to vote in Britain and were still a long way off the rights that women in the western world have today. Thus, A Room of One’s Own quickly became an important feminist text.

Before the essay was published, Virginia was worried that she would be “attacked for a feminist & hinted at for a sapphist [lesbian]”, however, the theme of lesbianism was discussed in such a discreet way that it avoided complaints of obscenity.

Despite her lesbian tendencies – or, perhaps, bisexuality – Virginia remained married to Leonard for the remainder of her life. Unfortunately, these years were marred by her mental health, often suffering a nervous breakdown after the publication of each novel. After finishing the draft for her final book Between the Acts (published posthumously, 1941), Virginia fell into another bout of depression. Along with all the blows she had encountered in life, the war years had taken its toll of Virginia’s fragile mind. To make matters worse, the beginning of the Blitz saw the destruction of her London home, which, along with the death of a close friend, worsened her condition until she could no longer work.

During her final years, Virginia’s diaries were full of ramblings about death and in March 1941, she wrote a final letter to her devoted husband.

Dearest,

I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight it any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that—everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been. V.

On 28th March 1941, Virginia Woolf walked into the River Ouse near her home in Sussex with her pockets full of stones. Her body, which was eventually found on 18th April was cremated and interred under an elm tree in the garden at Monk’s House, the Woolfs’ final home together in Rodmell, Sussex.

Since her death, Virginia’s mental health has received a lot of attention from professionals – the sort of attention that would have been more beneficial during her lifetime. Most psychiatrists agree that Virginia was suffering from Bipolar Disorder, also known as manic depression, which would account for her extreme mood swings and psychotic episodes.

Despite her untimely end, Virginia Woolf is known throughout the world for her contributions to twentieth-century literature, as well as the influence she has had on feminism. Many authors state Virginia as one of their greatest inspirations, including Margaret Atwood (b.1939) and Gabriel García Márquez (1927-2014).

Virginia’s works have been adapted for the screen and her name has appeared in many other areas of popular culture. The play by Edward Albee (1928-2016) Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a prime example. Also, in 2014, an exhibition about Virginia Woolf was held at the National Portrait Gallery in London, and it is believed her portrait on a postcard has been the most sold than any other person in their gift shop.

In 2013, King’s College London honoured the writer with the opening of the Virginia Woolf Building on Kingsway. A plaque commemorating her work and contributions to the college is in pride of place on the building bearing her name. Sculptures of Virginia’s head and shoulders have also been errected near two places she once lived: Rodmell and Tavistock Square.

Virginia Woolf’s name and ideas will live on through her books, essays and organisations such as the Virginia Woolf Society and The Virginia Woolf Society of Japan. It is important, however, to remember Virginia as a human being and not just one of the greatest 20th-century writers. Everyone has struggles of one form or another but Virginia had more than her fair share. Nevertheless, this only goes to emphasise her talents; despite being very unwell, Virginia Woolf wrote and did things that people will respect forever.

Simeon and the Bloomsbury Treasures

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Simeon gears up for the trail with a cup of tea at Leon

Earlier this year, Simeon the red-haired gibbon (toffee-coloured, if you please) went on an adventure to Amsterdam. Ever since Simeon has had a strong urge to travel but never the opportunity. So, it was with great excitement and enthusiasm when Simeon was invited to take part in a Treasure Trail around the area of Bloomsbury in Greater London. The intrepid explorer spent the day traipsing around gardens and squares as well as admiring the statues and blue plaques of people associated with the area. Napping on the way home thoroughly exhausted, Simeon smiled in his sleep, looking forward to telling everyone he meets about the things he learnt in Bloomsbury.

Bloomsbury is an area within the London Borough of Camden and stretches from Euston Road to Holborn. Associated with art, education and medicine, Bloomsbury is home to many hospitals, including Great Ormond Street, as well as museums and educational establishments, such as the British Museum and the Senate House Library. It is also a fashionable residential area with many parks, squares and quiet places, which makes a change from the rest of the bustling city.

As Simeon discovered, many notable people have lived in Bloomsbury over the past few centuries, however, its origin dates back as far as the 13th century. In 1210, William de Blemond, a Norman landowner purchased the land, building himself a manor house on the property. The name Bloomsbury is derived from Blemondisberi, which means “manor of Blemond”.

For a long time, Bloomsbury remained a rural area, which was acquired by Edward III (1312-77) in the late 14th-century and passed on to the London Charterhouse Carthusian Monks. However, after the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th-century, Henry VIII (1491-1547) granted it to Thomas Wriothesley, 1st Earl of Southampton (1505-50). The land was passed down the Wriothesley line until it reached the 4th Earl of Southampton (1607-67), who is responsible for the development of Bloomsbury Square. The majority of the urban district, however, was laid out by the property developer James Burton (1761-1837), who also lived in the area. He has been recorded as possibly the most significant builder of Georgian London and it is with thanks to him that Bloomsbury has become the place it is today.

Bloomsbury is particularly known for its magnificent green squares of which there are at least ten. Simeon, being only a little gibbon, did not have the time nor energy to explore them all, however, the ones he did visit left a favourable impression in his stuffed head.

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Russell Square Gardens

To begin the trail, Simeon started at Russell Square Underground Station where, a short walk to the left, lies Russell Square Gardens. This is one of the largest gardens in Bloomsbury and is named after the surname of the Dukes of Bedford who helped to develop the area. Initially laid out in 1804, the gardens are surrounded by large terraced houses, which were originally aimed at upper-middle-class families. Today, the gardens contain a fountain, which was installed in 2002 during a re-landscaping project to make the square look more like the original plans drawn out by the 18th-century landscaper, Humphry Repton (1752–1818).

Of course, Simeon could not go to Bloomsbury and not visit Bloomsbury Square, one of the earliest squares developed in London. Built in the 1660s and originally named Southampton Square after the 4th Earl of Southampton, the square now contains a small playground for young children, which includes a multicoloured roundabout that Simeon just had to try out.

Since 2011, Bloomsbury Square has become a physic garden with the help of 30 children from the Eleanor Palmer Primary School. In honour of Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753), an Irish physician and naturalist, who lived in the area for half a century, the pupils planted a number of plants and flowers with medicinal properties that doctors used during the 17th-century. These include lavender, rosemary, milk thistle and sage.

Other well-known people also lived in the vicinity of Bloomsbury Square, including Isaac D’Israeli (1766-1848), a writer and scholar most famous for being the father of the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (1804-81). Another author who lived nearby, although only for a year (1902) was the American Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) whose best-known work is most probably The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933).

A smaller garden, surrounded by the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery,  the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine and Great Ormond Street Hospital, is titled Queen’s Square on account of the large statue of a queen standing at one end of the gardens. Mistakenly believed to be Queen Anne (1665-1714), the area was known as Queen Anne’s Square until the statue was identified as Queen Charlotte (1744-1818), the wife of George III (1738-1820). The king of Great Britain and Ireland was treated for mental illness in one of the buildings around Queen’s Square towards the end of his reign.

Like most squares built in the 18th-century, Queen’s Square was originally a fashionable area, popular with people such as Frances Reynolds (1729-1807), the sister of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92) of the Royal Academy of Art, however, a hundred years later, the place was mostly inhabited by refugees, diverse booksellers and charity organisations. With occupiers unable to afford the running costs of the mansions, the buildings were gradually converted into hospitals.

zeppelin-plaque-queens-squareOn the lawn towards the centre of the square is a concrete circle indicating where a Zeppelin bomb landed during the First World War. A plaque states that on the night of 8th September 1915, a bomb exploded on that very spot, whilst residents slept, unaware of the danger. Fortunately, no one was injured.

The British Museum is not the only notable museum in Bloomsbury; on the north side of Brunswick Square is the Foundling Museum, which tells the story of the Foundling Hospital set up by Thomas Coram (1668-1751) in 1741. The museum was established in 1998 and contains over 100 paintings, including those by  William Hogarth (1697-1764), Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88), Joshua Reynolds and Louis-Francois Roubiliac (1702-62). These artists, as well as many others, donated their work to the Hospital as a way of raising funds for the home for parentless children. Members of the public were allowed to view the artworks for a small fee, thus effectively becoming Britain’s first art gallery.

A grand statue of Thomas Coram sits outside the entrance to the museum, between the building and Brunswick Square, which was once land belonging to the hospital. The Square is a public garden approximately 3 acres in size and is popular with the wildlife, particularly birds. The three plane trees – one is predicted to be over 200 years old – contain bird boxes to encourage the feathered-friends to nest. Frequently seen are magpies, great tits, wrens, jays and a whole host of other birds.

Brunswick Square is named after, Caroline of Brunswick (1768-1821), the wife of George IV (1762-1830). She was the queen consort at the time the square was completed by James Burton in 1802, although she most likely did not have any personal association with the area.

Jane Austen (1775-1817) used Brunswick Square as the setting of Mr and Mrs John Knightley’s residence in her novel Emma (1815). This, of course, was a work of fiction, however, a number of famous faces have lived around the square since its conception. John Ruskin (1819-1900) the Victorian critic, for example, was born at 54 Hunter Street, Brunswick Square and E.M. Forster (1879-1970), famous for short stories such as A Room with a View (1908) and A Passage to India (1924) lived at number 26 during the 1930s.

On the north side, a few houses down from the Foundling Museum lived three members of the Bloomsbury Group: Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), Leonard Woolf (1880-1969) and Duncan Grant (1885-1978) during 1911-12. The Bloomsbury Group, named after the area the majority of members lived, was a group of English writers, artists and intellectuals who regularly met up during the early 20th-century. “The Bloomsberries promoted one another’s work and careers …”

Other artists and writers who lived around the square include John Leech (1817-64), the illustrator of several Charles Dickens novels, and J.M. Barrie (1860-1937), the author famous for creating Peter Pan. Charles Dickens (1812-70) lived nearby at 48 Doughty Street in a Georgian terraced house with his family from 1837 until 1839. although he only stayed here for a brief period of time, number 48 is open to the public in the form of the Charles Dickens Museum.

Further down the road from Brunswick Square is a large open space for children, which covers 7 acres of land that once belonged to the Foundling Hospital. This was the original site of the Hospital until the 1920s when it was relocated. The site was due to be developed to match the rest of the urban area, however, Harold Harmsworth, 1st

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Simeon stuck in the railings at Coram’s Field. Serves him right for trespassing!

Viscount Rothermere (1868-1940) had a vision of the area being converted into a safe place for children to play and donated a generous amount of money to the project. Appropriately titled Coram’s Field after the founder of the Foundling Hospital who made many children’s lives better, the park is still very popular with youngsters today.

Inside the iron gates are a large children’s playground, sand pits, and a duck pond. There are also places for parents to sit, such as a cafe, whilst they are accompanying their children. No person over the age of 16 may enter the premises without a child, thus making it a safe place for children to be children. Simeon was disappointed that he could not enter for, although he is only young, he did not count as a child!

Simeon’s tour of Bloomsbury went from one square to the next, however, in-between each one, the wide-eyed gibbon noticed many statues and blue plaques on houses belonging to some very famous names. Already mentioned are the statues of Thomas Coram and Queen Charlotte, but there are a few others worthy of note. Situated near Charlotte in Queen’s Square is a bust of Lord Wolfson of Marylebone (1927-2010). This was erected shortly after his death to mark his success as a businessman and philanthropist. Leonard Wolfson, who was knighted in 1977, was the chairman of the Wolfson Foundation established by his father. The charity awards grants to support the fields of science and medicine, health, education and the arts and humanities. It is only appropriate, therefore, that he be remembered in the presence of a few of the establishments he helped.

Simeon was intrigued to discover a statue of a cat in the Alf Barrett Playground hidden away on Old Gloucester Street. The cat, named Humphry, sits facing a bench dedicated to his maker, Marcia Stolway (1958-92). Humphry was the name of the cat that frequented the Mary Ward Centre in Queen’s Square where Marcia studied sculpture. Originally, the statue of Humphry the ginger cat was placed in Queen’s Square but it felt more appropriate for him to be by the children’s playground around people more likely to appreciate him. Sadly, Marcia died in 1992 at the age of 34 after suffering for a while from epilepsy. Humphry died the very same year, therefore, the statue and bench honour two remarkable characters from the area.

It is difficult to note all of the famous people who have ever lived in Bloomsbury because there have been and continue to be so many. English Heritage blue plaques appear on almost every street, revealing who lived there. Charles Dickens had a plaque outside his house, now a museum, and further down the road, a plaque exposed the former residence of Charlotte Mew (1869-1928), a Victorian poet. Also in Doughty Street, Vera Brittain (1883-1970) an English Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse and Winifred Holtby (1898-1935), a feminist writer both lived at 52. Around the corner, another plaque marks the house in which Hilda Doolittle (1886-1961), an American poet, once stayed.

Other notable names from the area include Vanessa Bell (1879-1961), Virginia Woolf’s sister; Randolph Caldecott (1846-88), illustrator; Charles Darwin (1809-82); Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957), novelist; and William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), poet. Some people only stayed for a fleeting visit to Bloomsbury, such as Bob Marley (1945-81), who stayed 6 months, and Vladimir Ilych Lenin (1870-1924), who lived there in 1908. Of course, there have been celebrities in more recent years, including Ricky Gervais (b1961) and Catherine Tate (b1968).

40025974_2186415471615923_6074413791951454208_nIf Simeon were to have a favourite of all the blue plaques, it would be the one revealing the residence of “The White Rabbit”. Whether or not Simeon realises this is not a real rabbit still remains unconfirmed but the codename belonged to the secret agent Wing Commander Forest Frederick Edward Yeo-Thomas (1902-64) who was a British Special Operations Executive agent in the Second World War. After his successful war work, Yeo-Thomas was invited to be one of the important witnesses at the Nuremberg War Trials and Buchenwald Trial. Following a successful career and being awarded the George Cross amongst several other medals, Yeo-Thomas, unfortunately, succumbed to a brain haemorrhage at the age of 62. It was not until 2010 that his London flat was recognised by an English Heritage blue plaque but, from now on, everyone who passes will know of “The White Rabbit” and his importance in the war.

Simeon came to the end of his trail satisfied that he had discovered the Bloomsbury Treasures. It is amazing to discover how much history can be contained in one area. The trail was created by Treasure Trails who provide a series of clues and directions that take you around Bloomsbury and make people look more closely at their surroundings. Providing a fun and educational day out, Treasure Trails have over 1000 trails for places all over Britain. Like Simeon, prepare to be amazed by interesting knowledge and details that usually get overlooked. Treasure Trails can be purchased online from their website for £6.99 and are suitable for children and adults.

“Where will my next adventure take me?” Simeon wonders. Hopefully, he will find out in the not so distant future.

Bloomsbury Treasures