Skip to Content


Bloomsbury’s twin powerhouses

8 September 2012

8:00 AM

8 September 2012

8:00 AM

Victorian Bloomsbury Rosemary Ashton

Yale, pp.380, £25

Rosemary Ashton has always been fascinated by the ways in which ideas ‘materialise’. Her first book, The German Idea, tracked the subtle filaments of Germanism in 19th-century British culture. In this, her latest book, she anatomises an area of London where more formative ideas have been conceived, and brought to fruition, than in any other of the metropolitan villages.

Covent Garden is theatrical (and, bits of it, louche), Soho is bohemian (even more louche), Kensington is a home to science. In Bloomsbury it is the ‘march of mind’ that gives WC1 its distinctive character.

Ashton sees Bloomsbury as a constellation of ‘progressive institutions’ — intellectual structures which have been as formative for Britain as the Revolution was for France. Two intimately linked powerhouses dominate. One is the University of London (since 1836 ‘UCL’), ‘the Godless Place in Gower Street’. The other, 200 yards to the south (Birkbeck College, Rada, Soas, the Institute of Historical Studies and the School of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene intervening) is the British Museum — what the novelist Thackeray, looking up at Panizzi’s great dome, called the ‘brain pan of London’. The brain has been transplanted to St Pancras as the British Library. Still ‘Bloomsbury’.

The idea behind UCL — first advanced in an 1825 article in the Times — is that an institution of higher learning should be just that and nothing more — disencumbered from all the crusted history and religious exclusionisms of Oxbridge. No more liturgical mumbo jumbo, gowns, high tables and ‘dons’. Why should scholars necessarily be sworn Anglicans, rich, upper-class and male?

The openness of the University of London was not merely to the admission of Jews, Non-conformists, atheists, and — after a decade or two — women. The institution was open to new, and newly devised, disciplines. It pioneered England’s first English department — of which Ashton has been a distinguished member for 30 years. England’s first proper medical school and hospital (now UCLH) were founded on either side of Gower Street. Medicine, like UCL Slade School of Art (similarly innovative) would prove broad gateways for women.

Anyone doing anything radically new in Britain will encounter not merely resistance but spite. London’s university was derided as the ‘Cockney College’ and ‘Stinkamalee’, in reference to the swampy wasteland on which William Wilkins’s fine neoclassical edifice was erected. The snobbishness, alas, persists.

UCL’s openness, its founding idea, inspired spin-offs. Among them were the Working Men’s College in Red Lion Square, the Ladies College (later Bedford College, named after the square where it originated), the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (a forerunner of the Open University), and the Passmore Edwards Settlement, by Tavistock Square (a microcosmic trial-run for the welfare state). The German kindergarten movement bloomed in Bloomsbury’s green squares, and in Coram’s Fields playgrounds as, by Queen’s Square, did the world’s most advanced hospital for sick children.

The clarity of Ashton’s exposition is deceptive. Victorian Bloomsbury is a big  — addictively readable — book, but also a masterpiece of compression. In the chapters chronicling her ‘progressive institutions’, Ashton traces, with scalpel-like precision, the intricate infighting, and the complex weaves of ideology (Unitarianism, radicalism, free-thinking, do-gooding, aristocratic Whiggism).

The narrative is laced with vivid anecdote. Robert Liston, for example, doing a mid-thigh amputation in 25 seconds, blood flying, patient screaming, stopwatch ticking. Listonish speed of saw and axe would be unnecessary, a few years later, when the UCL medical school became a pioneer in the use of anaesthetic chloroform. Every university teacher’s heart will warm to Augustus De Morgan, the maths lecturer (one of Ashton’s heroes) who routinely locked the door of his lecture hall and pocketed the key five minutes after he began talking.

Victorian Bloomsbury is a serious book, but it has some richly comic sections. The funniest is Ashton’s account of the Catholic Apostolic church which contrived to get its vast Gothic pile conjoined, like a Siamese twin, with UCL’s premises. The ‘Irvingites’, as they were called, after their prophet, believed in an imminent second coming. So much so that they don’t even open the place, since the world will probably end before lunch. The final judgment will have a busy time of it in Gordon Square, separating the apostolic sheep from the godless goats.

If Ashton were charged with turning Gower Street into an Avenue of Remembrance, prominent among the statues lining it would be Henry Brougham (the Whig patriarch of UCL), Jeremy Bentham (whose mummified body could simply be moved from its glass-fronted cabinet in UCL), Henry Crabb Robinson (the diarist and long-time consiglieri of UCL), Henry Morley (tireless evangelist for English Studies), Anthony Panizzi (the ‘greasy Italian’, as enemies called him, who made the BL what it is), Mary Ward (known in her time as Mrs Humphry Ward, the moving spirit behind the Passmore Edwards Settlement), Elisabeth Jesser Reid (lobbyist for women’s higher education), Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (pioneer physician) and Charles Knight (the dynamo behind the SDUK). So many, indeed, that the ‘endless street’ would have to be longer even than it is to accommodate them all.

Oh, and while I remember: Richard Holt Hutton, graduate of UCL school and UCL, was proprietor and joint editor of The Spectator (1861–97). It was Hutton who gave the paper (long located, of course, in Gower Street) the character it possesses to this day. If you want a Bloomsbury monument, subscribe.

Show comments