Bloomsbury. What image does that word conjure up for you? For me it is squares.
Bloomsbury has many garden squares, some are private, but many are open to the public, and in the real (non-Covid) world a Guided Walk taking in most of these squares is a delightful way to spend a couple of hours. For my Virtual Tours of Bloomsbury Squares, though, I have divided them into three separate tours, as I think spending longer than 45 minutes looking at a screen is just asking too much of my audience and I like to leave some time afterwards for questions and chat.
But you might be asking, do I have a favourite square? Yes, I have. My favourite Bloomsbury square is Queen Square, and this is why.
A neighbour’s daughter was born with a serious heart defect resulting in much time spent at the wonderful Great Ormond Street Hospital which adjoins Queen Square. I spent many hours at the hospital with the little girl and came to appreciate the respite of walking into this quiet, peaceful square on my own to process what was happening to her in the hospital. As she recovered from her various operations, I took her into Queen Square too – many young patients can be seen there in the children’s garden opened at the north end of the square in 1999 especially for children being treated at the hospital. So, it is not just a green space but also a social space away from the confines, sights and smells of the hospital.
We both spent time looking at the statue of Queen Charlotte and I was able to come up with lots of stories to entertain, starting with explaining that the statue was of Queen Charlotte and not Queen Anne, after whom the square is named, although many had made that mistake. My stories may have been a little, shall we say, economical with the truth so let me start here with the facts.
Queen Charlotte was the wife of King George III – probably forever remembered as Mad King George, a name that definitely stuck after Alan Bennett’s wonderful play and subsequent film, The Madness of King George. Charlotte was just 17 when she married George who was already King, having acceded to the throne aged 22 on the death of his grandfather, George II (the latter’s son having already died). Charlotte and George had 15 children, all but two surviving to adulthood. George III’s reign, though, is remembered for his bouts of physical and mental illness which resulted in their eldest son becoming Prince Regent and, after his father’s death, King George IV. But that was all to come for Charlotte.
Charlotte was born in Germany. She first met her future husband when she travelled to London and was greeted by him and his family at the garden gate of St James’s Palace – they were married six hours later. Initially they lived in St James’s Palace, but George had recently bought nearby Buckingham House and the couple moved in, and this was where most of their children were born although St James’s Palace remained the official and ceremonial royal residence.
Perhaps a sign of things to come for future royal families, Charlotte loved walking around without accompanying servants – she and George preferred a more informal and relaxed home life, upsetting many courtiers.
Her husband’s first bout of illness occurred in 1765 but she was unaware of it and it did not last for long. His illness recurred in 1788 and by then she was terrified by the change in him and frightened to spend time alone with him. Although the family moved to Kew during his illness, she and her children were kept away from him and his unpredictable moods and actions. Initially Charlotte would have been Regent if her husband was unable to rule; but this changed, and in 1789 the Regency Bill provided for their eldest son to be Prince Regent, which caused mother and son to fall out.
George’s illness continued and he became permanently insane. His illness was not understood at the time but is now believed to have been porphyria. This had a devastating effect on Charlotte who almost overnight sank into a depression and her hair went grey. From now on the King and Queen slept apart, had their meals separately, and she avoided seeing him alone.
An article in The Times in 1788 was critical of the diet being fed to poor George, which seems to have consisted mainly of tea, potatoes and bread and butter which, as the the writer pointed out, provided little or no nourishment, and went on to suggest an alternative diet of coffee, soft toast and butter, bread or ground rice pudding plus a little boiled chicken or veal, veal broth with a little wine.
One of George’s principal doctors was Sir George Baker. Born in Devon, Baker was educated at Eton and Kings College, Cambridge. He was admitted to the Royal College of Physicians in 1756 and, although initially moving to Stamford, Lincolnshire to practise medicine, he returned to London around 1761, was very successful and elected President of the Royal College of Physicians nine times. Baker had consulting rooms here in Queen Square. He was appointed physician to the Queen’s household and then physician to George and attended the King during his periods of madness.
Charlotte died in 1818 but George was incapable of realising that she had died. She is buried at St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle. George died 14 months later. Until the late Duke of Edinburgh, Charlotte had been the longest serving consort in British history, over 57 years.
But these were not the stories I used to entertain and distract my young neighbour. They tended to be stories about what the royal children might have got up to and what they wore, or they were food-related, as getting her to eat was a constant battle. There is a pub on the corner of Queen Square and Cosmo Place called the Queen’s Larder, apparently named for Queen Charlotte. Legend has it that she rented a small cellar under the pub in order to store the special food she prepared for her husband when he was being treated by his doctor in the square. So, we would chat about the sort of food she might be preparing for him, what might make him better or make him feel better. He loved orange juice and – well, according to me – he adored all fruit and vegetables but had absolutely no taste for sweets and chocolate.
My young friend is now 10 and doing very well. If I happen to be the one to take her for her check-ups at the hospital, we still walk around Queen Square and now she tells me the stories. Not sure she ever believed me about George’s diet though.
Other blogs in the Camden Guides series which touch on Queen Square from various angles are:
- Queen Square: a medical miscellany (February 5th)
- Unusual hospitals of Camden (March 12th)
- Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children (March 26th)
- Statues of women in Camden Squares (May 7th)
Featured image at top of page is Queen Square, by Julian Osley, Geograph, CC BY SA 2.0