Brunswick and Mecklenburgh Squares are two of more than 440 ‘squares’ in London. They lie just east of Russell Square tube station in Bloomsbury, Borough of Camden, enlivened by cinema buffs, university staff and students, shoppers, and museum-goers.
London Squares: Foci of Nature and Leisure in the British Capital
The squares of London are renowned in making the city one of the greenest in the world. Often one city block in size, their variation in historical importance and surrounding ambience make these parks destinations in and of themselves.
Brunswick and Mecklenburgh Squares were established simultaneously between 1796 and 1799 as open spaces about 1 hectare each, adjacent to and for use by the Foundling Hospital, a hospice for abandoned children established by Thomas Coram in 1752. The three successor institutions to the Hospital — Coram’s Fields, Coram charity, and The Foundling Museum — now lie between the two squares, and a memorial statue of Coram stands in front of the Museum.
The squares’ names come from the British monarch at the time, King George III, who was also Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg (House of Hanover, Germany), and his wife, Duchess Sophia Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. One street feeding into Mecklenburgh Square is named ‘Caroline’ after the wife of King George II, Margravine Caroline of Brandenburg-Ansbach. A known sympathizer for Coram’s cause, she may have prodded her husband to charter the Foundling Hospital — after two decades of fruitless campaigning by Coram.
Brunswick Square: Foundling Museum, University of London, and Renoir Cinema
This public park houses at least five magnificent London plane trees (Platanus hispanica, or P. acerifolia), one given “Great Tree” status. Also known as sycamore trees, they are disliked by many people because they are planted so ubiquitously in the capital, being especially resistant to smog. They also tend to lift up adjacent pedestrian pavements. But they reach majestic heights and spreads and glow in golden colour in autumn.
Camden refurbished Brunswick Square, re-creating the 18th-century ambience. Iron railings which had been taken for raw materials during the Second World War were replaced, and new paths and park furniture were provided together with tree and landscape improvements. Mothers with children in pushchairs gather along with office workers, students and shoppers to eat lunch under the towering plane trees and enjoy these comfortable new facilities.
The commercial jewel of the neighbourhood is a cinema, formerly called the Renoir but after renovation was renamed Curzon Bloomsbury. It is one of several Curzon art-houses in London, all renowned for their excellent international and avant-garde offerings. The cinema is built into The Brunswick, a shopping mall on the eastern side of Brunswick Square.
Mecklenburgh Square: Goodenough College
This square is a mirror image of Brunswick Square, on the eastern side of Coram’s Fields. Covering two acres, it was laid out as a formal garden between 1810 and 1812 by Samuel Pepys Cockerell and Joseph Kay. It is noted for its New Zealand plantings, and because it retains most of its original features, English Heritage has designated it a Grade II listed garden.
Though established in concert with Brunswick, it has evolved into a private London Square accessible only by key. The grounds contain tennis courts, playground and barbecue area and a wide open space, all enclosed by a thick hedge. Many of these private squares become public during an annual Open Garden Squares Weekend in June organized by the London Parks & Gardens Trust.
Mecklenburgh Square hosts Goodenough College, an independent educational charity for international postgraduates studying in London. Established in 1930, it now has 650 residents. Add that number to International Hall’s 860 students in Brunswick Square, one would expect the Squares to be overrun with students — but no, education has a quiet presence here.
William Goodenough House and London House of Goodenough College stand on the north and south sides of Mecklenburgh Square. London House, designed by Sir Herbert Baker, is a neo-Georgian Grade II Listed Building available for conferences and events; its internal courtyard garden may be visited during Open Garden Squares Weekend.
Famous Residents: Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, Syed Ahmed Kahn, Dorothy Sayers
These two squares were home to the literary and scholarly set. In Jane Austen’s novel Emma (1816), much is made of the fact that Emma’s sister and husband resided in Brunswick Square, described as “leafy”. An 1882 map of the area (Middlesex 1:10,560) shows solid architecture surrounding three sides of the square, perhaps presenting a façade resembling Bloomsbury Square in a 1787 print. However, no private houses survive on the square due to substantial bombing during World War II, thus, for the 2009 BBC TV series based on Emma, a Georgian house in Fitzroy Square was chosen to represent the Knightley home. The literary heritage continued with Virginia Woolf, resident at 38 Brunswick Square for five or six years from 1911 and at 37 Mecklenburgh Square in 1939-40. E.M. Forster lived at Brunswick Square ca. 1925-1940.
Mecklenburgh Square also housed famous 19th century scholar, historian and social reformer Syed Ahmed Kahn at No. 21 during his studies in London; he returned to India and founded Muslim University in Aligarh in 1875. Hilda Doolittle, American poet and writer, and her novelist husband Richard Aldington were at No. 44. Dorothy Sayers also lived at No. 44 from 1918 to 1921.