The development of Bloomsbury began in the 1660’s when the 4th Earl of Southampton began to build a ‘little town’ on the agricultural fields that bordered Covent Garden to the North and the village of Hampstead to the South.
In the 1780’s the Duchess of Bedford began to expand the Bedford Estate westwards and numbers 65 and 67 Gower Street were completed in 1786. The street was so named after the Duchesses family: the Leveson-Gowers.
The majority of houses in the Bloomsbury/Covent Garden and Holborn area are still owned by the Russell family who posses the peerage of the Duke of Bedford.
Bloomsbury is home to the British Museum, the British Medical society as well as the University of London’s main campus and some of the most important hospitals in the country – UCLH, Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, and Queen’s Square Neurological Hospital.
As well as being a centre for scientific learning Bloomsbury is known for its literary and artistic leaning:
Charles Dickens lived on Tavistock Square in 1851 (his house was demolished in 1901).
The Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood was founded by John Millais in his parent’s house on Gower Street (around 1848) – and was established as a reform movement to counteract the mechanistic approach to art, which was adopted by the Mannerist artists who succeeded Raphael and Michelangelo. Its founder members were; William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti
At the beginning of the 20th Century on Gordon Square the Bloomsbury Set came in to being. Members included: Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes and E. M Forster, amongst others. Their work/discussions had a great influence on the ideas of literature, feminism, pacifism and economics.
THE ARCHITECTURE of 65 – 67 GOWER STREET
The 65-67 Gower Street are Georgian buildings (finished in 1786) and are characterized by their ‘balance’ and ‘regularity’ – implying symmetry and adherence to the classical rules of architecture. In the 1700’s uniformity of house fronts along a street were considered pleasing to the eye and anything that implied lack of proportion or balance was frowned upon. There are a number of Georgian characteristics that you can identify at the Ridgemount Hotel: the pillars in the front of the house, its square symmetrical shape, the fan light above the door, paired chimneys and sash windows.
It has been suggested that the houses on Gower Street were built of low-grade materials, and that they were not expected to last. However, this may have worked in the edifices favour as the passage of time has allowed the houses to slip and slide a little – to move with the ages and different levels of traffic flow.
During the 17, 18 and 1900’s when people were still had servants, they would have lived on the top floor of the house and the grander rooms would have been below. If you look on the pavement outside the hotel you will see the original coalholes – where fuel was delivered to the basements for distribution to the individual rooms. The houses still maintain many of their original features: the plasterwork and the staircases as well as the fireplaces, although none of them are used today.
The houses on Gower Street were built as private homes for upper-middle-class families. In the records there are references to the wonderful apples that were grown in people’s gardens and the abundance of fresh air available just a little distance from the City of London.
According to the 1901 census – the houses were still being used as private homes. Number 65 Gower Street was owned by a family who were furniture makers and number 67 was owned by a family named Nanson – who were the proprietors of a loan office as well as owning numerous properties around London, both families had a couple of servants and cooks.
By 1911 number 67 Gower Street was a boarding house leased to Laura Cook – her long-term guests included a ship owner and a furrier. Number 65 was leased to an American; Mary Heriot, a corsetiere (allegedly) to the Royal Family), who rented rooms to a pianoforte instructor and his family. During the 1900’s a wide variety of lodgers from army captains to families of ‘private means’ lived in the two houses.
By far the most famous inhabitant of 67 Gower Street was Elizabeth Stride aka Long Liz, who, after she moved from Bloomsbury to the East End, was killed by Jack the Ripper in 1888.
The most famous inhabitant of 65 Gower Street was a ‘low’ comedian called John Bannister 1760 – 1836 who acted at the Drury Lane theatre and whose portrait can be seen at the Victoria & Albert Museum.
THE PRESENT DAY
Willie and Margaret Rees (originally from South Wales) acquired no. 65 Gower Street in 1965. In 1966, their son, Royden Rees, left the Royal Navy to come and work with them.
In 1988 Margaret Rees retired and Royden began running the hotel with his wife Gwen; in 1992 they brought the house next door and knocked the two buildings together to form one hotel. The buildings are still referred to as ‘The Ridgemount’ and ‘The Georgian’.
In 2000 Aled joined the family business after finishing his university degree and now works at the hotel full time with his mother and father. Royden and Gwen’s grandchildren can often be found playing in the hotel garden.
Although the Rees family has lived in London for many years, they consider themselves to be Welsh and take their roots very seriously indeed. You can often hear them talking in Welsh to each other and they spend time in Swansea and Cardiff when they can.
There are an estimated 70,000 Welsh living in London – Bloomsbury and Kings Cross were important areas for Welsh immigrants arriving in London as these were where the major London dairies were located. When Royden Rees was a young boy he did the milk deliveries in the area.