City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

The Theft of Bedford Square

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I’m lucky enough to live very close to Bedford Square, right in the centre of the London. (If London does indeed have a centre, which is another story…)

However, I’m unlucky enough not to be a ‘resident’ on the Square, and therefore have no access to the quite beautiful gardens in the centre of the Square itself. (Click the thumbnails for images below, or try this Java 360° panorama). I live one block away. I’ve never been in the gardens, and don’t see how I could do. I could get to go into the square once a year, for the Open Garden Squares weekend and at the cost of a fiver, but that doesn’t seem like the best deal in the world.

The gardens are generally empty, as the Square has increasingly become commercial property space, with barely any residential property left – if any at all. Hence the gardens get used for corporate functions from time to time, but that’s it. I imagine those businesses pay a fee to help maintain the gardens, as if they were residents, as they’re in absolutely wonderful condition. So it’s incredibly frustrating to walk past this oasis once or twice a day and never get to use the space – more so given it’s unused pretty much every day. The last people I saw in there were vaulting over the high railings to get in.

Bedford Square, empty Bedford Square, railings Bedford Square, architecture Bedford Square, architecture

As reported in The Independent (Property section, 25 May 2005), Bedford Square is one of the great London Squares – “the idea of incorporating communal space within town-planning caught on and, following the success of (Inigo Jones-designed) Covent Garden (1631), came the classic designs of Bloomsbury Square and neighbouring Bedford Square.” The regulation of London squares is haphazard, with some controlled by local authorities – and therefore public – and others run by private committees, with maintenance charges paid by resident key-holders. Despite having few if any actual ‘residents’, Bedford Square falls into the latter camp, Bloomsbury the former. Maintenance levels seem fairly close across the two squares (cf. nearby Tavistock Square and Russell Square, which are both public and nearly as well kept as the various private neighbours). So the situation is confusing at best, wasteful and divisive at worst.

Bedford Square Bedford Square, empty Bedford Square, passer-by

But this isn’t about me being miffed at not getting into Bedford Square. It’s actually about the deeper currents running through city space, urban regeneration, and the civic health of our cities. Orwell, bless ‘im, was hugely frustrated by these privatised (potentially-)public spaces, railing (no pun intended) against the fact that this ’17th town planning’ was little more than a theft of public space in the first place, and that the opening up of the squares could play a vital role in making cities more livable, equitable spaces. I’m quoting a hefty chunk of a 1944 Tribune column of his below as a) it’s so bloody good, and b) captures the sense of frustration and anger I feel when walking past the empty Bedford Square gardens every day.

“APROPOS of my remarks on the railings round London squares, a correspondent writes: ‘Are the squares to which you refer public or private properties? If private, I suggest that your comments in plain language advocate nothing less than theft, and should be classed as such.’

If giving the land of England back to the people of England is theft, I am quite happy to call it theft. In his zeal to defend private property, my correspondent does not stop to consider how the so-called owners of the land got hold of it. They simply seized it by force, afterwards hiring lawyers to provide them with title-deeds. In the case of the enclosure of the common lands, which was going on from about 1600 to 1850, the landgrabbers did not even have the excuse of being foreign conquerors; they were quite frankly taking the heritage of their own countrymen, upon no sort of pretext except that they had the power to do so.

Except for the few surviving commons, the high roads, the lands of the National Trust, a certain number of parks, and the sea shore below high-tide mark, every square inch of England is ‘owned’ by a few thousand families. These people are just about as useful as so many tapeworms. It is desirable that people should own their own dwelling houses, and it is probably desirable that a farmer should own as much land as he can actually farm. But the ground-landlord in a town area has no function and no excuse for existence. He is merely a person who has found out a way of milking the public while giving nothing in return. He causes rents to be higher, he makes town planning more difficult, and he excludes children from green spaces: that is literally all that he does, except to draw his income. The removal of the railings in the squares was a first step against him. It was a very small step, and yet an appreciable one, as the present move to restore the railings shows. For three years or so the squares lay open, and their sacred turf was trodden by the feet of working-class children, a sight to make dividend-drawers gnash their false teeth. It that is theft, all I can say is, so much the better for theft.” [From George Orwell’s column ‘As I Please’, in The Tribune, 1944]

What a guy. But the railings were back up in Bedford Square soon enough and have been ever since (I’m assuming they were removed during the war, as iron railings were melted down for armament production). Being ‘lucky enough to live in Bloomsbury’, I also benefit from a quarterly newsletter, the annoyingly non-syntactical Bloomsbury {Today}. It’s published by the Bedford Estates, who still seem own most of the property in the area, and have done so since 1669. The current Duke of Bedford himself writes a column on the front page – signed ‘Yours sincerely, Bedford’. Whilst the rest of the newsletter can be engaging, consisting of local history and upcoming events, Bedford’s column generally consists solely of welcoming new businesses into the area, brazenly displaying the craven avarice which actually underpins the whole enterprise.

In the latest issue, following on from his first paragraph which described how the one vacant office building left available had now been let to MLP Private Finance, is (surprise surprise) his second paragraph, describing how there is likely to be a “marked reduction in the some of the anti-social activities that have plagued the area recently and caused so many local residents and tenants concern.”

And how is this to be achieved? By “a scheme for a complete re-working of the pavements and roadways around the Square, restoring the original Georgian York stone paving line and creating a large pedestrian-friendly area around the central garden. The existing period lampposts will be refurbished and blah blah blah etc …”

MLP Private Finance A solution, apparently

The built fabric in the Square is already “pedestrian-friendly” and has been for the 250 years of its existence. It’s just there are fewer and fewer pedestrians. The Square’s identity has become increasingly homogenised as each property has been let and re-let to businesses, and particularly businesses with no physical public presence or sense of fit with the area. See MLP Private Finance above. (The Square was apparently once the haunt of numerous publishers. The bookshops of Charing Cross are five minutes stroll away.) The fabric of the Square is based around architecturally magnificent properties, many originally residentially orientated (albeit for the aristocracy). But now there is absolutely no mixed-use at all, as far as I can see. The nearest thing to a building with public access at all is the Architectural Association, which has a small gallery, invisible and unadvertised from the street, behind a heavy door with buzzer access. The rest of the Square is now essentially office space. Therefore, come 6pm, largely empty.

At this point, those of us who live around the Square walk through it, between work elsewhere and shops and home, into a zone increasingly populated by the flotsam and jetsam of drug and alcohol abuse, with its attendant vertically-integrated industry of prostitution. It’s not even overt homelessness, as there’s nowhere for those guys to sleep. It’s just a territory marked out by gaunt crazed faces and unintelligible yelps and growls. No amount of period lampposts are going to ‘rescue’ this space from the ‘anti-social behaviour’ these poor discarded husks of people represent, fairly or unfairly. They’re caught up in the flows, backwaters and eddies generated London’s harshly unforgiving currents of money and power, both in terms of creating these Romero-like drifters in the first place, and then increasingly providing a space for them to conduct business in Bedford Square.

It’s oh-so-simple to avoid urban space becoming overly-dominated by any one particular form of behaviour or inhabitant – think mixed-use; of varied residential space and associated services and recreation facilities private and public, combine private commerce and public shops, with other private and public spaces littered throughout. (See ‘Urban Regeneration Week 1’.) On the one hand, this means the space is stratafied with a series of activities and a series of users; on the other, it means the Square has active public life over a 24-hour period. This isn’t a solution to a problem of homelessness and drug-abuse – however, in that kind of space, their impact is ameliorated and dissolved by a larger variegated mass of people and activity. Or it’s displaced elsewhere, which is merely shifting the problem. (See ‘Urban Renegeration Week 2’.) But where we came in was how to deal with the issue of Bedford Square. It’s oh-so-simple to suggest the mixed-use solution to keep the streets alive and healthy – to imagine what Jane Jacobs would make of it all. But it’s oh-so-difficult in a country like Britain – and particularly in a city like London – where the private ownership of property by the ‘tapeworms’ Orwell described, their concomitant financial muscle, and limited legislation in terms of shaping the urban fabric mean any sense of civic value or public good is generally thought of as icing on the cake.

Ideally ‘Bedford’ would realise, as part of a family and class with a lengthy history as London’s monied ruling class, that in creating a space which can be dominated by private business during the day, he’s also creating a space that will be dominated by an uncontrollable underclass during the night. As ever, Will Self has a word for this: “so many aspects of urban planning (are) iatrogenic, that is, a disease created by those who profess to cure it” (from his Sore Sites). Ironically, in attempting to take back the Square after its perceived theft by those of an anti-social nature, Bedford could be simply highlighting his family’s greater, earlier theft.

I suppose another moral of the story might be: “Be aware of the limitations of street furniture as a transformative force.”


14 responses to “The Theft of Bedford Square”

  1. Andrew Avatar

    “…limited legislation in terms of shaping the urban fabric mean any sense of civic value or public good is generally thought of as icing on the cake.”
    This is a depressing situation. See also yesterday’s US Supreme Court ruling allowing cities–or other governmental structures–to seize private property when it’s deemed of economic value. You’ve got to love this property lawyer’s analysis of the decision: “The message of the case to cities is yes, you can use eminent domain, but you better be careful and conduct hearings…” Oh, yes, hearings, that’s reassuring.


  2. Frankie Roberto Avatar

    Great post. I’ve always been pissed off that Bedford Square is so closed off from the public, and yet with no-one in there.
    Compare it to Gordon Square around the corner which, in summer, is full of students relaxing, reading, playing music and eating picnics. It’s a great space.


  3. Hana Loftus Avatar

    Great post. But it’s not just England that has difficulty changing this kind of spatial divisiveness.
    And I completely agree with the street furniture comment! it reminds me of too many meetings with unambitious clients when I worked in architectural practice, where we would spend hours, nary days, discussing the position of a dog-proof fence. How depressing.


  4. Donovan Hide Avatar
    Donovan Hide

    There is a happy compromise solution possible, a la Fitzory Square, where the park is privately owned, but open to the public during the summer. I suppose the fear is that the beautifully tended grass will be destroyed by the popularity of the park to punters such as you or I. Limiting access or setting up a monthly rota of opening would be a good solution for everyone. I’d say it would be better to blog about what you are doing to change the situation rather than just complain about it in your blog. Have you been to Phoenix Gardens in Covent Garden? That’s a fine example of private business working together for the good of the community, be it residential or commercial.
    another London park-goer!


  5. Mags Avatar

    I personally like Soho Square…
    I think you only miss one thing in this otherwise excellent post. The “anti-social” changes proposed are entirely cosmetic in that they make the square more attractive to look at during the day and thus increase the commericial value of the properties overlooking the square. Posh gardens/squares increase the poshness of the businesses.
    I work in a Georgian terrace which overlooks what were once railed gardens down here in Exeter. The gardens are
    a) entirely open, although the railings have been restored on the terraces themselves
    b) lusciously maintained by a combination of the council and corporate sponsoring.
    The benches are not nailed down but only ever migrate either into or out of the shade according to where people want to sit. There are very few homeless or anti-social users there as the main hangout is in a public park and/or on the Cathedral Green. There are also no watchmen, security types etc. Yet somehow the gardens are not abused or misused.
    Bedford is not looking to resolve the social problem but looking to improve the value of his property.


  6. little more than a placeholder Avatar

    NYC Reflections

    One last post to wrap up the New York stories… I had been to New York twice before. The first…


  7. D. Avatar

    Great post.


  8. Mags Avatar

    Just to say I took a few photos of Southernhay Gardens (see here to demonstrate what I mean about a public/private open/commercial space.


  9. Jim Murray Avatar

    Your analysis is not bad considering you live a block or 2 away from the Square. I hope you will participate in the consultation that will commence soon on the refurbishment of the place


  10. Mark de Rivaz Avatar
    Mark de Rivaz

    Having had this drawn to my attention, and as Steward of the Bedford Estates in London, I cannot leave what you say unanswered.
    1. Access to the garden in the Square is available for a modest annual fee on application to the Estate Office (020 7636 2885). Given that you say you are a recipient of the Estate’s Newsletter, I am surprised you have not requested a key.
    2. The £5 charge for the Open Garden Squares Weekend is not simply for access to Bedford Square, but to all the 117 gardens that participated in the 2005 event.
    3. I am pleased you think the gardens are “quite beautiful” and “in absolutely wonderful condition”. They are maintained by the Estates gardeners at the Estates’ expense. The relatively small income derived from our keyholder scheme falls far short of the maintenance costs.
    4. Your comments about the Duke’s column in our newsletter display a remarkable lack of understanding of what makes the area tick. Without new tenants, residential and commercial, coming into the architecturally magnificent buildings of Bedford Square and its environs, the area would decline and the buildings deteriorate. The fact that the buildings and the gardens are in such good condition and maintained so is largely due to the long-term commitment of the Bedford family to the area. Large amounts of money are spent on maintaining and improving these buildings to ensure that they do attract and retain occupiers. Refurbishment projects are often not financially viable in strictly commercial terms and they only go forward because we are prepared to take a long term view and we do not want to see buildings standing empty and decaying. To speak of “brazenly displaying … craven avarice” seems rather ignorant and offensive.
    5. The disappearance of the publishing industry from Bloomsbury generally and Bedford Square specifically is a regrettable consequence of the way that sector has developed over the year, by mergers of small publishing houses to create monolithic publishing organisations for whom period properties like those in Bedford Square are simply no longer suitable. The fact is that over time areas change and evolve.
    6. We are only too well aware of problems in and around Bedford Square that occur generally, but not exclusively, after normal office hours. We are perfectly supportive of the principle of mixed use areas, but it is simply not practical with buildings of this type, whose use and character is constrained by planning and listed building controls and because of the physical nature of the buildings themselves. Furthermore, I think you will find that many residents in any area would have reservations about “active public life over a 24 hour period”. If you or any of your readers have a practical and workable solution to these kinds of problems, we and I am sure Camden Council would be delighted to hear of it.
    7. You quote George Orwell at some length. Whilst I do not wish to embark on a debate over his views, I would dispute his analysis of a landlord’s function. As an Estate, we certainly do a great deal more than just draw the income. Whatever one’s politics or views on major landowners and particularly the London Estates, they have played an important role over the centuries in creating the city we have today, with well planned streets of elegant buildings, plenty of green open spaces and squares (public or private). More importantly perhaps, they have managed, maintained and improved their estates with a long term view, rather than breaking them up and selling them to the highest bidder. It is through the good stewardship of their estates that we still have places like Bedford Square in as near as possible to their original condition. I doubt this would be the case if every building was owned by those who occupied it.
    8. Finally, I should put you right as to the original occupants of the houses in Bedford Square. They were not the aristocracy as you seem to think – Bedford Square could not get near to matching the attractions of Mayfair and St James’s. Instead, Bedford Square became the home of merchants, businessmen and lawyers – not the working classes, it is true, though all these houses would have had their “servants’ quarters”. The decline of residential occupation in the Square started in the early part of the 20th century as part of the major social changes of that time. By the end of the Second World War the Square was completely given over to offices.


  11. Little more than a placeholder Avatar

    » Trackback: NYC Reflections from little more than a placeholder: ” One last post to wrap up the New York stories… I had been to New York twice before. The first…” [Read More]


  12. Bad boy Bedford Avatar
    Bad boy Bedford

    I work on Bedford square and i have a key to the park in my desk.
    It’s yours for £30 quid


  13. Yev Avatar

    I like photos you made.


  14. Transgressive Architecture Avatar

    It’s getting even worse. What is most outrageous is the fact that the renovation of this private square, as well as Bloomsbury Square, and Russell Square which are still own by the Duke, were financed by the general public via Camden Council and the Lottery Fund. For details:


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