Friday 22 December 2023

 Queen Square by Miranda Miller


Most references to queens in London are memorials to Queen Victoria but this statue in the gardens of Queen Square is of Queen Charlotte, the wife of George 111 who was treated for mental illness by Dr Willis in a house nearby. The pub on the corner of the square, called the Queen’s Larder, is said to be on the site of the house where she stored his favourite foods in a cellar when she visited him. I should add that, like so many of the best stories, it’s quite possible that this is an urban myth; In Alan Bennett’s play and subsequent film The Madness of King George Dr Willis appears to have treated the King in the White House at Kew - but I’m a novelist, not a historian, and I was comforted by this touching story recently when I spent a lot of time sitting in the gardens after visiting a dear friend in the National Hospital for Neurology and Nerosurgery.

Judged by the rather low standards of royal marriages, George 111 and Queen Charlotte were in fact a devoted couple who lived together for 57 years. Here their modest lifestyle is mocked in a cartoon by Gillray:

The king dines off a boiled egg, using the tablecloth as a napkin to save money, while his wife tucks into a huge bowl of sauerkraut. Their own unpretentious habits made the wild extravagance of their oldest son, the Prince Regent, later George IV, particularly annoying and the King famously detested his oldest son who in turn despised his father.

What was the recurring mental illness the King suffered from throughout his reign? Doctors at the time simply said he was mad when he talked incoherently, had seizures and panic attacks and was quite incapable of ruling the country.  Later doctors thought that he was in fact suffering from a rare hereditary blood disorder, porphyria, and more recently many think his illness might have been a bipolar disorder. At different times the royal physicians entrusted the daily management of the king’s illness to specialist “mad-doctors," particularly to the Reverend Francis Willis and, later, to his sons.  

The Willises used a straitjacket to restrain the King, enforced his confinement and insisted on a strict medical regime to bring down his “fever” and “turbulent spirits”, including vomits, purges, bleeding, blistering, the application of leeches and regular doses of medicine.Although this treatment sounds harsh to us, they were considered kinder and more considerate than other “mad-doctors” in the 18th century. This is the medal Dr Willis issued when he believed he had “cured” the king:


An inscription on back of the medal declaims: Britons Rejoice, Your King's Restored, together with the date, 1789.  Sadly, twelve years later, King George suffered a relapse and his symptoms returned. 


In the 18th century Bloomsbury was considered a healthy place to live, being on the northernmost edge of London with views across to Hampstead Heath. The novelist and diarist Fanny Burney and her musicologist father Dr Burney lived in Queen Square. There was a girls’ school known as the girls’ Eton, where Boswell’s daughter was a pupil. The young ladies had a coach in their schoolroom so that they could practise getting in and out of a coach decorously.

The philosopher and reformer Jeremy Bentham had a house round the corner in Queen Square Place. He has been described as the spiritual founder of University College London, which now dominates so much of this area. When Bentham died in 1832, he asked in his will for his body to be preserved and his skeleton, dressed in his own clothes, topped by a wax head, now stands in a glass case on the ground floor of UCL's Student Centre. According to another irresistible story (which may or may not be another urban myth) Bentham’s “Auto-Icon” attends meetings of the College Council and is solemnly wheeled into the Council Room. His, or its, presence, is supposedly recorded in the minutes with the words:  Jeremy Bentham - present but not voting.

Many French refugees lived in Queen Square after the French Revolution and there were a number of shops selling books and prints. The square was also known for its charitable institutions, including the Roman Catholic Aged Poor Society and the Society of St Vincent de Paul. 

There seems to be an interesting feminist thread running through the history of the square from the mid-19th century; Joanna Chandler, a remarkable medical pioneer who cared for her paralysed grandmother as a child, founded the National Hospital for the Paralysed and Epileptic, which is now the world famous National Hospital; the Royal Female School of Art  was in Queen Square from 1861 and Elizabeth Malleson, the suffragist, started the Working Women's College at number 29.  The London County Council Trade School for Girls was housed here from 1910, and later the Technical College for Women. There was also a women-only Turkish bath in nearby Queen Square Place. 

The Art Workers' Guild, which is still at number 6, was founded in 1884 by architects, artists and designers, including John Ruskin and William Morris, who lived in the square.


Now Queen Square is a surprising oasis of peace where you can sit in contemplation, just minutes away from the ferocious traffic of Southampton Row. The square is still dedicated to the pursuit of mental and physical health; the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery and the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine are here and Great Ormond Street Hospital for children is in the street which leads east from the square. As well as the statue of a benign looking Queen Charlotte there’s a plaque marking the spot where a bomb from a Zeppelin raid landed on the gardens in 1915. Luckily no one was killed. During the Second World War thousands of people slept in an air raid shelter below the square. There’s a little sculpture of Sam the cat, in memory of the nurse, cat lover, and local activist Patricia Penn, who lived nearby, and a very old water pump that has been converted into a lamp. On the benches in these quiet gardens, doctors, patients and their anxious friends and relations snatch a few calm minutes.


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