In early 1885 Fanny Wilkinson, a recently qualified landscape architect – indeed the first woman in Britain to undertake a professional training course – moved into a flat at 15 Bloomsbury Street, just south of what is now New Oxford Street. Ten years or so ago, when I first wrote about Fanny Wilkinson – in Enterprising Women: the Garretts and their circle – I assumed that, as there was no trace now of that address, the building had been swept away in the various redevelopments that have taken place in the area over the last 100 years or so. Anyway, the exact site of Fanny’s first London home was not particularly important in the context of that book.
However, three or four years ago I undertook a little more concentrated research on the subject and, realising that 15 Bloomsbury Street had, soon after Fanny’s arrival, been renamed 241 Shaftesbury Avenue, discovered that the building in which she had lived is still there. Moreover, because the bus routes I use most frequently – the 38 and 19 – have been diverted (courtesy of CrossRail development at Tottenham Court Road) I now pass almost daily alongside Fanny Wilkinson’s former home.
The building – red-brick, with Queen Ann-ish windows and corner turret – faces onto an odd little triangle of land that had I long thought rather intriguing. The space is reminiscent of one of those Parisian squares (or triangles) that one may have seen – or imagined. It is rather dark – even in the summer – with lofty trees rising, close together, out of the pavement. In Paris one would add a cafe, waiters with long white aprons, an accordion etc. The London reality includes quantities of strutting pigeons and a peculiar raised concrete circle – ugly and serving no obviously useful purpose – probably something to do with underground systems of one kind or another – a useful shelf for discarded KFC packets, coca cola cans etc.
A little investigation revealed that the triangle had been formed when the final section of Shaftesbury Avenue was cut through St Giles Rookeries and that it was Fanny Wilkinson, in her capacity as landscape gardener to the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association, who ensured that it was not built over. She recommended that trees – London plane trees, as it happened – should be planted and seats made available for the public. The trees – although probably not the originals – are still there but the seats had only a short existence. They were removed c 1893 having attracted ‘dirty tramps, who make them a sleeping place in the day time and by loose women at night.’
Had the journalist who interviewed Fanny Wilkinson for the Women’s Penny Paper in 1890 ‘at her charming flat in Bloomsbury’, had to pick her way past sleeping tramps? Anyway, if she did, she put a brave face on it and assured her readers that ‘[Miss Wilkinson’s] rooms have a pleasant country air about them, and it would be difficult to imagine that one was in the heart of the big city in her pretty drawing room. It is the home of a lady, and instinctively one feels its owner must be a woman of refined taste.’ I do not know for certain, but would like to think that the drawing room ran across the first-floor, including the turret corner window, and that one would have looked down onto the leafy tops of the recently-planted trees.
Next door to the building is a pub – The Crown – which was there, under the same name, in Fanny’s day. It now does something to bring an approximation to the Parisian look by setting out tables on its frontage on the triangle. As the smokers huddle there we can be certain that not one – if they gave any thought at all to their surrounding – would imagine that the tiny section of urbanscape before them owed anything to decisions taken 125 years ago by a young Yorkshire woman. Nor, indeed, will the estate agents now attempting to lease the building in which she lived have any idea that what to them is merely so many square feet of office space was once the ‘pretty drawing room’ of a ‘woman of refined taste’. But now, as you walk up this section of Shaftesbury Avenue or inch past on the 38 or 19 (because the traffic is always jammed) – you, at least, will be aware of the layers of the past that hover around this odd little triangle.
For an article about Fanny Wilkinson and Bloomsbury click here