Russell Square was founded by the fifth Duke in 1799, and became the largest square in London, eclipsing Grosvenor Square. The houses were the work of builder James Burton (1761-1837), the most successful developer at that time. His workforce was so large, that In 1804, when Britain was threatened with invasion, Burton raised a 1000-strong regiment of men, with architects and foremen as officers, to protect the borders of the new town they were creating.
As with Bloomsbury Square, the Duke commissioned Humphry Repton to design the gardens.
Repton's design included a broad perimeter walk (with high hedges to screen the walk from the street) and a horseshoe-shaped central walk under two rows of clipped lime trees. There was a trellis-covered shelter at the centre, with eight seats, which cleverly concealed the gardeners' shed in a small courtyard at the centre.
The eighteenth century poets William Cowper (1731-1800) and Thomas Gray (1716-71) both had lodgings in Russell Square. Gray praised the square for its ‘air and sunshine and quiet’.
The 20th-century poet, T.S. Eliot (1888-1965), lived at 28 Bedford Place and had his offices at 24 Russell Square (in the western corner), where he was director of Faber & Faber, which specialised in publishing poetry. While here, Eliot endured increasingly bizarre behaviour from his estranged wife, who was mentally ill. She would march up and down the pavement outside the offices, wearing a sandwich board which proclaimed ‘I am the wife that T.S. Eliot abandoned.’ On one occasion she poured a tureen of hot chocolate through the letter-box of his office door. It was here at the age of 68 that Eliot proposed to his second wife, Valerie, who was 38 years his junior.
No. 21 was home to lawyer and MP Sir Samuel Romilly (1757-1818). From 1806, as Solicitor-General, he worked hard to reform the criminal justice system, reducing sentences and cutting the number of petty crimes which carried the death penalty, such as pick-pocketing. He was also a vocal opponent of slavery and supported the campaign for Catholic emancipation. In 1818, overcome with grief at the sudden death of his beloved wife, the grief-stricken Romilly killed himself.
Also on the west side of the square is a cabmen's shelter of 1897. It was part of a network built between 1875 and 1914 by the Cabmen's Shelter Fund. The Fund was founded by Captain George Armstrong, managing editor of The Globe newspaper, after he failed to find a cab because all the drivers were in the pub. Victorian cabmen were notorious for their drunkenness, having nowhere else but the pub to shelter in bad weather. The alcohol-free shelters offered tables and benches, with even a kitchen for cooking meals, and are still in use by London's cab drivers.
The Victorian architect G.E. Street (1824-1881) lived at 51 Russell Square. He designed more than 260 buildings, of which his masterpiece was the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand, the stress of which drove him to an early grave before the building was completed.
No. 61 was where Mrs Humphry Ward (1851-1920) lived from 1881. She was a tireless supporter of good causes, an opponent of the death penalty and a prolific novelist, but was strongly opposed to votes for women. In a public debate on the subject in 1909, she lost by 235 votes to 74 and vowed never to take part in such a debate again.
Mrs Ward would not have see eye to eye with one of her neighbours, Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928), who lived at number eight with her family from 1888 to 1893. Emmeline was leader of the campaign for women's suffrage, and her daughters Sylvia (1882-1960) and Christabel (1880-1958) were considerably influenced in their own development as political activists by the people they met during their time here. The house was a centre for political gatherings of socialists, Fabians, anarchists, suffragists, freethinkers and radicals, and the young Pankhursts helped out at these meetings from an early age.
The theatre impresario Richard D'Oyly Carte (1844-1901) lived at 71 Russell Square. Founder of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, and promoter of works of Gilbert and Sullivan, he also built the Savoy Theatre and Savoy Hotel.