We tend today to identify the Bloomsbury area of London as a progressive and innovative locale because of the Bloomsbury group of the early 20th century--Virginia Woolf, Duncan Grant, Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes, and Vanessa Bell to name just a few. However, we learn from this interesting book, that 19th century Bloomsbury (the area roughly around the British Museum) was a hot spot for progressive ideas as well and set the stage for the later group.
The author, a distinguished professor at University College London (UCL), lays out in a concise introduction not only the history of this area, but also the general outline the chapters to follow. The first chapter, and the central focus of the book, is the formation of UCL (originally the University of London) in 1828. Unlike the Oxbridge universities, it was to be secular and focus on more modern subjects, like English and history rather than the traditional classics emphasis of British higher education. The secular focus, requiring no religious tests, led to charges of UCL being "godless," prompted the foundation of rival King's College in London (emphasizing Christianity), and generated all manner of difficulties.
The theme of educational innovation continues in the second chapter on the fascinating "Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge." Through its many inexpensive publications, such as the "Penny Magazine," it sought to disseminate practical education to the masses. The author next discusses a prime area for Bloomsbury innovation, medical education and hospital services. Both Robert Liston, who performed the first surgery in Britain, and Joseph Lister, inventor of antiseptic techniques, were affiliated with UCL. This was a particularly important development since England previously had no medical schools, and medical students had to be trained at one of the fine Scottish Universities.
An important chapter discusses the British Museum, one of the great cultural resources of the world, and how it impacted on the other educational and cultural institutions in Victorian Bloomsbury. Eventually, the Museum expanded its hours and services so that working-class people could benefit from them. The author also discusses religious developments in Bloomsbury, which became the location for a vareity of dissenting religious groups. She discusses in detail the Catholic Apostolic Church and Edward Irving, who was accused of encouraging speaking in tongues, fanaticism and hysteria among his followers.
Education for women was another major innovative activity during this period, especially in the areas of art, teaching and medicine. The Ladies' College (1849), the Slade School of Art, and the New Hospital for Women are all discussed. Kindergarten teaching first appeared in Britain in Bloomsbury during this period. Finally, the author discusses education for the working class through the Working Men's College (1848) and the Working Women's College (1864). The growth of a skilled working class and white collar workers demanded that suitable educational resources be made available, and Bloomsbury met the challenge. Finally, the author discusses work and play in Bloomsbury, especially centered in the Passmore Edwards Settlement facility opened in 1897. It too was a center for education, including disabled child students.
The book runs some 380 pages in length, including 35 pages of end notes, a 12 page bibliography and an index. It also contains 44 very interesting illustrations, as well as the dust jacket cover art, to help the reader visualize key locales and actors. My only criticism of the book is that the author sometimes goes into too extensive detail on various subjects, reflective of her stupendous research. But given the importance of her topic, I always opt for too much analysis rather than too little.