A king, the plague, and Dickens

This day in London history: on the 10th of November 1683 George II, king of England from 1727 to 1760, was born. In Golden Square there is a statue of him decked out in a Roman toga.

Golden Sq statue3
Golden Square with George II in his toga

The site upon which Golden Square stands was known as Gelding’s Cross in the early 17th century when the land was used for farming. Building work on the square was begun in the 1670s and, as it was designed for the gentry, a rather more refined name was needed.

During the Great Plague of 1665/6, the site played an important, albeit somewhat gruesome, role.

Originally dogs and cats were blamed for spreading the plague. They were therefore killed off, leaving the real villains – grey rats – without any predators. The rats were thus able to wreak even more havoc with the disease, and it is estimated that around 15% of London’s population died of bubonic plague. At times the graveyards could not hold all the dead bodies and victims of the plague were dumped into large pits and communal graves. Golden Square stands on the site of one such pit.

Famous residents of the square include Thomas Jefferson; surgeon John Hunter, considered to be the founder of scientific surgery; Sebastian de Carvalho, Portuguese statesman and ambassador; and Nicholas Nickleby’s rich but unpleasant uncle, Ralph Nickleby.

Photograph: Fin Fahey

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