Camden Square is a rectangular town square in the London Borough of Camden running parallel to Camden Road north of central Camden. It has a playground and dog walking area, and St Paul's Church is at the north end. It has a perimeter of 200 metres (660 ft). At the south end is the London Irish Centre.
The street pattern was laid out in the 1840s. By 1849, the former St Paul's Church, designed by Ordish and Johnson, had been built on a central island in the square, standing in an elongated octagonal walled churchyard. This important landmark building was large, housing a congregation of 1200 people. The location took advantage of vistas; for instance long views offocal points such as Camden Crescent along the Cantelowes Road axis to the north-west. From the late 1840s houses had begun to be built, firstly on the south-west and south-east sides (the latter around the church). In 1860 there were still no houses north-east ofthe church, although there was residential development along most of the other sides of the square. However, two sets of houses located over the tunnels were knocked down between 1868 and 1871: the victims were one pair of semi-detached villas on the south-east side and one detached villa on the north-west side. As a result of the 1898 widening of the railway, further houses adjacent to these properties were demolished. The later houses on the south side were bought by speculators, who subdivided each house into up to eight tenements, due to the reduced desirability of the area caused by the railway passing diagonally under the square.
It is most probable that the north-east portion of the square, although wider than the south-west portion~ would originally have been intended for open space, with the church as a centrepiece (this land was developed as Camden Terrace in the 1860s, together with North and South Villas).
At the beginning of the 20th century, a constable’s shelter was erected inside the square close to the north west gate and new locks and chains fitted. In 1903 new byelaws were approved by a high court judge and enforceable by law.
The gardener, Mr Wakeford, retired in 1912, after 27 years’ service. He was given no pension. Henry Titmus, who succeeded him, lived at 360 York Way and was paid 25 shillings a week for 8 months; and 21 shillings a week for the rest of the year, with one week's holiday. He made such a good impression that his pay was increased to the full wage throughout the year, but a lack of funds meant that plans to renew and replant the borders were limited.
In 1912 the use of the square was extended and residents of North and South Villas were allowed to apply for keys.
Mr Titmus resigned in 1914 and the committee discussed whether to contract Lents, the nursery in Rochester Square, to maintain the garden. Their fee was £70 per year, plus the cost of bulbs and plants for a spring and summer show, £91/2 in total, but the committee decided to “pay their own man” and Mr Victor Spalding was appointed.
The Great War 1914-1918
A sombre reference to the impact of the First World War on the square was made at the AGM in 1914. Members discussed “the good taste or otherwise of certain members of the tennis club using the courts for play during the time the bodies of late residents were laying dead in their houses.”
With mounting costs of living, the gardener was allowed to grow vegetables in the square for his own use. He applied to be a tram conductor because he knew there was no chance of a pay rise.
In 1916, maintenance was handed over to the nursery in Rochester Square but this failed because of the labour shortage. The next gardener, Mr Kent, resigned when he was refused wages in advance. A lady gardener was appointed.
In 1917, the secretary of the tennis club, Miss Gordon, claimed “it would be unseemly to allow tennis in the square this summer owing to war conditions and the desire of the government that every individual in this country should devote his or her energies to the business of assisting to bring the war to a successful end at the earliest possible moment.” The committee unanimously endorsed her view.
However, there was little support for the proposal that the tennis courts should be turned over to allotments in response to the Prime Minister’s urgent appeal to “Plant potatoes.”
By the end of the war, the garden and the neighbourhood had fallen into disrepair. Bereaved families could not pay rent arrears, while high costs and shortages meant that repairs were postponed. The annual garden rate rose to £3.
There was more community involvement: children from local schools used the square for outdoor lessons. But a request for weekly running classes from Torriano School was turned down.
While Camden Square garden remained in private ownership, there was growing concern among Londoners at the loss of public squares to developers. During the 1920s, Mornington Crescent gardens were sold to the cigarette manufacturer, Carreras, and two squares at Endsleigh Gardens on the Euston Road were obliterated by Friends House.
This led to the Royal Commission on London Squares in 1928 and the 1931 London Squares Preservation Act, which protected 461 squares, including Camden Square, from development. About one fifth of these were public spaces. The 1928 report described Camden Square as “a long rectangular enclosure surrounded by a sparse lilac hedge. Well kept and pleasant with lawn, shrubbery and some fine trees. Over-looked by well-tenanted dwelling houses and a church.”
World War II
World War 2 had a profound impact on the Square. In 1938 trench shelters, big enough for hundreds of residents, were dug out in the the area now occupied by the play centre. The railings were removed and melted down for use as armaments, and the tennis club hut converted into an ARP Post.
In 1940, the garden committee complained to the Town Clerk about the loss of amenities caused by the shelters. The council had taken over a third of the garden and turned flower beds and lawns into mounds of clay. The residents claimed compensation from the council for the loss of privacy and the replacement of the beds and lawns. The map shows how bombs targeting the railway destroyed nos 12 - 26 at the north-west end of the square and damaged the other side of the square, the mews and the church.
Complaints of vandalism continued. The railings were replaced with chestnut fencing and another lady gardener was appointed at £2 per week. She was reported to be “doing very well apart from keeping undesirables out of the square.”
Many Londoners were ‘digging for victory’ (as in Tavistock Square) but plans to turn Camden Square garden into allotments were again rejected.
After the war, Camden Square garden, shown here in a 1945 aerial photograph, became open to the public, like most London squares. Local authority building made the area more diverse, socially and architecturally.
St Pancras Council opened an adventure playground to serve the young families moving into the area: its high rope walks and perilous structures eventually led to its closure in 1976. After rebuilding, it was reopened in 1986. Today it is run by the Maiden Lane Community Centre as a play centre with term time after-school clubs and holiday play schemes.
In the 1960s, plans to create a pedestrianised zone around the square were modified following objections from residents and local traders. Instead, schemes for traffic calming and narrowing of streets, and areas of tree planting were introduced. The plans, put forward by the Ward Three Group of the St Pancras Civic Society, also suggested a less formal treatment to the flowerbeds with winding pathways.
In 1974, Camden Council approved plans to make the square part of the conservation area bordered by Camden Road in the west and Agar Grove in the East. The area was extended to York Way in the north and St Paul’s Crescent, to the south in 1980 and 2002.
In 1990s, the council set up a comprehensive parking zone covering the whole of Camden New Town. Up until then the square had been used for park-and-ride by commuters and the parking scheme removed a lot of unsightly parking.
Notable Past Residents
- Lawrence Alma-Tadema, (1836-1912), artist, lived in Camden Square.
- Henry Hugh Armstead, RA, sculptor, born 1828 in London and died there in 1905. He lived at 57 Camden Square from 1871 to 1883.
- George Arthur Fripp, watercolourist, born 1813 and died in 1896. He is known to have lived at 56 Camden Square from 1855 to 1864.
- Charles Groves, (1915 - 1992), Conductor, lived at 12 Camden Square.
- Orlando Jewitt, architectural wood-engraver, lived in Camden Square until his death in 1869.
- V. K. Krishna Menon, (1896-1974), Indian nationalist, diplomat and statesman, lived in Camden Square.
- Yoko Ono, artist, lived briefly in Camden Square just before she joined up with John Lennon.
- Professor James Beart Simmonds, veterinarian, (Born 1810 in Suffolk, died 1904). Lived at 3 Camden Square 1865-1871.
- George James Symons, President of the Royal Meteorological Society, lived at No 62 from 1868 to 1900. He founded the Camden Square Climatological Station, and took daily weather records, first from his back garden and later from the square itself, on the site of what is now the play centre. The Camden History Society reports that he “would often stay up until midnight, taking barometer readings at 15-minute intervals, before walking to Printing House Square to deliver his results to The Times.” His weather vane still stands in the garden of No 62. A temperature of 29.4°C, recorded on 16th April 1949 with his apparatus in Camden Square, is still the record UK April temperature.
- William Turnbull, artist, born 1922, lived in Camden Square.
- Amy Winehouse, Singer, In 2011, the square became a place of pilgrimage for grief-stricken Amy Winehouse fans. Closely associated with the music scene in Camden Town, she moved into no 30 earlier that year. Her death at the tragically young age of 27 attracted international press attention and hundreds of fans left flowers, bottles and pictures of the star outside her home and created candle-lit shrines along the pavement. Tributes and messages covered the railings and were carved into the trees.