History of Camden New Town

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The history and pattern of development in the Camden Square Conservation Area is closely associated with the wider development of Kentish Town and Camden Town, as well as former land ownership and field patterns. Many local street names originate from historical associations and land ownership.

Medieval period

map showing extent of London in 1593. At this time the city did not extend past Lincoln's Inn.

During the early medieval period there was a cluster of houses around St Pancras Old Church, but by 1593 the church stood isolated. Flooding of this settlement occurred by the River Fleet and may have influenced the establishment of late medieval settlement to the north at Kentish Town.

In the medieval period, St Pancras Manor occupied the land to the east of the then Kings Road (today St Pancras Way} near the present Agar Grove Cantelowes Manor, consisting of about 210 acres (once owned by a prebend of St Paul's Cathedral), stood in the same area but a little to the north; the Camden Square Conservation Area occupied this land today.

Around 1600 the Elizabethan topographer John Norden described the district as an 'utterly forsaken' place [Tindall, p37].

18th century

The area remained a hinterland of Kentish Town until the 18th century. At the beginning of the century, most land was turned over to grass, leaving the pattern of old field systems less apparent. By the end of the century, the only exceptions to grassland were a few nursery gardens (such as 'Montgomery's Nursery' which stood roughly on the site of Rochester Square).

In the later 18th century Cantelowes Manor was mostly owned by the first Earl of Camden, who got an Act through Parliament to enable him to lay the southern part of his estate out in building leases: hence Camden Town, and the streets in it which take their names from Camden family connections.

19th century

An early map of the area before Camden Square was laid out
Map of the area around 1889

At the beginning of the 19th century, Camden Town was made up only of streets immediately to the east of the High Street: Pratt Street and College Street ran into the then Grays Inn Road (today St Pancras Way), which in turn ran into Kentish Town Road. In 1804, the land now occupied by Camden Square was still open fields. In the 1820s, Camden Road was constructed across the fields. In the 1830s, it became known as 'the New Road to Holloway and Tottenham', and it was then that the streets around Rochester Square appeared. Here the terraces were developed in a somewhat piecemeal fashion by small speculative builders who only ventured a few houses at a time. The Camden Estate laid out the remainder of the streets from the 1840s, in majority as a set piece of town planning. The Camden Estate was determined that the new Camden Square area be a higher class development, in contrast to the earlier portions of Camden Town which were already deteriorating socially. The plan was· for a mixed estate with large houses concentrated around Camden Square surrounded by lesser buildings (based on the Covent Garden model). Wherever possible, the Camden Estate sold leases on a wholesale basis to avoid piecemeal development. As ground landlord, it imposed rules about the size and general appearance of the houses. As a result, the houses were grander, the clientele was upmarket, there was a greater provision of green open space, and a church was built. For much of the 19th century the area was known as 'Camden New Town', no doubt to disassociate it from Camden Town.

House-building commenced around 1845. The first examples were large houses built around the Square. Soon, development was to spread along Camden Road, characterised by an essentially urban growth typical of mid 19th century London. There was much building activity from the mid-1840s. By 1849, the following streets were laid out and named: Camden Road, Camden Square, Cantelowes Road, Maiden Lane later known as York Way), Murray Street, Rochester Square, St Paul's Road (later known as Agar Grove). and Stratford Place later known as Stratford Villas). The following streets were laid out but unnamed: Camden Mews, Camden Park Road, Marquis Road, Murray Mews, North Villas, St Augustine's Road, and South Villas. Most of these residential streets were established by the 1860s and fully developed by the 1880s.

The mews were laid out at the same time as Camden Square. Known in the 19th century as 'Camden Mews North' and 'Camden Mews South', they followed the 17th century London mews pattern. Intended for stables and coach houses to service the grand townhouses of the square, they were laid out With mains drainage and a roadway of granite setts.

The quality of this new fashionable area was undermined by the arrival of the mainline railway following the passing of The Midland Railway (Extension to London) Bill in 1863. The line was constructed in 1864-67 simultaneous to residential development. The railway line passed through Kentish Town in a cutting to Camden Road Station in the south-east (the station, in existence from 1868 to 1916, as the first out of St Pancras, and gave the area direct access to central London). "The station stood immediately north-west of the two tunnels, which passed diagonally beneath the grander houses of Camden Road and the newly laid-out Camden Square and mews. The tracks then emerged from the tunnel via a cutting south of Murray Mews and under Agar Grove via the railway lands stretching towards the main terminus.

This major intervention severed the regular and uniform townscape, particularly in Camden Square, and resulted in a number of properties being demolished, first in the 1860s and secondly after the widening of the railway in 1898. As a result, buildings were demolished in Camden Road, Camden Mews, Camden Square, Murray Street, St Augustine's Road and Agar Grove. In addition, vibration from the tunnels and sulphurous smoke from the ventilation shafts severely reduced the desirability of the area. Although the developers were forced to continue to build the houses according to plan and some middle-class tenants remained, the later houses in the south-west section of Camden Square were bought by speculators who subdivided each house into up to eight tenements for multi-occupation. As a result, there was overcrowding and a greater social mix as early as the 1860s and only a few buildings were erected in the mews, with scarcely any serving the Camden Square properties.

20th century

There was very little change in the Camden Square area during the first four decades of the 20th century, except for isolated developments. Generally, the area remained unfashionable and blighted by the railway. At this time, London's new outer suburbs had become preferable places to live.

The first major impact on the built environment was the damage caused by World War II. Fire bombs targeted at the railway destroyed large portions of streets and resulted in postwar rebuilding. Furthermore, at this time the entire district was under threat of demolition, owing to the 1943 Abercrombie Plan for London. The Plan recommended the construction of a new ring road through Camden Town, together with a 'green lung between Camden Road and Agar Grove cutting right across Camden Square.

Nonetheless, in the second half of the 20th century the built environment witnessed extensive restoration work together with an unprecedented amount of new building. From the mid-1960s the environs of Camden Square underwent a social and architectural renaissance, as part of a wider trend impacting on the inner residential districts of London. The area once again became a desirable place to live; coinciding with the withdrawal of the steam trains, the introduction of clean air legislation and a renewed appreciation of Victorian architecture.

There was an influx of newcomers. Many houses returned to single family use, and the most substantial houses were converted to self-contained flats or maisonettes. For many years there had been a lack of maintenance, resulting in a general look of decay. A large quantity of enhancement work took place, including the reinstatement of missing architectural components and the reversal of insensitive alterations.

The most significant new building occurred in the mews, which until the 1950s remained largely undeveloped. The large number of vacant plots provided exciting opportunities, and many of the 19th -or early 20th century buildings in existence were seen as ripe for residential conversion. At this time, an increase in permissible planning densities made the sites viable for development. ~were gradually bought up, because land values were relatively low and the secluded location was appreciated. Thus, in the mid-1960s the mews became fashionable residential areas, popular with architects wishing to build houses for themselves. The planning and constructional concerns of the innovative studio houses made the mews places of pilgrimage for architects on an international level.