St Pancras archaeology and Camden Road conservation

There are proposals for major rebuilding of hospitals around St Pancras, adjacent to Camden Town, and small-scale but significant alterations for the shops of Camden Road broadway.

The Archaeological Assessment for St Pancras includes a photograph of 70 years ago, see above. However, the Assessment is deficient in understanding the Fleet River valley pre-history. Why is this ancient site here? Is ‘St Pancras’ related to Roman or earlier funerary practices? What has happened to the ‘sixth century altar stone’ described by antiquarians? Read this response.

The proposed ten-storey building is criticised by the Victorian Society and Regent’s Network as too high and too dense. We also object.

Also important are two proposals for alterations no 128 and no 126 of the shopping terrace at Camden Broadway which also need arguments for conservation.

Conserve the Brecknock Arms!

Top of Camden Road looking south around 1900

A call for conservation

Walking up Camden Road to arrive at the new friendly bakery ‘Bread by Bike’ in Brecknock Road (just on the Islington, north side) I passed on the corner the former Brecknock Arms. It’s a grand pub and I’ve known about it since the beginning of this Camden Town work since it marks the further boundary of the estate and the toll-gate at this point was a part of original Act for the new Camden Road in 1824.

Its name got changed a few years ago and there’s been a recording studio in the back. But since March, with covid, it’s looking worse – internally boarded up, and parking for sale in the forecourt.

I’ve written to the Council’s conservation officer to ask for urgent ‘local listing – the available step before Historic England full listing. I received a civil reply, to look and assess. Other voices could help.

Read my document with details.

Cruickshank’s Camden

George Cruikshank was the foremost satirical artist in London in the first half of the nineteenth century, making and selling his own etchings. He lived in his later years, 1850-1878 on Hampstead Road at Mornington Crescent and and Myddleton Terrace, EC1, in 1824-1849. His 1829 print of ‘London Out of Town – the March of Bricks’ shows the River Fleet being ‘invaded’ by brick works.

His father and brother died of alcoholism and in mid-life Cruikshank joined the Temperance Movement. He produced several books, the first of which The Bottle (1847) in eight scenes follows a family’s decline in the same way as Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress. In the third scene, a picture previously seen distantly hanging on the wall has been taken down and is set in the foreground beside a table and a rolled-up carpet. The accompanying verse is:

That picture was a pledge of love and truth / And all were going. Joy was at an end.

From British Library collection

A planning challenge at St Pancras

Rochester Conservation Area’s response to Camden Council’s consultation document ‘Canalside to Camley Street‘.

The Council

  • should protect Camden Town as a conservation area
  • wrongly includes Camden Town development sites
  • lacks attention to the cycle entry points
  • needs to promote walking on the Canal towpath without cycling
  • should promote improvements to use of the railways to benefit Camden Road station as a transport hub;
  • gives little attention to local service provision, particularly GPs and a health centre for east Camden.

There are further significant issues within the site – the excess heights implied (and illustrated in the document); inadequate road connectivity eg with Camden New Town; not fully reflecting Camley Street Neighbourhood Forum Plan’s concerns for food businesses; potential ‘canyon’ effect along the Canal and St Pancras Way.

The consultation document doesn’t recognise the identity and distinctiveness of Camden Town.

And the task of conservation compared with commercial land development is more challenging when the Council is both the land owner and also gains more income the larger the development. The response gives an example of a previous planning application, on Pratt Street / Royal College Street / Georgiana Street / St Pancras Way, with evident conflict of interests.

It has been welcome, therefore, that the Camden conservation committees’ coordinating group and the Council’s planning department are in discussion about the government’s new White Paper on planning. This is a significant moment to extend Camden’s conservation areas to their heritage boundaries.

Regent’s Canal bicentenary

Celebrating 200 years of the Regent’s Canal, which zig-zags below road bridges and over River Fleet. On the north bank was the tow path and building firms used the wharfs along the south side.

On 1st August 1820, an ‘aquatic procession of boats and barges, ornamented with flags and streamers, and filled with ladies and gentlemen’ sailed from Maiden Lane for the opening of the new Regent’s Canal. The Regent’s Canal Company and its chief engineer, James Morgan, had competed ‘a great work, going on for years, upon the whole northern border of the metropolis’  – a waterway joining the Grand Union Canal with a grand new dock at Limehouse, where colliers would avoid ‘the plunder and waste of coal, that so notoriously takes place in the Pool’ (Observer, 25 September 1820). At Camden Town, the canal zig-zagged across the Fleet valley, passing under bridges, built by Richardson and Watts for the four roads (with the fifth, for Camden Road, coming later in the 1820s) and over the Fleet River channelled in a tunnel beneath.

The Canal, its prospectus claimed, would carry ‘Grain, Flour, Vegetables, and all the Necessities and Luxuries of Life’ as well as ‘Flag, Kirb and Paving Stones for the different Streets’ needed for the main business of Camden Town – building. At Pratt’s Wharf, beside Grays Inn Road bridge, was Culverhouse & Co, wharfingers and contractors, with ‘bricks, lime, cement, tiles, slates, sand, pipes, pots, terra cotta…’; Bangor wharf housed William and Josiah Mansbridge brothers, who in the 1860s were building the final northern terraces around Camden Square, while at the end of the century the wharf was used for refuse coming to fuel the St Pancras municipal electricity generator, the Destructor, which was connected by a tunnel with Georgiana Street; at Eagle Wharf there were the forage and provender warehouses and stables of William Brimage; at Devonshire Wharf were, first the Bartlett Brothers, whose enterprising Sanders Trotman promoted potash materials for preservation of stone, and then, with College Wharf, the home for Lawfords’ contractors materials – a company still working locally; M Anderson, and later A and D Anderson, contractors, were at Bayham Wharf; and at the Kentish Town Wharf were, first, William and Edward Wood with coal and then Grover and Grover with timber. 

The Canal tow path was on the north bank, while the wharfs were on the south side and are named in the 1890s Ordnance Survey map.  There is a photographic record of the canal in the Camden archives, the Anthony Cooper bequest, of 1994; yet you can go now, to see and celebrate the original ‘great work’, of canal and bridges which have lasted 200 years.

The Slave Trade and Emancipation Recalled by Streets in Camden Town

Click here for link

I met Maggie Bolton, the history editor for the Transactions of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society at the Society’s annual meeting, held in at the Museum of London in November last year. I had in my mind a piece about black history in Camden Town, and she encouraged me to get on and write it.

I knew I had material about the Jefferys/Pratts and the Wilmots, and decided to use the street names as the framework. It also became evident that the histories were about the slave trade and about emancipation rather than slavery directly.

The paper was accepted for publication, but the Transactions only comes out once a year, and the expected date is Christmas 2020.  Because of current interest, I’ve put my final version of The Slave Trade and Emancipation Recalled by Streets in Camden Town on this web page.

A digital future

Cover of Rats, Lice and History

The coronavirus epidemic has challenged historical research. Archives and libraries are closed, seminars are by Zoom, books come by mail. Can history tell us anything about the future?

I’ve taken from my shelves a paperback 31st printing (in 1965) of the original 1935 best-seller Rats, Lice and History by Hans Zinsser. He had had a liberal education – the text has words in Greek letters and footnotes in German – but wanted to write for a popular audience. His work as a bacteriologist was elucidating typhus, a bacterial disease transmitted in lice bites which was overcome in the First World War by baths and laundry.

The book describes epidemics over the centuries, which start acutely but can fade into the background, or return to animal hosts, only to resurge as human immunity fades. Our equivalent of baths and laundry is social distancing and isolation – the transmission is not by lice but by coughing and touching.

Our archives and libraries may be able to create distanced settings – I’ve been working during the outbreak as a telephone contact-tracer in an open-plan office, which seems to work if people are careful. The difficulty is people who have the disease symptoms but don’t self-isolate.

We will be ‘back to normal’ in a year’s time, perhaps after a further winter outbreak. In Camden, the ‘normal’ is the local archives, with 200,000 stored items and a programme of talks and exhibitions.  Yet the catalogue is a card-index and the data-records are on fiches and micro-film – inaccessible during the epidemic and indeed to most people most of the time. I wish it were better.

Divide and rule: the new ward boundaries for Camden Town

Every 20 years, the Electoral Wards Commission revises our local ward boundaries. There was a new consultation last year. Changes are needed because of the expanding population: Camden Borough proposes to build 1000 new homes a year (and rebuild others) through until 2030. 

This is the map of Camden Town estate when it was being built in 1850.

Camden Estate map (London Metropolitan Library)

Here are ward boundaries from earlier periods:

In the consultation last year, Rochester Conservation Area recommended two wards, of Camden Town and Cantlowes. Wards are expected to be about 10 000 population, so two were needed – called Cantlowes and Camden Town.

Instead, the Electoral Commission’s proposals, with the Council’s support, will divide Camden Road, with Rochester put into ‘Kentish Town South’; change Cantlowes, the historic name, for ‘Camden Square’; put ‘Camden Town’ at Chalk Farm Road; and call old (south) Camden Town ‘St Pancras & Somers Town’.

Electoral Wards proposed (red) Camden Town estate (blue)

There has been very little interest from local councillors about the changes proposed for central Camden.  Why has Rochester Terrace Gardens been separated from Rochester Square? How will fifteen councillors discuss the needs of Camden Town?


John Wilmot Portrait – 2

Portrait of John Wilmot, 1812

I went to New Haven, Connecticut, the home of Yale University, to see the Portrait of John Wilmot and hear a lunchtime public talk by a student gallery guide, Adam Chen. He described the representation of Wilmot as Commissioner for compensation for British losses in the American War of independence up to 1783. The portrait is hung in the Long Gallery at the Yale Center for British Art. Opposite, looking across at it, is a full-length portrait of its painter, Benjamin West, President of the Royal Academy of Arts.

I was able to read correspondence between the painter, West, and the sitter, Wilmot, that are held at Yale Library. Wilmot didn’t want just a portrait for his family, but rather a celebration of the loyalty of those British subjects who remained loyal to the Crown rather than join the American revolution. West, originally from Philadelphia, who had become the Royal History Painter, responded with the portrait and allegory in one painting (January’s blog).

Frontispiece by Benjamin West to Wilmot’s Historical View of the Commission

The engraved Allegory (above) became the frontispiece to Wilmot’s book about the Commission . It was called ‘an outrageously self-serving fiction’ by Simon Sharma, in his book Rough Crossings about the experience of British blacks after Independence, because Britain did not give financial compensation equally to the different groups represented in the picture. Yet from the West/Wilmot letters, the picture’s purpose was to show loyalty rather than compensation: West brought women and children, commoners, blacks and a Native American all into the picture.

Wilmot’s portrait has a parallel with contemporary history. In 2019, Britain had a (non-military) rebellion against the European Union, the vote for Brexit. The ‘Remainers’ in Britain, and also those living in other European countries, feel let down by politics in the same way as the loyalists were. This time, there’s no financial compensation being voted by Parliament. Yet it’s unlikely that the President of the Royal Academy will make a portrait of Sir Kier Starmer, who led the Labour party opposition within Parliament; it is more likely that the losers will be forgotten.

West’s portrait of Wilmot has much British political history in it. It is sad that it was sold to Paul Mellon in 1970 and moved to America, rather than being in the London National Portrait Gallery. But there’s a small story to give a smile. The American State Department asked Mellon if it could be loaned the picture for its Diplomatic Reception Rooms.1 They believed – because of misattribution in the Auction catalogue – that the picture was ‘another version’ of Signing of the Peace between Britain and the United States that West had painted in 1783. But the Portrait of John Wilmot is a strong statement of loyalty to King George III – hardly the symbolism for the US Diplomatic Reception Rooms.  

1 Correspondence held at the Yale Center for British Art  

John Wilmot portrait – 1

The portrait of John Wilmot (1750-1815), painted by Benjamin West, the president of the Royal Academy, in 1812 hangs in the Yale Center for British Art at Yale University, New Haven, USA. There’s to be a talk about the picture at Yale next month.

Portrait of John Wilmot by Benjamin West, 1812 (Yale Center for British Art, USA)

The portrait was one of West’s only two paintings at the 1812 Royal Academy exhibition and was noted for including history (the Allegory of Britannia welcoming American Royalists) as well as the person of Wilmot. How the painting was first made, and what happened to it between being shown in 1812 and being sold at auction in London in 1970, are open to discussion.

The Wilmots, lawyers and back-bench politicians, had connections with the Camden Town estate. John Wilmot (or as he became John Eardley-Wilmot) was known to Joseph Kay, the Camden Town estate’s main architect, through shared connections with the Foundling Hospital in Bloomsbury.

Sir John Wilmot had followed Sir Charles Pratt (as Lord Camden was once) as Lord Chief Justice of the Common Pleas. John Wilmot’s son, Sir John Eardley-Wilmot, 1st baronet, and then his son, Sir John Eardley-Wilmot, 2nd baronet, were both friends of the Pratt family – there’s correspondence in the Pratt family archives, showing they visited each others’ houses in Malvern and Sevenoaks respectively.

These connections may explain the naming of Wilmot Place, a turning off St Pancras Way near Camden Road. Otherwise, it’s an anomaly – almost the only street not named after the estate’s original landlords, the family of the Lords Camden or the prebend of St Paul’s Cathedral.

1843 map showing origin of Wilmot Place

Two alternative explanations of why the road was named Wilmot are probably false – that it was the John Wilmot poet, Lord Rochester of the seventeenth century (who has no historic connection) or that it was the local builder (who was actually George Lever).