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).

Electoral boundaries

I found unexpectedly a week ago that there was a current consultation on changing the electoral ward boundaries in Camden.

I have made the case for Camden Town and Cantelowes wards to reflect more closely the Lord Camden’s estate, rather than the looser proposals of the Electoral Boundaries Commission.

My submission is here – and should in due course also be on

I’m grateful to friends locally who have also written to the Commission

Poor housing

This month, Camden borough held a conference, A hundred years of council housing’. Its theme fits with my August blog describing the 1919 sell-off of parts of the Camden Town Estate. The government’s policy after the First World War was to build housing with public funds, providing employment and homes for returning soldiers as well as redirecting industry from war production. Camden Town was only lightly affected at the start of this period, with the mansion blocks of Highstone in Camden Road in the interwar period. But there was much more serious rebuilding happened after the Second World War, beginning with the St Pancras Way estate and then in the 1950s and 1960s when properties owned by the Church of England, around Camden Street, were sold to St Pancras borough.

Was rebuilding for ‘poor housing’ or ‘housing the poor’? Both – and they were linked. The first streets of Camden Town were set out east of the High Street in the 1790s. The main contractors, Kirkman and Hendy, had taken a large lease but after four years went bankrupt. Partial leases passed on their creditors, who slowly sold on to new builders. Under less control from the Camden Town Estate, some builders put up cheaper houses, without front areas and with small back gardens: they could be afforded by poorer people, but became overcrowded; and with shortish leases before redemption, there was little incentive for improvement by the owners. 

Any London Street, Richard Nevinson, 1920s.

I’ve recently come across this painting by Richard Nevinson which he titled Any London Street. Nevinson had been a friend of Walter Sickert at the time of the short-lived ‘Camden Town Group’ (1911-1913), but fell out with him and most of the rest of the art establishment. Although he is now remembered particularly for his paintings at the front in the First World War, during the 1920s Nevinson painted different aspects of London including street scenes. This painting, showing the work of women and the road as playground for children, has no specific location yet could well be Camden Town (see Museum of London and Tate Gallery). Nevinson included an etching of it as an illustration in his autobiography Paint and Prejudice (1937). The original oil painting sold for £63000 in 2011 at Sothebys.

It has been easier in Camden Town Local History to recall the architecture and development of Camden Town than it has been to recall the lives of people.  Nevinson’s portrayal is festive, pedagogic, humane – as successful as the words of an historian.

Selling Camden Town

Selling Camden Town property in 1919

On 17 and 18 July 1919 The Times recorded an auction sale, by Daniel Witney and Sons, of ‘numerous shops, factories, wharves, houses, licensed premises, situated in Great College Street, Lyme Street, Camden Road, Canal Terrace, Prebend Place, King’s Road etc (151 lots)….’ The combined price over two days, adding in four pubs on Royal College Street – The Eagle Tavern, The Old Eagle, The Prince Albert and The Falcon – was £93 865.

On 14 and 15 July 1920 there was a second sale, of ’14 or 15 acres … ground rents of £11,000 a year and … leases expiring from now until 1993′. These were around Pratt Street, with ‘one of the great new repositories of Messrs Maple & Co Ltd towering above everything around it and without rivals as to height and dignity nearer than St Pancras Station…’ and yielded altogether £112,000.

In the Camden Town Act of 1813, the (then) 2nd Lord Camden and the Rev. Thomas Randolph were made joint owners of the prebend of Cantlowes. Randolph was the last of the 30 St Paul’s prebendaries to hold  his title for life: when he died in 1875, the Ecclesiastical Commissioners took over the legal title. However, the (then) 5th Lord Camden, John Charles Pratt, was an infant as his father had died prematurely and the estate ownership was put to Chancery for arbitration. Agreement for division on a 2:1 basis was made in 1880 and the full valuation (by Cluttons) and listing of properties published in 1883. The estate ground rents were valued at £4892 per annum.

Partition book LMA: E/CAM/2

[Compare the Camden Town estate’s value for 220 acres with the rest of the Camden family’s lands in Kent, Sussex and Brecon, then totalling 17,400 acres and gaining £16,380 a year (Complete Peerage 1889).]

The valuation coincided with the end of the first leases of the estate – which had been set for 99 years in 1789 – at the north end of Camden Town High Street, which was substantially rebuilt in the later Victorian style of red-brick and stone. But the reversions for much of the south of the estate, originally in the large ‘Kirkman and Hendy‘ lease and developed across fifty years up to the 1840s, were both piecemeal and later. This led to impoverishment of the tenancies as the landlords waited and the lessees had little incentive to improve their properties.

Selling the leases in the commercial market was one way of managing this transition. It was not optimum for the estate, as it evaded the controls of style and materials that had been set by the nineteenth century agents, particularly Joseph Kay. Moreover, the new leases were much shorter – between 25 and 40 years in the south of the estate – with continued instability. On the other hand, land gained other uses, such as the parish washhouse, the school in Camden Street and Maples’ large warehouse noted by The Times.

Molesworth paintings at Pencarrow

I had a kind invitation this month to visit Pencarrow House, near Bodmin, Cornwall and talk with the volunteer archivists there, Friends of Pencarrow, and Lady Molesworth who herself contributed to the discussion.

The research at Pencarrow has some limitations. A bomb hit the Plymouth records office during the war, destroying the legal records; and after a flood at Pencarrow House, the remaining records were deposited at the county archive in Truro in more than sixty boxes, and are yet to be catalogued. And both Truro and Plymouth archives are rebuilding and currently have limited access. So there are no records at present available for when Frances might have been at Pencarrow.

But there are the paintings by Reynolds of Frances’ parents, William and Elizabeth – indeed both Molesworth brothers and one Smyth sister (as she was at the time of the sitting), who is labelled ‘Mrs Molesworth’. Here there was a little controversy, because the Pencarrow tradition, and Reynolds catalogue, calls her ‘Anne’, while I have found that her gravestone in Wembury and her father’s will at St Audries calls her ‘Elizabeth’.

I was interested to know  – Where is Reynolds’ fourth picture, the second sister, Frances Smyth? Indeed, as only one of the two sisters remains, why is it William’s wife, rather than John’s – in John’s house? It’s evident from Reynolds’ diary that he painted both sisters in 1755 – he has several sessions labelled ‘The Smyths’ in January to March as well several for ‘Mr Molesworth’. Both Frances and Elizabeth died after childbirth, in 1757 and 1758. And Wembury closed down, with all the household goods sold, in 1762 after William Molesworth died. So all four paintings, paid for by their father, Sir John Molesworth 4th Bt, would probably have been at Pencarrow.

But Pencarrow was being rebuilt at this time. Strangely, Sir John 4th Bt’s will (1766) states that he is ‘formerly of Pencarrow, now of Ethy’ – a village in the south of Cornwall. And the will is very short, with no statement of his estate, which presumably passed to his single son, Sir John 5th Bt. Did the pictures go to Ethy or stay during the rebuilding?

Equally pertinent, John 5th Bt, remarried in 1762, the year of his brother’ death, and a new dynamic would have come to Pencarrow with the arrival of Barbara St Aubyn. Together they had five children, of which two lived to be adults. Did the picture of the first wife disappear after the arrival of the second? There is a portrait of ‘Lady St Aubyn’ at Pencarrow by Reynolds, of 1758, which is Catherine, wife of Sir John St Aubyn — but no portrait of Barbara.

I brought to Pencarrow a copy of a catalogue entry of miniature picture exhibited at the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A) in 1865 by ‘Mrs Ford’ – who was the sister of Sir William Molesworth 8th Bt.  Pencarrow has still has these miniatures, in an old frame and setting, which I was able to see at close view. They exactly match the printed listing. They show ‘Frances Smith’, and they include Sir John Molesworth 4th Bt and Catherine Morrice his wife – that is, Frances Molesworth’s paternal grandparents.

That provides a further link in the Camden story, which is welcome.  Yet Reynolds’ Elizabeth Smyth portrait itself is different from the two men – the posture is awkward and the face ashen.  And the Frances Smyth miniature is different again – it is only three-quarter length, and the dress material very modest compared with the exuberance of Elizabeth’s (Reynolds delegated costume painting at the time to his assistant Peter Toms). We do not know if the miniature is taken from the original not.

A lively evening

The talk for Camden History Society ‘Reclaiming Camden Town’ gained an audience of 60 – reckoned a good turn-out by Tudor Allen, the Camden archivist.  I am grateful to the Ruth and David Hayes for allowing me to join the Society’s speakers and to Gillian Tindall as distinguished Chair.

Gillian was pleased that I had referenced Donald Olsen as one of my sources – she remembered him as a vigorous and scholarly American.  In his book The growth of Victorian London (Peregrine, 1979:119) he observes that ‘within a circle of Temple Bar, and even of Regent’s Circle, the great mass of the residents are lodgers who occupy a story, a set of rooms, or a single appartment in a house planned as a single residence’.  This helps thinking about the changing composition of Camden Town’s houses.

Perhaps because my final slide was about Lord Camden, several questioners took up the name Pratt.  One asked ‘Where to dance in Pratt Street?’, to which I suggested perhaps the Paving Commission’s offices (No. 57), where the Camden Town Literary and Scientific Society had rented rooms for a while; but another answer could have been Camden Hall, on the corner with Camden Street.

Society member Lester Hillman asked whether, if Lord Camden had not had his illustrious career, we would now be living in Pratt Town. Well possibly, or even in Jeffreys Town, as Charles Pratt did not finally take over the land from his wife’s family until 1785.  And one audience member confided that, when he lived in the fire station family quarters on the corner, he always gave his address as St Pancras Way rather than Pratt Street.

The talk was commended by Secretary Ruth Hayes for giving a presence to women in Camden Town. The final ‘Camdens’ slide had included the portrait of Frances Molesworth that is in the Huntington Gallery, California, and the link with Molesworth Place at Jeffreys Street was discussed. It was a suitable time to promote my article coming in this year’s Camden History Review.

Reclaiming Camden Town

A talk for Camden History Society, 16 May 2019

I started to work on the history of Camden Town after reading Rochester Conservation Area statement’s historical section. The document, valuable in many ways in describing the buildings and roads, was disappointing in presenting the area from the perspective of Kentish Town

The boundary of NW1 with NW5 runs along the north side of Rochester Road, and follows the pattern of fields and ownership from as far back, at least, as 1600. Rochester conservation areas, as designated by London Borough of Camden, lies in Camden Town, not Kentish Town.

The talk will present the themes arising in these pages – the Jeffreys inheritance, the building of houses, the life and work in the nineteenth century, and the value of seeing Camden Town anew in the twenty-first century.

‘Anew’ because, from the 1960s, the Lock and the Stables have become an international tourist location named Camden and located by the Underground Station; and the nearby conservation areas that LB Camden has welcomely created have each taken a part, but not the whole, of the real Camden Town.

Traditional writing would place work this within a printed publication. I am seeking a broader readership – and users of the material – through the web. It’s taking more time than I’d hoped, and the pages are in development still. But as they get completed, I wish you good reading and reflection on Camden Town through History.

Mark McCarthy