Camden’s contrasts: From railway town to birthplace of British punk

Take a trip to the World’s End pub on a Saturday night and the place is often packed. It’s a sprawling, barn-like drinking establishment, with a vast island bar in the main room, yet it can still be hard to find a spot to stand as locals and visitors flock in after exploring nearby Camden Market.

Dating from 1989, the World’s End is one of the first things you see after emerging from Camden Town Underground station and venture out onto the busy junction – where roads veer off in five directions.

Today, the pub is pretty much at the centre of a busy neighbourhood, but before rapid development in the 19th century things were much quieter in these parts. “For centuries Camden was a space between Holborn and the Hampstead Ridge, with no pressing qualities to attract residents, and it was a long time before its value became apparent,” wrote Tom Bolton in his recently published insightful book, Camden Town: Dreams of Another London.

Samuel Palmer wrote that before the arrival of the railways for Londoners “to pass a day in the fields of Camden and Kentish Town, or perhaps venture as far as the hill of Highgate, was the boundary of his wishes”. But “the only drawback to the enjoyment of this pleasure was the total absence of an organised police,” making the area dangerous after dark.

So around what is now the busy Camden Town station junction, there was very little here apart from a pub. But World’s End is only a relatively new name for a long serving hostelry.

As the Mother Red Cap, the pub was first mentioned in documents 1631. In 1746 it was depicted in a sketch in a tumbled down state. Surrounded by trees, a horse had stopped on the greenery outside and seemed a very rural place. The Mother Red Cap is clearly shown on John Cary’s New and Accurate Plan of London and Westminster, published in 1795, amongst just a few scattered buildings just before the fork in the road with Hampstead Road (this section is now called Camden High Street) and Kentish Town Road.

Most of the area surrounding the Mother Red Cap was undeveloped land in the 18th century, used by farmers – and criminals. In fact, court records from 1703 report a failed robbery near the pub: “John Fowler. Highwayman, shot near Camden Town.”

One a blackboard outside the pub today there’s a poem which claims Mother Red Cap – an old term for pub landlady – lived she was 120 years old:

Old Mother Red Cap, according to her tale,
Lived twenty and a hundred years by drinking the good ale
It was her meal, it was her drink and medicine besides
And if she had drunk this ale she never would have died.

When the the Mother Red Cap’s name was changed in the 1980s, it was considered particularly controversial given its place in Camden Town’s history. Today, it may seem a fairly unexciting pub, but it makes a great place to start exploring the wider area.

Becoming Camden Town

Development of Camden Town started in 1791 (although the actual name didn’t appear on maps until 1822), but most of the modern area was completed over the course of the 19th century. The core grid of ten streets – six running north-south and four running east-west – that still form the main part of this neighbourhood were laid out by the 1830s.

At the centre of the new Camden was Camden High Street, with land to the west owned by the Earl of Southampton, while that on the western side belonged to the Earl of Camden. The heart of the new neighbourhood was intended to be Camden Square, some 15 minutes walk from Camden Town station and home to singer Amy Winehouse towards the end of her relatively short life.

Camden was envisaged as a quality middle class suburb but over the course of the 19th century it declined as the area became industrialised. Many people – including a considerable number of Irish – flooded into the area to work on the railways and canals, as well as the associated businesses that sprung up as a result of improved transport connections.

Author Charles Dickens wrote that Camden had “an indescribable character of faded gentility” as streets of family homes were divided up into cheap lodgings. His 19th century biographer wrote about the house (sadly demolished in 1910) he moved to in 1822: “Bayham Street was then the poorest part of London suburbs, and the house was a mean small tenement, with a wretched little garden abutting on a squalid court.”

“Once the Industrial Revolution began to gather momentum, rolling down from the north, Camden was transformed,” wrote Tom Bolton. “It became a crucible for the new London. Goods travelled out on some of the earliest canals and railways in the capital, feeding an unstoppable demand for bodies. People arrived en masse to dig holes, feed furnaces and run engines, and their new houses packed the suddenly limited space, washing in waves around the new basins, yards, wharves, works and manufactories.”

The first section of Regent’s canal, stretching from Paddington to Camden, opened in 1816 and by 1820 it had reached Limehouse – providing a valuable link to world shipping markets.

In 1837 the London & Birmingham Railway was built through the area, when Camden was made up than little more its 10 core streets. The company’s capital terminus was originally going to be in this neighbourhood as well, but in the end they decided to buy additional land for the station at Euston. Given the steep incline, engines were needed to winch trains along the final stretch.

For Camden the railways caused considerable disruption. “The first shock of a great earthquake had, just at that period, rent the whole neighbourhood to its centre,” wrote Dickens. “Traces of its course were visible on every side. Houses were knocked down; streets broken through and stopped; deep pits and trenches dug in the ground; enormous heaps of earth and clay thrown up; buildings that were underminded and shaky, propped by great beams of wood.”

What was truly influential in the development of Camden however was the opening of a vast goods depot, covering more than 30 acres in total, near modern Chalk Farm. Horses helped moved goods around the site and were housed in a network of vaulted stables – many of the structures survive today as Stables Market and Horse Tunnel Market, which form the vast Camden Market. You can even see a specially built horse ramp, called a horse creep, which was used by animals visiting the Horse Hospital.

The convenient transport links provided by the railway and canal prompted numerous businesses to move to the area. Furniture removal firm Pickfords was one of the first tenants to operate from the Goods Station, but the industry that Camden became most famous for was its gin. W&A Gilbey moved into Camden in the 1870s and over the course of nearly a century it spread to numerous warehouses – and it became the biggest employer in the area.

Many of Gilbey’s former buildings survive, however the most famous is probably the Roundhouse. What is now a trendy arts centre was built in 1847 as a train repair shed, but it became redundant within 10 years as trains became too big to fit inside. From 1971 to 1963 it was used by Gilbey’s as one of its bonded warehouses.

Camden hosted a number of industries, including small-scale manufacturers housed in converted residential properties on the neighbourhood’s original streets. Until the First World War, the area was regarded the piano making centre of Britain. There were more than 120 manufacturers in such goods in the early 20th, with finished products exported all over the world. The Jewish Museum, which opened in 1994, is housed in an old piano factory building.

Post war

Camden Town was badly bombed during the Second World War, with the Underground station taking a direct hit. But while much of the area’s industry – including Camden goods yards and Gilbey’s buildings, was left relatively unscathed – it suffered from a considerable slump in the economy following the conflict.

The neighbourhood became defined its dilapidated houses and the Survey of London, written in 1952, described it as “not distinguished by sufficient architectural character to merit description.” David Storey’s 1960s novel Flight into Camden describes “streets narrower and buildings dirtier than I had ever expected; of row after row of solid houses, filthier than anything I had seen at home [in the north of England].”

Meanwhile, the Regent’s canal was closed to commercial traffic in 1969 and it became run down, with the tow paths shut off to public (the first pleasure boat was launched in 1951, but this industry wouldn’t truly take off till later on). And in an age where the car was fast becoming king, plans (later abandoned) were even unveiled to build a motorway over the waterway through Camden.

Camden’s re-birth was started in the 1960s when art students started to move into the run-down area. They were part of a broader counter-culture movement that saw British punk emerge in its popular, grimy clubs. Famous bands such as the Clash and the Sex Pistols were among those on the billing.

One of the most important musical venues from that age was the Roundhouse, which was created in the former train repair shed (and later used as a warehouse by gin company W.A. Gilbey for almost a century). For the opening night in 1966, Pink Floyd headlined at ‘All Night Rave’, and then for a memorable eight weekends what the the promoter described as a “magnificently decaying brick hulk on the edge of the railways lands” became home to the controversial UFO Club.

The Roundhouse

The club night had been booted out of a West End venue and the organisers soon found they weren’t welcome in Camden either. With free-flowing LSDs and gangs antagonising members of the public. But the Roundhouse continued to attract well-known bands and also alternative theatre productions. The likes of Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren cut their teeth in shows there.

After the Arts Council withdrew funding in 1983, the Roundtable struggled and it was passed between a number of successive owners. Numerous re-development schemes failed to materialise until a cash injection from wealthy Camden resident Torquil Norman. It re-opened as a modern arts venue in 2006 after a major refurbishment and is a popular place to visit both during the day (the cafe serves great coffees!) and in the evening.

But it was not just artists and punk music fans that helped shaped modern Camden. In the 1960s young families moved into the area and started to renovate dilapidated houses as part of a wave of gentrification (the term was first coined in 1962) spreading through north London. “Camden was hot territory for recolonisation of the war-battered inner city location by those who spotted cheap property and convenient locations,” wrote Tom Bolton.

For many people today, Camden Town is synonymous with the sprawling Camden Market, with stalls offering everything from clothing and crafts to designer goods and tasty cooked food. Established initially on a temporary basis with just 16 traders around old warehouses vacated by TE Dingwall timber wharf, with just 16 traders it is actually consists of a number of interconnected markets.

The most famous market within the complex is perhaps Camden Lock Market, which is named after a lock that doesn’t actually exist. Technically it should be called Hampstead Road Lock Market, but the organisers obviously didn’t think this was catchy enough. When Camden Lock Market first opened the area was still very run down, but this fast growing institution helped bring new visitors to the area. There was a concerted PR push in the 1980s to promote it internationally and it had became so popular by the 1990s that Camden Town Underground station needed to become exit only on Saturdays.

Busy as Camden Market is, it has not been without its critics in recent years. Camden Market has seen a wave of investment in recent years, but this has left some long standing market tenants unsettled as they fear the owners are trying to move the site upmarket. One barber who has trade from Stables Market has vowed to refuse to leave, despite being given an eviction notice. “They want to make it like Covent Garden with big flagship stores,” he told his local paper. “They are trying to create something that will not work. They are kicking out people who are making good things and are vital to its future success.”

Hampstead Road Lock

Camden Town proper may only stretch over a relatively small area, but it is certainly a neighbourhood of contrasts. There is upmarket housing existing right next to spots where street drinkers spend their days. Some buildings have been re-developed, but many haven’t and look like they could crumble at any moment. There are trendy bars next to scruffy pubs.

The main shopping street – Camden High Street – is itself of two halves. The stretch between Mornington Crescent and Camden Town stations contains many of the shops you would expect in shopping precincts across Britain, with names such as Boots, Argos and Waterstones. But north of there and it tourist tat shops, with bright folk art signs – depicting giant boots and other symbols – on the front outside, that dominate. Camden Town’s many contrasts endure.

Upper part of Camden High Street

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