Changing London

Remembering hipster Dalston’s rural and unfashionable urban pasts

When in 2009 Vogue Italia hailed Dalston the trendiest neighbourhood in London and the Guardian named it the “coolest” place to live in the whole of Britain, not everyone was convinced. The area had been become pretty run down and, in many people’s minds, little had been done to spruce it up.

Former Prime Minster Tony Blair once said Dalston was “on the wrong side of Kingsland Road”. And the area featured heavily in a 1991 non-fiction book by Patrick Wright called ‘A Journey Through Ruins: the Last Days of London’. As the title suggests, it was hardly a flattering portrayal of the neighbourhood. Earlier this year a new book was published with pictures from the 1980s, showing what the area was like before the hipsters moved in.

Who on earth would want to visit Dalston, let alone actually live here?

Students who had been priced out of other parts of East London were the first to arrive. They appreciated the cheap property prices, visited kebab shops and prompted nightclub and bar owners to open new entertainment venues. Dalston was re-born.

But when young professionals and creatives also started to be priced out of places like Hoxton and Shoreditch, they too headed north and made the village their own. And house prices have rocketed as a result. Property website Zoopla named Dalston as the most valuable ‘hipster hotspot’ at the end of 2016, with the area having experienced a 60 per cent increase in average property prices over five years (bringing the average property value up to £633,593).

Trendy Allpress Espresso Coffee Roastery and Cafe

Since the London Overground arrived here in 2010, getting to this corner of East London has never been more convenient. The neighbourhood is served by two new Ginger line stations – Dalston Junction and Dalston Kingsland – which are located just a few minutes apart, with Kingsland Road acting as the interchange.

Dalston proper may not take long to explore, but it nothing short of a place of contrasts. There are the high price tag Victorian terrace homes, occupied by young professionals who enjoy by day the artisan coffee shops and upmarket boutiques.

But the Dalston that existed before the hipsters arrived thankfully hasn’t disappeared completely. Ridley Road street market, selling an array of fruit and vegetables, household goods and cheap clothes, is the last of its kind in Hackney. Open six days a week it avoided the temptation to switch to become a more lucrative farmers’ market.

There have however been complaints – from some of the long-standing residents and young professionals – about the noise made by some of the nightspots in the area. It has meant in recent years that the issuing of licenses has been cut back and opening hours for existing venues has been restricted.

Rural village to urban suburb

Written records for Dalston – originally Derleston – date back to 1294 and the settlement came to exist alongside a number of other villages including Kingsland and Newington, as well as the much larger Hackney. Development initially grew up either side of Dalston Lane, west of the old Roman Ermine Street (modern-day Kingsland Road).

In the centuries that followed, the land was used for agriculture and brick-making. However during the 18th and 19th the landscape shifted from a rural one to the urban place that people visiting today would recognise.

An 1831 map of the area shows Dalston in the midst of this transformation. There can be seen terraced houses lining main roads, particularly Dalston Lane, however behind the buildings the land remained largely undeveloped (16 of which dating back to to 1807 were recently and controversially demolished). Large plots – marked with the initials of the families such WDT, BG, SA and WR – were clearly still being used as nurseries and market gardens.

But by the 1860s Dalston had become built-up suburbia, with a network of streets of terraced homes now to be found on what had been previously been farmland. From a morning exploring the area, my favourite spot was probably Fassett Square, which was said to be the inspiration for Albert Square in the long-running BBC soap EastEnders. Although it has been pointed out there is no pub, street market, fish-and-chip shop nor second hand car lot here, as there is in the TV series.

Residents’ garden in Fassett Square

The Census of 1871 reveals that at the time most of the properties were lived in by clerks, who were by and large British and had their own servants. Today, it seems a peaceful enclave, away from the hustle and bustle of Dalston’s busy main roads. In the centre of the square, there is a private, gated garden for use of residents. Houses here don’t come cheap however. An unmodernised, four bedroom home, with two reception rooms, was earlier this year advertised for £1.2m.

Victorian and Edwardian Dalston was by no means merely a residential area however. Some of the new flats that have attracted new people to live here were, for example, formerly factories. What is now Springfield House in Tyssen Street was in 1902 built for the Shannon Company, a maker of office furniture, after a year long battle with London County Council to secure planning permission. The authority could refuse this for large buildings when flammable materials were being used (in this case wood) under the 1884 Building Act. However, the architect agreed to a number of pioneering features, including a sprinkler system, electric lighting, fire escapes in the four towers and a direct line to the fire brigade. The building was later used by Siemens and in 1971 was converted into flats and offices.

Springfield House – built in 1902 for the Shannon Company

I had a coffee at the trendy (where people were queuing out the door) Allpress Espresso Coffee Roastery and Cafe, housed in an interwar building that was previously used by JS Gould, a joinery company founded in 1895. Meanwhile, the buildings formerly occupied by Reeves and Sons, the artists’ supplies firm, have been turned into restaurants and the very popular Arcola theatre. If you look at the facades here however, the original name can be clearly see.

Large houses and philanthropy projects

Even though the area was rapidly developed in the 19th century, the two largest houses remained standing for some time. One was the Manor House in Dalston Lane which in 1849 was sold by the Tyssen family and the Female Refuge for the Destitute opened, later to be merged with the Elizabeth Fry Hostel (the site is now occupied by a Southern Housing development).

But the institution that has left the biggest physical mark on the Dalston landscape is that of the old German Hospital. Hidden away behind residential streets, the cluster of Victorian red brick buildings, appear quite unexpectedly as you explore the area. The hospital was initially founded in 1845 on the south side of Dalston Lane to cater for the capital’s German-speaking community on the suggestion of Prussian Ambassador, Christian Karl Josias. When it was built there were around 30,000 German’s living in London, making it the largest group of immigrants in the capital. Florence Nightingale visited in June 1846 and later returned for a three month training course in 1851.

New premises, designed by Thomas Leverton Donaldson, were built in the garden of its original premises in 1864 to cope with increased demand and its front entrance was moved to Alma Road (later re-named Ritson Road). The German Royal family took a keen interest in the project, as did the Schroder family which provided funds. Many doctors and nurses remained at the site during the First World War, but they were forced to leave for the Isle of Man during the Second World War as they were deemed spies.

The German Hospital became part of the NHS when it was formed in 1948 and at that stage had 217 beds. And the buildings were used until 1987, when patients were transferred to Homerton Hospital. The structure has now been re-developed for use as housing, some of which is affordable. I’ve seen two bedroom flats in the old German Hospital – which is Grade II listed – advertised for sale for more than £700,000 in recent months.

Old German Hospital building

Next door to the old German Hospital is the Faith Tabernacle Church of God, a Grade II listed building which was built in 1876 for the Lutherans as the Hamburg Lutheran Church. Originally in the City, it was used by staff from the adjoining institution when the congregation moved here. Many of the artefacts of the former German church are now held in storage by the V&A museum.

Former Hamburg Lutheran Church (1876)

Railway junction

Perhaps the factor that did more than anything else to put Dalston on the map was the arrival of the railway. The first line to pass through, linking Euston and the docks, opened in 1850 and in 1865 a branch line connecting the City (which the terminus at Broad Street) was completed.

Trying to make sense of Dalston’s railway history is a little complicated because stations have, over the years, opened and closed. Lines have been closed and re-opened, as well as being joined to other tracks.

The new Dalston Junction station opened in 2010 to serve the newly extended East London line (part of London Overground) on a plot of land next to the original station, which became defunct in the late 1986. Where the platforms used to be is now Dalston Square, which offers fountains, table tennis and plenty of places to sit. Around its edge are cafes and a modern library, with apartments above. This is the heart of hipster Dalston.

Across the road from the station, Dalston Eastern Curve Garden – originally the site of a railway line linking Dalston Junction Station with the North London Line – there is a trendy cafe, with landscaped terraces where the new young professionals and their families can be found drinking craft beer, eating tasting food and reading the Guardian in the sprawling grounds. Dalston has come along way since its days as a small rural village, but for a snapshot of the place today you could do worse than come here.

Dalston Eastern Curve Garden

Dalston Square

Former Reeves and Sons’s premises

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