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From coal to cool

An updated edition of Camden History Society’s survey of the south Camden area cost its co-editors a small fortune in shoe leather

22 October, 2020 — By Dan Carrier

Somers Town Goods Yard

THE Somers Town Rhymer penned furious broadsides, packed with stirring words to rally the Chartists, from his home in Middlesex Street.

And his contribution to the great Victorian cause is one of the new stories that an updated edition of the Camden History Society’s social history survey of south Camden reveals. The book is one of 14 volumes covering every district in the borough, a street-by-street guide of the architecture, transport, industry and people of Camden.

“The Rhymer” was John Arnott, who held the post of general secretary of the National Charter Association. A shoemaker by trade, he was given the moniker because of the rhymes and poems he wrote for publications such as the Northern Star.

The last edition covering St Pancras, King’s Cross, Somers Town and Euston was written in 2002 – and as the four co-editors state, it is now a historic document in its own right.

Divided up into nine different walking routes, they reveal the area has had decades of incremental change followed by larger catalysts for development.

Society chairman and co-editor David Hayes says the updated edition required several years of new research.

Lewis Cubitt Park

“We did a lot of library work and walked every inch of every street to check we didn’t miss anything,” he adds.

It means the updated edition is a heftier tome than its predecessor. The book describes how to the north of the area, the demise of railway freight and the collapse of coal as a domestic fuel created a huge ghostscape of Victorian industrial decline.

A redevelopment masterplan was finalised with Camden Council in 2008 and 12 years later is nearly complete.

“Partly the area has changed so dramatically because of King’s Cross Central, of course,” he says.

“In 2002, the area to the north was pretty much inaccessible to the public. The Railway Goods Yards were fenced off and you could not explore the whole site. I remember when we did the first edition, we asked someone to ride past it on a bus up York Way.”

Remarking he finds parts of King’s Cross “utterly transformed”, he says: “It was once grey and grim, a wasteland – and now it is vibrant and busy place.”

These layers of development blend with the land’s history. The work of previous generations stand next to modern additions, says David.

“The Handyside Canopies [next to the University of the Arts in Granary Square] and the Coal Drops are markers,” he adds, while also recognising parts in Somers Town have also seen little redevelopment, bar “the big incursions like The Crick,” he says.

Edith Neville. Photo: Tudor Allen, Camden Local Studies

Beneath today’s streets and buildings is land that saw no large-scale urban streets until around 300 years ago.

Until the later 1700s it was open fields with the odd farm or inn: milk and hay for the city was produced with only a few roads crossing the fields – roads that would become notorious for highwaymen and other dangers.

When the New Road was built from Paddington to Euston in 1756, ribbon development was not far behind. Some homes were to a good standard, others quickly fell into disrepair and created deprivation.

As with the New Road, improved transport links created further growth. The Regent’s Canal opened in 1820 and this encouraged warehouses and industries along its route. Then came the railways, whose influence still shapes the landscape 150 years later.

“The presence of industry and then the smoke and noise from the railways ensured that the area would never be fashionable,” says David.

Added to this, no new housing was provided for those uprooted by the railway lines carving their way indiscriminately through streets – and it meant Somers Town was put under extra pressure. Overcrowding was rampant and it became a notorious slum.

A poster for the Unity Theatre

Improvements came between the wars, with new housing built by the St Pancras Housing Association. As the Blitz saw major railway terminuses bombed, King’s Cross and Somers Town were heavily hit – leading to more new mid-20th century housing.

Elsewhere in Somers Town, spill over from the “Knowledge Quarter” – made up of tech, research and similar firms and institutes in Euston and Bloomsbury – has become more entrenched

As well as the extraordinary difference between the King’s Cross Railway Lands of 18 years ago and today, David points out that their research has uncovered more stories about the people who made Somers Town their home.

“I was surprised to find that William Wordsworth lived for six months in Chalton Street, and would walk up and down the street to consult with William Godwin – who’d be popping down to Euston Road to make love to Mary Wollstonecraft, who had a house where the British Library now is,” he says.

And then there is the inspiring story of John Arnott – the Somers Town Rhymer.

An example of his work can be found in a ditty he wrote while living in Middlesex Place. Called A Song Addressed To The Fraternal Democrats for the Northern Star in September, 1846, it was sung to the tune of Auld Lang Syne.

“All hail, Fraternal Democrats,
Ye friends of Freedom hail,
Whose noble object is – that base
Despotic power shall fail.
Chorus – That mitres, thrones, misrule and wrong,
Shall from this earth be hurled,
And peace, goodwill, and brotherhood,
Extend throughout the world.”

Such stories and characters abound in this richly detailed and comprehensive survey of three fascinating neighbourhoods.

Streets of St Pancras: King’s Cross Central, Somers Town, Euston. Edited by David Hayes and Steve Deford. Designed by Eve Barker. Camden History Society £11.50+p&p from www.camdenhistorysociety.org
Somers Town History Space is hosting an online talk and Q&A about the life of George Padmore, a pioneering Pan-Africanist and leader, who lived in Somers Town. October 29, 6pm live talk on zoom. Tickets £14, book through Eventbrite: www.eventbrite.com/e/black-lives-george-padmore-panafricanism-in-somers-town-tickets-123382370993

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