Like most of the districts of London outside of Westminster and the City, Camden was just a quiet spot in the countryside until relatively recently. In 1791, Earl Camden (Charles Pratt), along with other landowners and wealthy individuals, began to develop the land that lay either side of the old coaching route north to Hampstead and the North. The route is now Camden High Street.
At the time there was very little in the way of habitation in the area. A couple of coaching inns and a few farms was all the now bustling area had to offer. It was also a dangerous route, plagued by highwaymen. A gibbet used to stand near what is now Camden Town underground station and many an unfortunate ended up swinging from it as crow’s meat. At the time the John Rocques’ map of the area that is now Camden was produced in 1745, the area was still mostly fields with just the beginnings of an urban development starting to show.
It was the arrival of the Grand Union canal in 1820 and the Euston terminus in 1837 that prompted the rapid transformation of the area. A lock was built at Camden. Originally an experimental hydro-pneumatic style lock was installed to save precious water. This failed to work properly and was later replaced with conventional locks. The site of the lock is now the location of the world famous Camden Market and very much marks the cultural centre of modern Camden. The canal and the railway brought not only trade and people but also buildings to Camden. Irish immigrants were attracted to the area, initially by the construction work on the canals and railways, but later due to the terrible effects of the Irish Famine of 1840. By 1850 the once sleepy hamlet of Camden was home to a busy High Street, albeit usually covered in soot and grime from the railways.
Horses were still the source of power for road transport in the 19th century. They were used to pull carts loaded with goods as well as the narrowboats themselves. A large stable building was built at Camden to look after all the horses. The area around the lock would have been a hive of activity late in the 19th century as goods were loaded on and off the Narrowboats and distributed around London by horse and cart.
The recently restored stables now form a fascinating and historic part of Camden Market. The dirt and the hustle and bustle meant that, in the late 1800s, Camden was far from a fashionable place to live. This image persists, and although Camden has become a desirable place to live today, it is still considered by some as edgy or alternative.
With the decline of the railways and the ending of trade on the canals, Camden went into economic decline. It was heavily bombed in the second world war and a massive programme of regeneration was needed to revive it.
Modern Camden owes much to three young men who leased some buildings around the lock from British Waterways and let them as craft workshops. Cashing in on the area’s emergence as an alternative part of London during the 1960s, the lads also started a weekend market on the cobbled streets of the old lock yards. The market has exploded in popularity and is now a significant draw for visitors both from within and outside of London. Camden is also associated with ‘media-types’, an image reinforced when Britain’s first breakfast television station TV-AM opened its offices there. Camden is now the London home for MTV.
You can find more about Camden in Kentish Town past wrote by John Richardson.
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