Park Village East
In 1995, two fine houses from the beginning of the nineteenth century were carefully restored. They are in Park Village East and can be seen from the Gloucester Road Bridge, at the top of Parkway. The first two houses in the road, they were built in the 1830s but, owing to the unusual pattern of short-term tenancies, very few changes had been made to them over a hundred and seventy years. Perhaps officers in the Barracks nearby leased them for short periods and then moved on, forming a moving tenancy. The houses had been just patched, so that they survived in almost their original form. This, and the fact that the buildings are listed Grade II, meant that they had to be restored with care and made it possible for them to be examined closely.
The modern view from Gloucester Road Bridge is a puzzle. The bridge, elaborately built with trefoil, terracotta sides, bridges only a shallow trench. The houses stand in a slight valley and the gardens go down in steps. Originally, the houses were built with short rear gardens, immediately above a tow path and a Navigable Cut. This Cut was a branch canal from the Regent’s Canal to Cumberland Basin. It was all part of John Nash’s plan for Cumberland Basin to replace the original Haymarket, just south of Piccadilly Circus. This had become valuable housing land, so a replacement was required and Cumberland Basin was ideally positioned for bringing in hay by barge. Robert Bevan painted the hay carts in Cumberland Market several times.
During the Second World War the Navigable Cut was filled in with bomb debris, so that the Cut and the Cumberland Basin ceased to function. After the War, the Crown gave the pieces of canal bed and tow path behind the different houses to the house-holders. Thus their rear gardens took on a three-stepped form - garden, tow-path and canal bed. Over half a century these unusual gardens have matured and trees planted immediately after 1945 are now well grown. The rear of the houses continues to be ‘picturesque’, in the fashion of the late eighteenth century. From the Gloucester Road bridge, which now spans a shallow wooded valley instead of a canal, the houses could be on some Bavarian hillside.
OS Map 1864
++Bacon’s ‘Nine Inch’ Map, 1888
Bacon’s ‘Nine Inch’ Map, 1888
Nash’s Regent’s Park development incorporated an entire range of house sizes and styles. Within the Park were large villas set in their own grounds for the very rich, and imposing stucco terraced palaces for the wealthy. Outside the Park were middle class villas in Park Village and the markets and barracks, each with their working class housing, near the Cumberland Basin. It was built as a complete new town on the edge of London. Park Village, Camden Town, Harlow - New Towns will be a theme of this book.
John Nash saw the romantic possibilities of the new Regent’s Canal which was being built around the northern edge of his new Regent’s Park. On the way to the new hay market which he was planning in Cumberland Basin, would be a secluded, peaceful valley bordering the canal. He envisaged a pretty ‘village’ on its banks, as an annexe to his noble Corinthian terraces in Regent’s Park itself. In stucco, with tall windows leading out to wooded gardens overlooking the canal. On the edge of London, they would be the equivalent of Blaize Hamlet, which Nash had already built on the outskirts of Bristol in 1810.
He wrote to the Office of Woods and Forests:-
Thus there would be two villages, East and West, separated by the Canal. Many years later, before the Second World War, a ferryman with a small stone hut on the towpath used to ferry people from one bank to the other. By then the canal was so quiet that kingfishers nested in the bank, and there can have been so little demand for the ferryman’s services. He must have taken on the traditional role of the hermit in a eighteenth century Romantic landscape. John Nash would have savoured that.
The two villages were built over a period of about fifteen years, the earliest houses by Nash and the later ones by his stepson Pennethorne. In the event the designs were altered from the ‘humble cottages’ first mentioned to larger, middle-class residences. More closely packed and in more orderly rows than his first layout suggested, they soon became popular.
Architectural historians have tended to be interested almost exclusively in the villas at the north end of street, those designed by Nash himself. John Summerson describes them as ‘a quaint set of variations on the styles, starting at the north with Nos. 2 and 4, castellated Tudor, going on to the broad-eaved Italian (Nos. 6 and 8), and then something with eaves of the sort usually considered Swiss, then various versions of the classical vernacular and so rapidly descending to the nondescript’. 2
Nos. 2 and 4 Park Village East
Nos. 6 and 8 Park Village East were built in 1824, while Nos. 2 and 4, which had been planned and leased at the same date, were not built until the 1830s. Thus the latter are probably not the work of Nash, but of Pennethorne.
Originally each house had only a narrow garden, with the towpath and canal below. Thus when the first tenants moved into the houses their furniture and probably they themselves, with their children and servants, pots and pans and the remains of yesterday’s dinner, may have arrived by canal. One of Pickford’s barges could have brought them from far away, tied up immediately below the house and the men carried in the furniture through the garden doors.
The York and Albany public house, named after the dukedoms of George III’s second son, Frederick Augustus, was built between 1824 and 1826, but when the railway came in the 1830s, it ceased to be a Picturesque country pub on the edge of the country. Later it was extended and then completely destroyed in 1878. When the Gloucester Road Bridge was rebuilt on a northern alignment, to straighten out the connection with Parkway, a new York and Albany was built in glazed Doulton Ware. About 1900 a Riding Academy was built at the rear of the pub. This was later taken over by the London Zoo as a quarantine building, so that giraffes overtopping the fences, the roaring of wild cats and the screeching of parrots, added a bizarre touch to the area.
Park Village West, being nearer the Park and away from the railway, had always been better regarded than Park Village East, which was to develop a rather unsavoury reputation about the turn of the century, as Gillian Tindall has recorded.3 The Booth Survey of Poverty, of 1889, had some hard things to say, as will be seen in that chapter. However, most of the houses were respectably occupied during the 1880s.
The most famous occupant of No. 4 Park Village East was Sidney Webb. Sidney and Beatrice Webb, founders of the London School of Economics and early members of the Labour movement, first started corresponding in 1881. Sidney Webb, still trying to establish himself as a journalist, lived with his father at No 4 from 1890 until his marriage in 1892. For years Beatrice had had to nurse her father in distant Minchinhampton and it was not until his death that she felt free to marry. Thus some of Sidney’s letters were addressed to her from Park Village. When they married they took a lease on a house, 41 Grosvenor Road, Pimlico, on the Embankment, ‘with a wide view across the river to Lambeth Palace and St Paul’s,’ but apparently they still retained some control over No 4 Park Village East.
The picturesque effect of Park Village East was partly destroyed when the four-track line of the London and North-Western Railway was widened between 1900 and 1906. One side of Park Village East was demolished and a huge retaining wall built. From Hampstead Road, Park Village now looks like some distant hill-top village seen glistening in the sun, across the great valley of railway tracks. For years the road was a cul-de-sac and children could ride horses there in safety, but there is now a connection across the railway bridge, with Hampstead Road.
The branch canal was filled in with bomb debris, so that today there appears to be no reason for a bridge at Gloucester Road. From the Regent’s Park side of the bridge it could be a mere ‘folly’, put up by some landscape gardener like Repton, to close off a view or by Nash himself designed it, to keep the outside world away from his exclusive Regent’s Park estate. Today the bridge rises only a couple of metres above the turf, but up to 1941 it was a canal bridge like all the others, standing high above the canal.
Some people can remember as children being perched on the parapet of the bridge to see the barges go past. Far below was the water, with grimy boat children waving back - children who lived in a different world, travelling on long voyages to distant towns and bringing their mysterious cargoes back to Cumberland Basin. Children who walked familiarly with horses, seldom going to school, living a wandering life far removed from settled Camden Town. These were children of romance.
One can stand there on Gloucester Road Bridge, at the junction with Albany Street, with the traffic swirling behind, and look over into the wooded valley of the canal. These peaceful Pennethorne houses seem unaffected by the din. It is Osbert Lancaster’s ‘Drayneflete Revealed’, come to life.
Local children played by the canal and swam in it. From above, gentlemen threw in pennies for the brave boys to dive for and clapped when they came to the surface again, holding up the coin in triumph. If someday the land below the bridge is excavated, a careful archaeologist will find the old towpath and the canal bed lined with puddled clay. In the silt above there may be a few pennies which were never retrieved, old bicycles, stolen purses emptied of their contents, a knife, or some other instrument which could once have been a murder weapon.
The Construction of the Houses
Examination of Numbers 2 and 4 Park Village, showed that parts of the houses were poorly built originally. John Nash was often criticised for his workmanship but it was always pressure on price that really drove the industry. For economy reasons, brick-layers were not allowed to throw away any bricks, or pieces of brick, so some walls were made up of half-bricks and odd ends, with no bonding between them. Only the mortar was holding up parts of these buildings. When the houses were restored in 1995, the builders had to be particularly careful with the walls holding the conical spire. When removing the outside rendering, half bricks began to fall out and the situation became extremely dangerous.. At one time the Clerk of Works had eleven steel pins inserted through the walls below the spire and did not leave the room during working hours for three weeks. His food was brought in to him as he refused to leave the room while anyone else was in there. Strain gauges in all the walls would reveal any movement vertically or horizontally, but they had to be watched continuously, as any movement would have been sudden and people could have been killed.
Instead of removing the rendering in the modern manner, with pneumatic hammers, all the work had to be done by hand, exposing a small part without juddering the building, replacing with new bricks properly bonded, waiting for the mortar to set, and only then moving on to another small area. It would have been far cheaper to have demolished the conical roof and rebuilt, but this was a Grade II building, so demolition was out of the question.
The Gutter Construction
When the houses were built, it was the fashion to conceal the gutters behind fretted wooden barge boards. The original gutters were made of oak lined with sheet lead, but because they were concealed, the damage caused by this type of construction was hidden from view. Lead always ‘creeps’, because it is heavy. When it expands in the heat of summer, it moves downwards. In winter it contracts, but again downwards because of its weight. With this downward creeping movement, the lead slowly pulled away from its nails. After a time the sheet lead had become completely detached from the oak support and water penetrated behind the lead, saturating the walls. They became so wet that when the house was restored and a new damp proof course had been inserted, it took months for the building to dry out, despite the fact that 1995 was a particularly dry summer.
Finding a good modern solution to the gutter problem was not easy. The fretted bargeboards had to be retained, so the new gutters would still be hidden. What would happen in the next hundred years and how could the architect ensure that the gutter would not fail again? After much searching, a very deep aluminium gutter protected by an impervious plastic coating and with neoprene joints, was found in France. This gutter is as near indestructible as can be, while the deep section will cope with flash downpours. It should keep the walls dry for years to come.
The Window Construction
The window construction came as a great surprise. When these houses were built, architects were really designers. Builders knew their materials well and built in traditional ways, so that architects could leave the actual building to them. Architects provided the overall design drawings, but at that time no architect would have thought of providing details of window construction. Given the shape and position of the windows, the builder was expected to get on with it. However, this was a strange moment in architectural history - a short moment when the builder did not know what to do.
The shape of the windows in Park Avenue East is Tudor, with four-centre tracery, but instead of being casement windows, they are sashes. The joiner who made them would have served his apprenticeship in the Regency period and learnt to build sash windows between brick piers. The Regency house had a range of single windows on each floor in which both the top and bottom halves of each window could be raised and lowered. Each sash needed two counter weights, one on either side, running in hollow boxes. The pair of weights exactly equalled the weight of the sash, so that the sash would stay in any chosen position without rising or falling. This window system had worked well for the whole of the eighteenth century. When, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the architect gave the builder these particular drawings, with several windows side by side, the joiner tried to build them as sashes but could not find room for enough sash weights.
A Regency window always has a brick pier on either side and therefore room for four sash weights. The Park Village East had several windows side by side, with only solid mullions between them. There were only two brick piers outside the set of two, three, or four windows, instead of two piers for each single window. Each moving sash needs a pair of weights, one on each side, so only two sashes in the complete array could move, however many windows there were in a row. One sash cord ran in the box next to the sash, but the other had to run across the complete window to the further wall.
It was not until Pugin built the House of Commons, with casement windows similar to the casements used by Tudor builders instead of sashes, that we had a true Tudor Gothic Revival building. Over the years, many windows in the two Park Villages have been converted to casements as these give better ventilation. These few survivors are rare and represent a strange period in the history of joinery.
The houses are very handsome in their cream stucco and elegant, tree-filled setting. The rooms are large, with generous windows and white painted shutters, the typical construction before the Victorians brought in their heavy hanging curtains. Some of the rooms have narrow lancet windows, set sometimes rather oddly and designed to be ‘read’ from the outside of the building, not the inside.
From the hall rises a fine staircase with very restrained iron banisters and a Cuban Mahogany handrail. Much ironwork is elaborate, ornate, but these banisters are simple rectangular bars with just a few decorated by shallow casting. The hall has an eighteenth century quietness and elegant restraint. The upper floors are even more simple, in painted wood, while the stairs down to the kitchens are cut York Stone, with a mere iron handrail as thin as a fishing rod. Below again, the steps down to the cellar reveal that the York Stone steps, which have straight cut edges above, have been left rough below. As a result, going down into the cellar is like venturing down into some Megalithic tomb.
Plans for Cumberland Basin and the Park Village houses
The World of Elegance and the World of Work
Cumberland Basin attracted many factories over the years. A vinegar works, piano factories, gramophone record makers ----. The list goes on and on. Many servants who worked in the large houses in Regent’s Park, lived in the small, terraced houses round the basin. These were among the houses which were to become so overcrowded when the City of London was rebuilt in the 1860-80 period and when the demolition for Euston, King’s Cross, and St Pancras railway stations made so many people homeless.
Looking at the area today, it is difficult to imagine the contrast with the old, industrial past. When the branch canal was filled in with bombing debris during the Second World War, the canal trade which had been slowing down for years, finally stopped. The Basin became allotments and the whole area was transformed into a vast housing estate. Now traffic rushes past in Hampstead Road on one side and Albany Street on the other. Between the two is a peaceful mass of flats, virtually free of traffic. It is a strange, isolated landscape, like a calm oasis between two traffic corridors, with its allotments cultivated as neatly as any garden.
Contrasting Camden Town and Regent's Park
Walk from Portland Place Station along Albany Street, curve behind Park Village and Camden Town High Street to Inverness Market and Camden Lock and even today, you have two worlds all the way along, one on your left and one on your right. In Albany, there are blocks of working class flats and the Barracks on the right. The flats replaced dilapidated three-storey houses built round Cumberland Market - the workaday world of wharves, vinegar distillers, piano manufacturers, and servants. Today the street is wide, but its colours are drab.
Slip through one of the narrow openings on the left, go up the stairs and you find yourself in the stucco splendour of Nash's Regent's Park Terraces. It is like emerging from the backstage gloom of a theatre, stumbling past the rows of props and stays supporting the scenery, into a flood-lit stage of double-height plaster columns and Corinthian capitals, with a singer in centre stage hitting top C. The contrast is overwhelming. Today one can still experience the difference between the Regent's Park palaces, built in the 1820s to be approached by horse and carriage from Westminster, along the newly built Regent's Street, sweeping through Portland Place, round Park Crescent and so into the Park; and the working class district next door, built to house the servants.
The same contrast continues. Walk from Hampstead Road along Mornington Street and you are suddenly in the ornate stucco of Park Village, built by Nash and Pennethorne. The fact that the Village was later sliced in half by the railway makes the change even more dramatic. Half way along Camden High Street, is the narrow tunnel which used to be the side entrance to the Bedford Music Hall. Go through and you reach Arlington Street and Albert Street, larger, brighter and more expensive.
In Inverness Street Market you walk from the stalls and typical three-storey Camden Town houses, now shops and cafes, into the large stucco houses of Gloucester Crescent beloved by media people. From there on, the railway and Camden Lock divide Primrose Hill from Chalk Farm as a cordon sanitaire, as they have done for over a hundred and fifty years. In 1995 a new road was tunnelled under the North London railway from Ferdinand Street, but it never penetrated through to Primrose Hill. The contrast remains. Chalk Farm is still literally on the wrong side of the tracks.
The Ordinance Survey of 1913 with the railways at the height of their powers