Decay in the Sixties

During the Second World War the railways had worked at full stretch, carrying goods, troops and other passengers. There were few private cars and little petrol to be had, but by the 1950s the system of transport had begun to change. Army surplus vehicles were cheap. Many more people, trained by the armed services, could now drive and wanted cheap, convenient transport. Local builders had their little vans. More and more goods traffic was being transferred from rail and canal to the roads. Lorries operating direct from door to door could deliver far more quickly than trains over short distances. Rail transport plummeted until only the bulk movement of minerals - coal, china clay, etc. could compete with road transport.

At the same time, the Clean Air Act was passed. After the pea-souper fogs of the 1950s, coal fires were forbidden in London and Camden Coal Yard became obsolete. Metal-casting, which had been carried out in small factories all over the area, with children peeping in through open doors, became impossible. Many cast iron coal-hole covers, still to be seen in the streets, bear the names of local foundries but the foundries have gone. General engineers, like Moy’s in Bayham Street, could no longer offer casting, so the machining of castings was also stopped. Lathe operators and millers also lost their jobs. The knock-on effect of the Clean Air Act contributed to the decay of what was left of Camden Town industry. Small manufacture was so closely interlocked that, when one firm failed, the others suffered and the network collapsed. Today few Camden children have ever seen smoking chimneys, metal casting, or blacksmithing. At the same time Regent’s Canal trade continued to decline.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

++Commercial Place, 23 May 1974

Canal transport was dead. About 1945 St Pancras Borough Council had claimed that a million tons of merchandise was passing along the Regent’s Park Canal each year. This traffic, free from congestion, was seen a a great asset, to be developed and nurtured. A new line of ships called ‘The Regent Line’ had been established to ply from the Regent’s Canal Dock, in Commercial Road, London, to Antwerp. The firm had its own fleet of canal lighters in Europe, so goods traffic would be carried from the Midlands, via sea and canal to cities all over Europe.1 Unfortunately this environment-friendly scheme, the sort of scheme which may be revived decades from now when fossil fuels become even more expensive, collapsed. It was killed not by fuel price, but by the growth of container traffic. The Port of London moved down river to Tilbury and the big transport ships could take over. Lorries delivered to deep-water ports, bypassing the canals. Camden Lock ceased to be a transfer point between rail and canal. As described before, the big canal freeze precipitated matters, but the container traffic did the final damage.

The storage space at the Interchange Warehouse stood empty; Gilbey’s cleared their vaults of wines and spirits, moved their bonded stores to Harlow and severed their links with Camden Town after almost a century. Polished railway lines became rusty; workshop doors were boarded up; goods wagons departed, never to return. Within a few short years, industry had fled from Camden Town. Besides Gilbey’s, Carreras, Moy’s, Airmed and a dozen other firms had left. The splendid Aerated Bread Company building, on the site of the present Sainsbury’s store, was empty and derelict. Camden Town was a desert. Young, skilled workers had followed their firms into the country, leaving only the older generation behind. The ones who moved were those with young families, so schools had empty places. Where there had once been overcrowding and we had been reduced to splitting rooms in half to accommodate all the classes, even teaching in corridors and playgrounds, there were empty rooms.

Then began the slow process of amalgamating schools, painful and disrupting for teachers and pupils alike. When secondary school rolls fall below a certain minimum number, the curriculum does not work. A school must offer a wide range of subjects to suit all pupils and, if the numbers for any particular subject becomes too small, it has to be dropped.. One cannot afford the teacher. The only way to achieve larger class sizes was to amalgamate two or more schools into one new one. Teachers had to apply for their own jobs again. Many retired early, so that a great deal of experience was lost. Others had to move to different schools. It meant unhappiness all round.
 
At the same time, London house prices rose sharply, so that young teachers with families could not afford to remain in London. Instead, they had to apply for jobs far away, where house prices were lower. Attractive areas like Chester were so inundated with applications for every vacancy that they could not afford to acknowledge any except the half dozen people they called for interview. Each year the established teaching staffs in London grew older and schools had to rely on peripatetic young teachers from Australia and New Zealand to fill the gaps. Without them, London teaching would have collapsed completely.

With the fall in local purchasing power, shops failed and were boarded up. A building with shop, basement, and two floors above, could be rented for £10 a week. Some shop leases near Camden Town Tube Station were offered rent free for the first two years, in the hope of reviving trade and reducing vandalism.

The Railway Land

A triangular area from the Oval Road to Chalk Farm Road and up to the Roundhouse, which once had been a mass of railway lines, was now empty of work. At one edge of Camden Lock was the Main Line to Euston, while the North London Line ran through the centre, but the goods traffic and the hundreds of horses and vans once employed by The Midland Railway, Gilbey’s and Pickford's had disappeared.

The Railway Company removed the rails, leaving a bare, deserted space. This land was to become the centre of protracted disputes and several public inquiries. Developers wanted it for private housing. Camden Council wanted it for low-cost housing to ease their waiting lists. Arguments were polarised and the newspapers were full of letters of protest. While both sides bickered, the Department of Transport took charge and earmarked wide swathes of land for a new motorway. Nobody knew exactly where the road would run. All that would be decided at a much later stage, after planning inquiries and protests, so the planners set aside far more land than would be needed to give themselves room for manoeuvre. This effectively blighted the district for years. Nobody knew where to build or repair. No grants were available. Everything was on hold.

Attracting New Industry

At the same time there was the problem of finding more jobs. High-tec manufacturing industries were being established on green-field sites away from large towns, in areas close to motorways. Camden Town was at a disadvantage in this. More than a century earlier the railway had declared the Roundhouse redundant and here, in the 1960s, history was being repeated as road transport ousted rail. Camden Town which had been ideal for transport a century earlier, with canal and rail side by side, was suddenly unfit for modern transport, since quick lorry access was blocked by the congested streets. This was the major reason why Gilbey's had moved away. If industry was to be attracted, it had to be small-scale, small size, and labour intensive. Indeed the only people who have solved the problem of modern transport in Camden Town are the TV Companies, who send out their goods by satellite and cable.


Footnote

  1. ‘Water Transport Facilities in St Pancras’, circa 1945. Camden Local History Archive.
Motorway Blight

The Roundhouse from
the Eighteen-sixties