1973 and the First Sign of Revival in Camden Town
Northside Developments Ltd
Two old school friends, Peter Wheeler (a professional valuation surveyor) and Bill Fullwood, who was a psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital, had formed a company called Northside to develop and convert houses on the north side of Clapham Common. In 1971 they became interested in Camden Lock, then a derelict site blighted by the threat of a new road. The road plan aroused such a protest that eventually the extension of Westway to Camden Town and so right through to the east of London was shelved, but it was a near thing. Had the plan gone through, the centre of Camden Town would now look like Spaghetti Junction.
A long series of protests and enquiries cast a blight over the area for years, so that no long-term planning was possible. In this situation, Northside Developments Ltd bought the last seven years of Dingwall’s lease cheaply for £10,000. It consisted of about an acre of derelict buildings and granite cobbles extending from the canal to the private road called Commercial Place (now Camden Lock Place). T.E.Dingwall's had been there from 1946. Before that there had been John Walker and a printer on the site and earlier still it was storage for Anglo-American oil drums. A photograph of Dingwall’s about this time shows rather a decrepit yard, but this impression may be pure hindsight. Timber yards are not famous for their beauty or smartness.1
Northside reckoned on being able to extend the lease later if they so wished. If and when the motorway scheme was dropped there could be long-term development, but until then short-term use must at least cover the rent and rates. It was this short-term vital energy and the need to develop fast, that launched Camden Lock.
John Dickinson, the architect who worked on Camden Lock from the start and who later designed the new Market Hall, had known Peter Wheeler for years. Before John Dickinson qualified as an architect, he had worked on Peter Wheeler’s first development scheme, so they started together. That project was to convert a row of houses on Clapham Common Northside into self-contained flats. Later, by an odd coincidence, they converted a row of houses and a coach house in Muswell Hill, into flats. These were opposite Cranley Gardens, on the site of what was once the market garden of the Woodside Estate. I have dealt with this estate in my book The Growth of Muswell Hill and printed the old auction sale plan.2
This estate was owned by Frederick Lehmann, the grandfather of Rosalind, Beatrix, and John Lehmann, and father of Rudolph Chambers Lehmann, who was a liberal MP and humorous writer. Frederick and his wife Liza held a literary and musical salon there so that Dickens, Wilkie Collins and many other writers and musicians probably stabled their horses on this site. To add to the coincidence, an estate agent offered to sell me the converted coach house only a few months ago - irrelevant but odd.
In 1971, Eric Reynolds joined Peter Wheeler and Bill Fullwood, the original pair and each of the three brought his particular skills to the enterprise. Peter Wheeler was the original deal-maker; Bill Fullwood was the consolidator and organiser; while Eric Reynolds became the hands-on promoter and manager of activities. John Dickinson was the architect.
The first task was to attract people to the Lock and generate activity. If the Lock was to succeed it had to become the talking point of London, yet all they had was an empty industrial site, a romantic but derelict canal, and a lot of very worn cobble-stones. Being practical people, they used what they had. All early development had to be very cheap as the lease was for only seven years and everyone expected the motorway to come thundering past on the other side of the canal well within this time.
There were three cobbled yards which could have been used for car parking. Instead, they were packed with covered stalls selling all manner of goods. Stalls were quick and easy to erect and brought in quick cash. Each weekend they were rented out to all manner of people selling anything and everything and on Monday there was cash in the bank. Immediately the market atmosphere generated energy and interest. And there were unusual things to see. It wasn’t an ordinary market. There were things you could not get anywhere else. There was rubbish too - ‘a real flea market’ - but there were craft objects that were unique and also cheap.
The stables in the West Yard, divided naturally into small units suitable for shops, cafes, or craft workshops. Individual craftsmen and students leaving college needed workshops but had no capital, so they were happy to rent workshop areas by the week. Spaces were let rapidly and cash flow began. Thus what was an advantage to the craftsman, was also an advantage to the developers, because at once there was money coming in for small improvements. At the same time, the organisers were selective, choosing people on the basis of what they had to sell, and attractiveness to the public, rather than on pure rent.
Artists and Craftspeople
For young artists the Lock workshops offered a rare opportunity to rent space at a low price and provide a possible outlet for retail sales. Cabinet makers, jewellers, potters, repairers of antique furniture, blacksmiths, glass workers and others, had small bays where they could work and where their customers could see the work being done. This is a rare thing in a modern London, bereft of industry, where goods arrive in plastic bags from remote galaxies.
Several students who had known each other at college, Hornsey School of Art, Camberwell and elsewhere, came together, moving into Camden Lock as a kind of postgraduate annexe. Three potters from Camberwell managed to save enough to buy a kiln. Rents began at £1 a square foot, so that, by combining, it was possible for beginners to start, but over the years rents rose and became a problem.
Some crafts people made a great success, moving off to bigger premises. Some combined their work with teaching, while others failed and moved into completely different fields of work. Whether they succeeded or failed in the end, it was their energy that gave birth to Camden Lock. A vital group of entrepreneurs and artists had suddenly come together and the place began to buzz.
The jeweller, Sarah Jones, who was to become a member of the Goldsmiths’ Company, and has had successful shops now for many years, began on a stall at Camden Lock. On her first day she took £16 and could not believe her success. Roger Stone, who began in the same way, still has a popular jewellery shop and workshop in the West Yard.
Danny Lane, who now has an international reputation for his abstract glass furniture and sculptures, came to England in 1975 from his birthplace in the USA. He studied at the Central School and took space at Camden Lock. It was here that he began to create his extraordinary furniture which borders on the bizarre. Some of his tables and chairs are made of thick armoured glass with ‘broken’ edges, sandblasted, and supported on legs twisted and distorted like unregarded scrap metal. Powerful, dramatic, ephemeral, comfortable it is not. He moved from Camden Lock to a studio in the disused X ray department of a Hackney Hospital.3
The market opened only at the weekend, allowing the craftspeople to create work in their workshops during the week and open to customers on Saturday morning. During the week, for example, Eric Reynolds built his 30 foot racing yachts in the wooden shed by the canal and, on Friday nights he winched them up to the ceiling to erect market stalls below, ready for Saturday. Glass workers, jewellers, furniture makers, wood carvers, musical instrument makers, toy makers, weavers, makers of scented candles, artists and a hundred other creative people appeared. Suddenly, in a derelict area where a year before you could have sat undisturbed in the middle of the road with your newspaper, there was excitement. Something to see. Some new thing each week. Fresh, alive, different. It was the place to be.
The craftspeople would produce things to see, discuss, buy, an ever-changing shop window. Having shopped, people would need food. The Company decided that food could become a great attraction but it must be of a good quality, well above the standard generally expected in street markets. To ensure that the food stalls and restaurants were of a suitable quality and type, Northside set up partnerships with individual managements. Here they were fortunate in finding June Carrol, who opened Mother Huff's on a shoestring and her food set the standard. She has stayed 22 years, in the Lock and in nearby restaurants and later controlled The Everyman Cinema in Hampstead.
Later came Rose Antoine who has provided vegetarian and organic food, mainly cakes and bread, for many years. Later still Do Bighn, who had escaped on a rice boat from Vietnam, provided authentic North American food. All of these had been carefully selected for quality and their success expanded the Lock.
As the Lock opened only at the weekends, these restaurateurs were free to open shops nearby and the influence of the Lock began to spread down the High Street. They kept a foothold on the Lock but its vitality was spreading. Shops up to the Tube station and beyond, which had been let at peppercorn rents a few years before, slowly became desirable. Thus stalls begot restaurants and many local eating places with neat napery began in far more humble circumstances.
Today people remember their first visits with nostalgia. Before Sunday opening laws were changed, the Lock was the only place open and buzzing. To plan what to wear, arrive in your exotic, stylish dressing-up clothes was the pepper. Mods, Rockers, Skinheads, Goths, Rockabillies -everyone could find their particular fashion. People spent a couple of hours going through the rails of clothes, haggled the price of a jumper down from perhaps fifteen pounds to thirteen and went off well pleased. They looked through the records at Rock On, the shop which stocked the records W.H.Smith banned, and also rare old discs. Tray after tray of 45s and 78s which trace the history of music and pop. They became experts at sliding the record out of the sleeve, holding it against the light to judge the wear, and so hear the damage with their eyes. Rock On stayed until 1996 when rising rent forced it out. At last, feeling hungry, the crowds would move towards the smell of food.
Camden Lock had been opened on 1973 by Jock Stallard, the local MP, with a three-day display of work by craftsmen and a fireworks display on the Monday. Dances, events, concerts, boat trips, performances, charity events, were organised and widely advertised, especially on local radio. These attracted more and more people and with them the cash to make improvements. The buildings were still gaunt and grimy, but the atmosphere was alive. In 1974 the Evening Standard said, ‘Two years ago Camden Lock boasted only a disused timber yard across the road from the Council’s rubbish dump and today -----’.
Dingwalls and the Music Scene
A long, narrow building ran down the centre of the old site. It had been a set of double-storey stables, with a horse slope, or creep, along the side so that horses could reach the upper stables. This has now been converted into the steps by Jongleurs. The fact that the building had very few windows meant that it was an ideal place for making a lot of noise, although its narrow shape was a problem. The stage was at one end and the bar far way at the other end, with dancing in the middle. When you were at the bar it was difficult to know what was going on: if you were near the stage you were gasping for a drink. At one time a TV screen showing the stage was installed, near the bar, but this was still not the same as being part of the action. And action there was.
Opened in 1973, no rent was charged until the dance hall was up and running, but in 1973, Dingwall's was the only venue open in North London, so crowds flocked there. It was the place to be. Of course it was accused of attracting drunks and undesirables, but weathered these standard protests. There is a long, detailed account of the early days of Dingwall’s in ‘The Rock and Roll Years Guide to Camden’, which cannot be bettered here.4
The 7 year lease of Camden Lock had cost £10.000 and development £60,.000 (£250,.000 at 1986 prices). This development was done in stages as the money came in from day to day activities. Fire escapes, lavatories, and other services were necessary, but all building was kept simple and small scale. Thus the atmosphere of a Victorian industrial site being used for a week-end party was retained, largely because there was not the money for a general clearance. The canal boats passing through the lock, mooring in the market, decanting passengers into the centre of the stalls, Children from the Pirates' Club under the bridge, messing about in canoes; the never-ending lines of people on the Diagonal Bridge over the Canal, photographing and photographing and photographing, created its own theatre. People were happy to stand and watch the antics of everyone else, criticise and plan to copy their clothes, their boots, their hair, hats and their unending differences. Lining the processional walls were artists, hair-plaiters, musicians and vendors. This was street theatre with the audience as the actors.
Fashion writers realised this and haunted the place, so that what had been started by a couple of little girls could be on the cat-walks next season. And these fashions do spread. When I was a teacher I had some West Indian girls who had come to England late and found the English winters harsh. To my amusement, they appeared wearing long over-stockings with no feet, in brilliant colours. When I asked, they claimed to have knitted them themselves. The stockings added to the gaiety of the school for several cold months. I doubt if these girls had originated the idea, but certainly they were the first ones I had seen. Within a year the leg warmers were high fashion. Over time one could watch older and older women adopting them, but long before the grandmothers took over, the girls had moved to newer styles.
The Road Blight Removed
When the motorway blight was removed in 1976, British Waterways wanted to erect a huge office block on the site. Office Block frenzy had gripped the architectural scene. The theory was that one could erect tall building with large, open trading floors on a restricted site. Local authorities saw them as a chance to increase their rate income; architects were anxious to gain large, simple contracts; developers saw them as quick loot. New modular buildings were thrown up, corners cut, basic architectural principles ignored and office towers sprouted everywhere. Had British Waterways built their office block, it would have been empty by the 1980s, with its windows blind, like a hundred others. It might never have been occupied at all and the vitality of Camden Lock, which was the only thing Camden Town had in its favour, would have been lost. The whole atmosphere is caught in this quotation.
The Music Scene at the end of the Century
At this time there were a dozen music venues in Camden Town, offering music of all kinds, always changing, starting fashions and creating new followings as the disc jockeys and bands come and go. The variety was bewildering - House, Garage, Hip Hop, Trip Hop, Drum and Bass, Moves and Grooves, Salsa at the HQ, Indie, Funky, R’n’B (Rhythm and Blues) and Jazz. What will future generations make of all these modes and what could older people make of them even then?
Each venue offered a different style and these changed all the time. Indie music used to be Independent Labels later and became Mainstream. Earlier styles came back into favour and Jazz went on for ever. Audiences followed disk jockeys, or were loyal to a particular venue on a particular night, but would not consider going there on another day, for another crowd, or a different style of music. It was a complicated ebb and flow, not controlled even by the moon.
Entertainment at Camden Lock
In 1983, ten years after Jock Stallard had opened the Lock, there was a five week Festival of Entertainment. Midsummer Night was celebrated by a three-day weekend packed with shows and events. Orchestras, dance companies, Royal Opera House workshops; an enormous chess game with human pieces; jazz; street performers; Punch and Judy, and fireworks; a musical entertainment based very remotely on Moby Dick, and the programme illustrated by Hugh Casson.
On another occasion there was a Festival of Clocks., designed by Richard Loan. Camden Lock was turned into an enormous water clock, with the gates set to allow water to run out at a steady rate all day. The time was shown by a giant golden key floating in the dock. The key told the time. It sank slowly with the water level in the dock and, as it did so, it passed a series of keyholes marked with the hours.
A Shadow Clock - a 150 foot banner attached to a weather balloon - cast a shadow over North London, with the time marked on the buildings surrounding the Camden Lock. In addition, The Price’s Candle Clock - a candle 20 feet high - was calibrated to count the night hours.
In Spring 1984, St George’s Day was celebrated with a Fair, backed by Capital Radio 194, and their appeal ‘Help a London Child’. The headline was,
"WHO IS GOING TO TAKE OVER THE WATERBUS?"
and Dr Who arrived by narrow boat in the famous Police box.
The Camden Town Mural
In Spring 1985 there was an enormous mural, 32 feet high and 30 feet across, displayed at the end of Camden Lock Place where it created a sensation. It was shown on Blue Peter but was too large for the studio and had to be shown in pieces. This colourful design incorporated many of the architectural features and styles of familiar Camden Town buildings.
In yet another occasion, The Framework Theatre produced an exotic version of ‘The Birds’, by Aristophanes. A huge, multi-layered set climbed up over the roofs of West Yard. Twelve main actors, thirty birds and twenty-five extras, performed on four successive days at 9 p.m. and at dawn (3.30 a.m.) on Sunday, June 30th. To sustain the audience in the hours from midnight to dawn, there were showings of Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’ and Roger Corman’s ‘The Raven’. As ever at Camden Lock, there was no entrance fee.
At this time the road plans were abandoned. Public protests had been so strong and so many councils had listed important building along the proposed route that the road lobby gave up. The threat of a spaghetti junction at Camden Town had gone.
New Building Plans at the Lock
With the motorway threat removed, and after long negotiations, Northside Developments Ltd signed a 125 year lease, which allowed them, for the first time in seven years, to think well ahead. In 1974 Northside submitted plans to develop the site by demolishing the north eastern corner of the west yard and build 12 two-decker shops with three storeys of flats above on the Chalk Farm Road frontage. The existing craftsmen protested that this would increase their rents by up to 300% with very stringent restrictions attached. Existing tenants could not afford these prices and were in negotiation with another council to move en bloc to another site. The Inquiry Inspector rejected the plans because they would kill a lively area. Northside appealed and submitted a new plan.
This scheme envisaged the restoration of Victorian industrial architecture instead of a modern building. It would be in the blue industrial brick and yellow London Stocks, echoing the design of canal architecture of two centuries earlier. The craftsmen, who had formed their own Committee, proposed their own plan, but both were rejected.
Plan followed plan in a bewildering stream. A dozen combinations were submitted. A combined theatre and puppet theatre; studio flats and small office units above craft workshops; taller buildings, shorter buildings. Every variety can be found in the records, but all were rejected. Seifert, who had built the Pirates’ Bridge and constructed buildings for the British Waterways Board at other sites along the canal, proposed 40,000 square feet of craft workshops, offices and entertainment centres. This aroused particular opposition and the Transport on Water Committee swung behind the existing craftsmen.
Finally, on 22 May, 1981, a much altered plan submitted by Northside, was allowed by Michael Heseltine, against his Inspector’s advice.
Model of the New Building on Chalk Farm Road, set in its site.
The New Market Building
The new building was designed to merge in with the old Victorian industrial scene. Built in yellow London Stock bricks, edged with blue bull-nosed industrial brick, and large factory-type windows, it could have been built a century or two earlier. Everything is solid and built to last for ever. In the centre is a large open space, clear to the roof and lit from above. The ceiling is painted match-boarding and the whole supported on semicircular arches which could have come from some Victorian railway station. But look very closely.
The pillars and the capitals on which the semicircular arches rest are not in cast iron, but in steel. The capitals, which one expects to be in some classical design - Corinthian perhaps, or Ionic - are thick pieces of steel welded to the columns. The arches seem to be riveted together, as the Victorians would have made them, but instead are curved I-shaped steel joists, with ‘rivet heads’ in plastic, glued on. Round the balcony and in the spandrels above the arches are new cast iron panels which are in keeping with the rest. Staircases, outside and in, are copies of Victorian work, very strong, generous in their nature, and good to handle. Floors are in modern ceramic tiles, solid, attractive, hard-wearing and easily cleaned. The building fits in perfectly with the old canal scene, links the existing buildings comfortably with the new and absorbs the thousands of people who pass through each year, easily and safely. Even the outside access staircase is new, but hardly anyone realises this and some will argue fiercely that it has been there as long as the canal.
All this truth did not happen by accident. John Dickinson, the architect, looked round for real Victorian examples of buildings of about the bulk he needed. In West London, where Ladbroke Grove crosses the canal, was a most attractive building which has since been demolished. It was opposite where the new Sainsbury supermarket now stands. The proportions and outside appearance of the old canal building have been echoed in the new Camden Lock building, except that the original had no window in the gable.
The inside of the new Market Hall has been copied from Gas Hall, Birmingham. This was built as a sales department for the Gas Company, but is now a Birmingham art gallery. The Camden Market Hall has the same roof, the same balustrading, and the same filigree spandrels above the arches.
The Chalk Farm Road facade copies the original pillars and heavy cast iron beams of the original building, but the new building is in ferro-concrete, with a brick skin. The pillars and beams are not in cast iron, but in fibre glass. Similarly, the brick arches are not whole bricks, but brick tiles glued to the ferro-concrete beams This accounts for the fact that they are laid like bathroom tiles, with no bonding, as one would find in real brickwork. It seems possible that the building could have been built at the same cost, or even cheaper, using traditional methods and materials. However, this is a time of ferro-concrete building and what we have is a very attractive and efficient pastiche.
Market Hall was opened on 1 August 1991 by Simon Callow, who lives on the Camden Town/Kentish Town border. Lester May, who was the Corporate Director of Cable London, had co-ordinated an exhibition called ‘Camden Town 200’, to celebrate two hundred years of the history of the area - a forerunner of this book - and that exhibition was the first event held in the Market Hall.
The Chalk Farm Road Facade of the Market Hall
The building was constructed in two phases. The first half (shown above) was completed and occupied by the market traders before the second half was started.
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