After mid-morning coffee with a friend in Fitzrovia and a mooch in Park Cameras my feet led me to Somers Town, that uncanny zone between Euston and St. Pancras at the heart of the old Ossulstone Hundred.
“I will not declare that those who have not visited Somers Town have missed much. … At every street door women stand gossiping with each other, and others talk out of the windows; while others yet wheel perambulators along the pavements. There is much waste paper and other refuse in the roadway”
A Londoner’s Own London, Charles G. Harper
Written in 1927 Charles G. Harper was clearly not impressed with Somers Town, and neither was James Bone who described the area in his 1925 book The London Perambulator as a “debatable land”.
There were no ‘gossiping street door women’ on Friday lunchtime and I was drawn further into Somers Town by this beguiling remnant of former times, Churchway, that led to the front door of one of the area’s more well-known establishments, The Coffee House on Chalton St.
In the 18th Century The Coffee House had been a popular meeting place for French refugees fleeing religious persecution:
“At this time the coffee-house was a popular place of resort, much frequented by the foreigners of the neighbourhood as well as by the pleasure-seeking cockney from the distant city. There were near at hand other public-houses and places of entertainment, but the speciality of this establishment was its coffee. As the traffic increased, it became a posting-house, uniting the business of an inn with the profits of a tea-garden. Gradually the demand for coffee fell off, and that for malt and spirituous liquors increased. At present the gardens are all built over, and the old gateway forms part of the modern bar; but there are in the neighbourhood aged persons who remember Sunday-school excursions to this place, and pic-nic parties from the crowded city, making merry here in the grounds.”Old and New London: Volume 5. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878
Chalton Street Market is in a post-Christmas slumber. The fabric trader I talk to says January is very quiet. Even so he has his full range of embroidered and sequined shawls and throws on display. I buy one that has been reduced to £2.
Children’s clothes hanging from a metal rail flutter in the wind, a table is laid out with a mound of assorted clothes priced at 50p, loud reggae blares from the Crepe stall. In the 18th and 19th Centuries it had become a centre of small trades:
“At the end of the last century this district, rents being cheap, was largely colonised by foreign artisans, mostly from France, who were driven on our shores by the events of the Reign of Terror and the first French Revolution. Indeed, it became nearly as great a home of industry as Clerkenwell and Soho. It may be added that, as the neighbourhood of Manchester and Portman Squares formed the head-quarters of the emigrés of the wealthier class who were thrown on our shores by the waves of the first French Revolution, so the exiles of the poorer class found their way to St. Pancras, and settled down around Somers Town, where they opened a Catholic chapel, at first in Charlton Street, Clarendon Square, and subsequently in the square itself. Of this church, which is dedicated to St. Aloysius, we shall have more to say presently.”Old and New London: Volume 5. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878.
I turn off Chalton Street into Phoenix Road past Breathless Latex Couture and on into Brill Place. The great antiquarian William Stukeley, famous for his surveys of Avebury and Stonehenge, believed that the name Brill was derived from the Saxon name Burgh meaning high ground or hill, an idea slightly undermined by the fact that the area is relatively flat compared to the nearby high ground of Islington. Stukeley also placed Caesar’s Camp in the area.
Brill Place is all that remains of an area that had been known simply as ‘The Brill’ and had a thriving Sunday market that is said to have drawn thousands of people from the surrounding area. Curiously, there is a reference in Old and New London (1878) to ‘barrows’ on the Brill that ‘were swept away during the formation of the Midland Railway Terminus.’ If this is a reference to ‘barrow’ as in ‘burial mound’, does that mean there are perhaps Saxon and/or prehistoric burial sites under St. Pancras International? The thought is tantilising, after all what drew Stukeley to the site in the 18th Century aside from St Pancras Old Church and the River Fleet.
According to Wikipedia, author Gillian Tindall “has suggested that the lumps and bumps in the fields to the west of the church that Stukeley interpreted as a Roman camp were actually traces of the original medieval village of St. Pancras, before the centre of the settlement moved north to the area now known as Kentish Town.” All we can do now is speculate on this intriguing aspect of the history of Somers Town.
But whether you are seeking out romantic legends, the former stomping grounds of French emigres, a latex suit, or just some pretty fabrics, it is well worth your time sliding along the side of Euston Station for a wander around Somers Town. After all, this is where William Blake saw Jerusalem’s pillars of gold stretching all the way to Marleybone.
Have a listen to this episode of Ventures and Adventures in Topography recorded in November 2009, where we explore the area ‘North O’ Euston’ inspired by James Bone’s book The London Perambulator.