Kentish Town, Camden
A tarnished but characterful district situated north of Camden Town, primarily residential but with some commerce and industry
The district’s name is of obscure Saxon or Celtic origin and is more likely to have been related to a man called Kentish than to the county of Kent.
The settlement evolved as a ribbon development on the road to Highgate and there is some evidence that it moved northwards to its present location, having first begun near St Pancras Church – indeed it may be that St Pancras and Kentish Town were originally one and the same place. William Bruges lavishly entertained the Emperor Sigismund at his country house in Kentish Town in 1416.
In the 17th and 18th centuries highwaymen made the surrounding area notoriously dangerous. Their attacks became so frequent that a group of vigilantes was formed for the protection of travellers.
The antiquarian Dr William Stukely was one of several men to seek out a rural retreat in Kentish Town in the mid-18th century. Later in the century the introduction of regular coach services, operating on improved roads, made Kentish Town increasingly convenient and it benefited from a pleasant setting beside the Highgate tributary of the River Fleet.
Lord Nelson is supposed to have lived for a while at the Castle Inn, “in order to keep an eye on the Fleet.”
As late as 1840 this was still a half-rural village with a community of artists and engravers but it was almost entirely built over during the following 30 years. Its popularity was aided by a London doctor who praised the healthy air and clean water – calling Kentish Town “the Montpelier of England” – and came to live here himself. Mary Shelley, however, condemned the place as an “odious swamp.”
The last grazing land disappeared in the 1860s, when a station opened near the Bull and Gate coaching inn, forming a convenient transport interchange. Underground stations opened at South Kentish Town (now closed) and Kentish Town in 1907.
During the first half of the 20th century parts of the district became run down and the council cleared the first set of dilapidated properties in the early 1930s.
Plans for aggressive redevelopment were tabled after the Second World War but a milder version was implemented and by 1960 the middle classes were beginning to rediscover Kentish Town.
Today the population is a typical inner-north London mix of blue-collar workers and young professionals, along with some better-off owners of refurbished Victorian properties. Community groups continue to press for improvements to Kentish Town Road, which television news presenter and long-time resident Jon Snow has described as “one of the slummiest high streets in London.”
Men begin in Kentish Town with £80 a year, and end in Park Lane with a hundred thousand. They want to drop Kentish Town; but they give themselves away every time they open their mouths.
Professor Higgins in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, 1912
Postal district: NW5
Population: 13,417 (2011 census)
Stations: Thameslink and Northern line (Kentish Town, zone 2); London Overground (Kentish Town West, zone 2)
Website: Kentishtowner (exceptionally good and updated daily)
Further reading: Martin Plaut and Andrew Whitehead, Curious Kentish Town, Five Leaves, 2014
and Gillian Tindall, The Fields Beneath: The History of One London Village, Eland, 2011 (reissue of a splendid 1977 study)
See also: Maitland Park