Gospel Oak

Gospel Oak, Camden

A socially polarised locality known to some as ‘Hampstead Bottom’, occupying the void between Kentish Town and Hampstead

geograph-4897114-by-Julian-Osley - Elaine Grove - Gospel Oak

Gospel Oak’s name derives from a tree under which a host of leg­endary fig­ures are said to have preached, includ­ing St Augus­tine, Edward the Con­fes­sor, John Wes­ley and even St Paul. The tree marked the bound­ary between the parish­es of Hamp­stead and St Pan­cras.

The gospel oak van­ished some­time in the mid-19th cen­tu­ry. The uncer­tain­ty as to exact­ly how and when this occurred cor­re­sponds with the mytho­log­i­cal nature of its his­to­ry.

Gospel Oak was just start­ing to be devel­oped as a some­what under­priv­i­leged sub­urb when rail­ways seared through in all direc­tions.

From the 1850s com­pact ter­raced hous­es for the low­er mid­dle class­es were built on land belong­ing to the Church Com­mis­sion­ers in the west and to Lord Mans­field and Lord Southamp­ton to the east.

The dense pat­tern of build­ing left no room for green­ery, except at Lis­more Cir­cus. One writer com­plained that “in Oak Vil­lage [shown in the pho­to­graph below] there is not a sapling of that stur­dy rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Eng­lish hearts to be found.” The Mid­land Rail­way Com­pa­ny even sup­pressed the tra­di­tion­al Gospel Oak East­er fair.

Oak Village
Oak Vil­lage

Two remark­able church­es were erect­ed in 1865 and 1901: St Martin’s on Vic­ars Road – just across the tracks in Ken­tish Town – which archi­tec­tur­al his­to­ri­an Niko­laus Pevs­ner called “the cra­zi­est of London’s Vic­to­ri­an church­es,” and All Hal­lows on Sav­er­nake Road, which Pevs­ner reck­oned a mas­ter­piece.

By 1924 Gospel Oak had descend­ed to “shab­by gen­til­i­ty on the very brink of squalor,” accord­ing to John Buchan in his Richard Han­nay nov­el The Three Hostages, although oth­ers recog­nised “a com­mu­ni­ty at ease with itself.”

Much of the dis­trict was rebuilt with low-rise coun­cil flats in the 1960s and 1970s. Stud­ies have revealed many forms of depri­va­tion and the area has since been the focus of regen­er­a­tion spend­ing on rebuild­ing and com­mu­ni­ty projects.

The most impres­sive project has been the rede­vel­op­ment of the Bac­ton low rise estate beside the rail­way line south-east of Lis­more Cir­cus. This has been hailed as “a superb exam­ple” of regen­er­a­tion done well and “as some­thing of a mir­a­cle in a cli­mate when new-build coun­cil hous­ing has seemed impos­si­ble for so long.”

In gen­er­al, how­ev­er, Gospel Oak remains notable for the sharp con­trast between its rent­ed flats and own­er-occu­pied hous­es, and the area is poor­ly served by ameni­ties.

Ian Matthews, of Fairport Convention and Matthews Southern Comfort, released the solo album Journeys from Gospel Oak in 1974. Sinéad O’Connor’s six-song EP Gospel Oak (1997) featured a cover photograph of the railway bridge.

Comedian and television presenter Michael Palin moved into a terraced railway cottage in Gospel Oak in the 1960s and subsequently bought two neighbouring properties and knocked them all into one. He has planted a new gospel oak at Lismore Circus ‘pocket park’.

Postal districts: NW5 and NW3
Population: 11,264 (2011 census)
Station: London Overground (zone 2)
* The picture of Elaine Grove at the top of this page is adapted from an original photograph, copyright Julian Osley, at Geograph Britain and Ireland, made available under the Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic Licence. Any subsequent reuse is hereby freely permitted under the terms of that licence.