The former heartland of London’s Irish community, now more multicultural, located north-west of St John’s Wood and Maida Vale
Kilburn’s name comes from a stream (which could have been ‘cold bourne’, ‘cow’s bourne’ or ‘King’s bourne’) that formerly constituted the upper part of the River Westbourne.
Kilburn Priory was founded in the twelfth century on the site of a former hermitage and the Red Lion, which was said to date from 1444, may have begun life as the priory’s guest house. The settlement grew as a minor halt on the London to St Albans road, with coaching inns built to serve the travellers along the stretch of Watling Street that is now Kilburn High Road. A medicinal well was discovered near the Bell inn in the early 18th century and a pleasure garden was laid out in imitation of the one at Hampstead.
After abortive attempts at estate building in the 1820s, the large houses and farms that had previously lined the main road were demolished to make way for terraces of houses, the first of which was built in 1850 after the opening of Kilburn station on the London to Birmingham line.
At the same time, villas for the upper middle classes were built on the former estate of Kilburn Priory. Outlying areas like Brondesbury, Shoot Up Hill and West Kilburn were developed from the 1860s. A number of private schools opened, including one run by AA Milne’s father, which the writer attended, as did HG Wells and the newspaper proprietor Alfred Harmsworth. The district became poorer later in the century, the schools closed, large houses were subdivided or took in lodgers, and a variety of immigrants began to move here, especially the Irish. Kilburn became a popular place for public entertainment and entrepreneurs established several variety theatres.
When the Gaumont State opened on Kilburn High Road in 1937 it was Europe’s most capacious cinema, with 4,000 seats. Adorned by a 120-foot tower, the cinema’s external styling – and its name – paid homage to New York’s Empire State Building, which had been built at the beginning of the 1930s. Like many of London’s grandest old picture houses, the State later became a bingo hall and is now home to an evangelical ministry.
Much of the present housing in Kilburn is the result of slum clearance programmes in the 1930s and the replacement of bomb-damaged properties after the Second World War. Municipal authorities built several estates of flats into the 1970s and Irish settlers were joined by West Indians, Indians and Pakistanis.
Not so many years ago, Kilburn High Road was named the ‘Music Mile’ by the London Tourist Board, with Irish and country music the main specialities, performed at pubs like Biddy Mulligan’s.
Nearly all these establishments have now gone and the Music Mile is no more, although several pubs still have an Irish flavour and/or clientele. The Tricycle Theatre is the district’s leading cultural venue.
Only 5 per cent of Kilburn’s residents are now Irish and many of these are of the older generation; the black African community is larger and – in the Brent half of the district – so is the black Caribbean community. Geographically, Kilburn is shrinking as estate agents choose to market its fringes by other names; such as Maida Vale, West Hampstead, Brondesbury or Queen’s Park.