Kilburn, Brent/Camden

The former heartland of London’s Irish community, now more multicultural, located north-west of St John’s Wood and Maida Vale

Kilburn High Road, near the corner of Birchington Road

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 in 1937 it was Europe's largest cinema, with 4,000 seats
The for­mer State cin­e­ma

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.

Postal district: NW6
Population: 29,027 (Brent and Camden’s Kilburn wards, 2011 census)
Stations: Jubilee Line (Kilburn, zone 2) and London Overground (Kilburn High Road, zone 2)
Further reading: Dick Weindling and Marianne Colloms, Kilburn and Cricklewood, Tempus, 2001
* The picture of Kilburn High Road at the top of this page is minimally modified from an original photograph, copyright Stéphane Goldstein, at Flickr, made available under the Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic Licence. Any subsequent reuse is hereby freely permitted under the terms of that licence.