Muswell Hill, Haringey
An ‘exceptional example of a complete Edwardian suburb’, as Haringey council rightly calls it, situated north-west of its original parent, Hornsey
The topographic feature from which the district takes its name is now surmounted by the Alexandra Palace. ‘Muswell’ is a corruption of ‘mossy well’ and there was a spring here that was reputed to have restored the health of Malcolm IV of Scotland.
Sixty-four acres of the manor of Hornsey were given to the nunnery of St Mary, Clerkenwell, in 1152 for use as a dairy farm. The sisters also maintained a small chapel here and pilgrims visited the health-giving well. The vestry of Clerkenwell’s St James’s church acquired the priory’s farmland after the dissolution of the monasteries.
Following the Hornsey enclosure award, which took effect in 1816, sedate villas began to appear and the growth of the village led to the building of St James church in 1842. However, the relative inaccessibility of Muswell Hill (which persists to this day) protected it from the first wave of suburban development that washed across north London in the mid-19th century.
Neither the opening of Alexandra Palace nor a half-hearted railway connection significantly disturbed the semi-rural serenity, partly because some of the village remained under Clerkenwell’s jurisdiction until the end of the century.
The termination of this anomaly, combined with the sale of several grand houses and their spacious grounds, resulted in the comprehensive transformation of Muswell Hill in the 20 years from 1895. Just two building firms were responsible for almost all the work – which helped endow the suburb with an uncommonly harmonious appearance.
To cope with the growth in the district’s population, a larger St James was built in 1900–2, with the tower and spire following in 1910.
The Ritz and Odeon cinemas both opened in 1936. St James – ‘the Church on the Hill’ – was gutted by incendiary bombs in 1941 and it was eleven years before its restoration was completed.
The Ritz (later the ABC) closed in 1978 and was immediately demolished and replaced by an office block.
The Odeon survived a proposal to replace it with a supermarket in 1981 and was afterwards grade II* listed to prevent similar attempts in future. It is now an Everyman.
Some shops and street furniture were inappropriately modernised late in the 20th century and the council has been working with conservation groups to try to restore lost or damaged features.
With its high property prices, Muswell Hill’s inhabitants tend to be aged over 30 and qualified to degree level or higher. And the retailers, cafés and restaurants – many of them independent – are mostly as refined as one might expect.
Historical residents of interest, if only for their names, include a 17th-century Master of the Rolls called Sir Julius Caesar and the 18th-century bon viveur Topham Beauclerk and his wife, the former Lady Diana Spencer.
Fortis Green favourites the Kinks released their Muswell Hillbillies album in 1971.
Muswell Hill, Torben Betts’s dramatic comedy of acute social embarrassment, premiered across the other side of London at Richmond’s Orange Tree theatre in 2012.