St John’s Wood

St John’s Wood, Westminster

A plush 19th-century suburb with interwar augmentation, situated on the north-west side of Regent’s Park

St John's Wood High Street
St John’s Wood High Street, in the area for­mer­ly known as Port­land Town, as seen in Decem­ber 2006

The name was record­ed in Latin form (Boscum Pri­oris Sanc­ti Johan­nis) at the end of the 13th cen­tu­ry, when the land came into the pos­ses­sion of the Order of the Hos­pi­tal of St John of Jerusalem. The Eng­lish name was first men­tioned in 1524.

Hen­ry Samuel Eyre, a Lon­don wine mer­chant, pur­chased the estate from the Earl of Chester­field in 1732. St John’s Wood did not evolve in the same way as many oth­er smart parts of Lon­don. Its low-lying sit­u­a­tion, poor­ly served by roads, did not attract gentlemen’s seats and yet the Eyre fam­i­ly were keen to prof­it from its devel­op­ment, unlike more pro­tec­tive and resis­tant landown­ers else­where.

In 1794 the Eyres com­mis­sioned a plan that would have seen St John’s Wood laid out in the same style as the spa town of Bath but this was stymied by reces­sion dur­ing the Napoleon­ic Wars.

To the south of the Eyre estate lay the farm­land and for­mer roy­al hunt­ing ground of Maryle­bone Park, which had lat­ter­ly been leased to the dukes of Port­land. Most of their land was to become Regen­t’s Park but the north­ern tip was built up in the ear­ly 19th cen­tu­ry as Port­land Town, with hous­ing for the work­ing class­es.

West­min­ster city coun­cil bought the plot of land that now forms the bur­ial ground behind St John’s Wood church in 1808, and in 1814 St Maryle­bone vestry built the church itself to accom­mo­date the neigh­bour­hood’s grow­ing pop­u­la­tion. Also in 1814, Thomas Lord’s crick­et ground moved to its present site on St John’s Wood Road.

St Johns Wood church in winter
St John’s Wood church

The Eyre fam­i­ly laid roads across their estate in the 1820s and agreed build­ing con­tracts with a num­ber of small firms, who did most of their work in the 1840s.

Con­struc­tion stan­dards were high and the new inhab­i­tants were bankers, mer­chants and gen­tle­men of inde­pen­dent means. The hous­es had so many ser­vants that mews were need­ed to accom­mo­date the over­flow. Lat­er phas­es of build­ing, espe­cial­ly towards the west, were less exclu­sive.

St John’s Wood was well-served by omnibus­es from the late 1850s, and Marl­bor­ough Road sta­tion opened in 1868.

Port­land Town was rede­vel­oped from the 1890s, with a mix of insti­tu­tion­al build­ings and man­sion blocks, togeth­er with shop­ping parades on the High Street. Else­where, blocks of pri­vate flats replaced many of the ear­ly Vic­to­ri­an hous­es dur­ing the 1930s. A new sta­tion was built in 1939 and opened as St John’s Wood, where­upon Marl­bor­ough Road sta­tion closed.

After the Sec­ond World War the munic­i­pal author­i­ties rebuilt so exten­sive­ly in the north and west that some parts of the for­mer Eyre estate are no longer thought of as being in St John’s Wood. How­ev­er, the sur­viv­ing Vic­to­ri­an prop­er­ties and the classi­est of the flats and man­sion blocks form a charm­ing and pres­ti­gious enclave, which reach­es its acme on Avenue Road.

In the 19th century St John’s Wood acquired various vaguely humorous nicknames, like Apostle’s Grove and the Grove of the Evangelist.

The Hungarian film producer Alexander Korda lived on Avenue Road from 1933 to 1939 and the composer Benjamin Britten lived on St John’s Wood High Street in the mid-1940s. More recent homeowners have included Sir Paul McCartney and the supermodel Kate Moss.

Postal district: NW8
Station: Jubilee line (zone 2)
Website: St John’s Wood Memories (highly recommended)
Further reading: Richard Tames, St. John’s Wood and Maida Vale Past, Historical Publications, 1998
See also: Abbey Road