I’ve been reading recently about the importance of local economies, and how money can be kept in them and its benefits multiplied, in the New Economics Foundation Plugging the Leaks programme. I’ve also been reading, courtesy of my local (threatened by cuts library) The Growth of Camden Town: AD1800-2000 by Jack Whitehead.
It’s not the best-organised book of local history ever written, but the passion of the author for this area of London, and the depth of his research, is obvious, and it is a must-read for anyone interested in Camden. The illustrations are also fascinating (although unfortunately only in black and white).
It’s mostly non-political, a narrative account rather than statement of what Whitehead would like to see, but the feelings occasionally slip through: “About 1970, when industry in Camden Town was almost defunct, I cleared out part of an old piano factory… The owner was retiring because of rising rents and falling business. His mews factory was being refurbished and restored as part of an urban renewal programme. This included a new roof of Welsh slates at £3 each. At a time when huge new factories and trading estates were being erected on green-field sites, with roofs in corrugated iron, this inner-city factory was being treated like a stately home and priced out of any future manufacture…. The planners were working to the ideas current at the time. Industry should be zoned away from housing, preferably in a New Town beyond the Green Belt…. With the best will in the world and hoping to improve people’s lives, planners were destroying industry. The same thing was happening all over London… Within a few years the delicate network of local employment was shattered. London, which in Victorian times had been the biggest industrial city in the British Isles, had lost its industry. Instrument making in Islington and Clerkenwell, gunsmiths in Paddington, furniture in Hoxton, metal casting in Bayham Street, brewing in Hawley Street – industry withered or fled.” (p. 59)
And any reader will surely feel nostalgia for the time that Whitehead portrays when Camden was deeply enmeshed in the “real” economy – the economy that fed people (and supplied them with plentiful beer and spirits), provided them with means to entertain themselves (for a time it was a global centre for piano production) and employed the residents of tight-knit communities in huge numbers. And when the canals – with the relatively green and clean transport, were a major route for goods into London.
It’s all pretty hard to imagine today, when ordinary terraced houses can easily fetch a million pounds or more, when the majority of workers are forced to commute to work across London or beyond, and when cars rule on too many streets and HGVs are a regular sight on tight historic roads. And the pictures show how much was lost – the Aerated Bread Company fine factory on the corner of Camden Street and Camden Road, which had supplied traditional tea shops, bakeries and grocers all over London.
Yet it could have been worse – Whitehead records the damage done by “motorway blight”, when the plan was to build a six-lane motorway, cutting off Hampstead Heath, a continuation of the already-built Westway, the environs of which provide full display of the damage that would have been done.
Not to say Whitehead’s past is rose-tinted. He makes good use of oral history, particularly in his account from a young boy growing up in Parkway in the Twenties: “I remember The Jersey Cow Company started a refinery in Park Street Camden Town in the 1920s and they used to sell off their skimmed milk. You had to be there between six and seven in the morning and you could buy a pennyworth. That was quite a treat and my Mum used to ask me to go for it. That and the stale bread, so I had two calls to make… I had quite a hectic time of it before school and I was only about seven I suppose.” (p. 97)
But Whitehead also covers more recent developments – the history of Camden Lock market, the (again threatened by cuts) Pirates Club and many other Camden landmarks – with particular detail about The Roundhouses’ industrial, commercial and artistic history. It’s a good reference for when you wander past a building a think “wonder what that was?”