A Brief History of Camden

Apr 5, 2018

The hustle and bustle of Camden Town is an unmistakable icon of London life. Elegant townhouses rub shoulders with brash market tradesmen, a heady mix of Bohemia and Britishness; tradition and modernity. Any history of Camden must, by virtue of its central cultural impact on the capital, be tied into the history of London itself.

Camden has been the home of hawkers and fruit-sellers, rail engineers and linesman, musicians and artists. A place of theatre and art, poets and fashionistas; Camden has long been an ever-present in London’s tourism industry.

The London Borough of Camden is a fairly recent creation, formed officially in 1965 as an amalgamation of Hampstead, Holborn, and St. Pancras.

Camden Town stretches back further, however, and was so named after Charles Pratt, 1st Earl Camden, who began development of the area in 1791.

Originally the lead manor of Kentish Town under the ownership of politician Charles Pratt, it was in the later years of the 18th century that expansion of the estate began.

After the first few houses, Regent’s Canal followed in 1820 and with the influx of new industrial traffic, came a boom in Camden’s business. Wharves and warehouses sprung up along the canal’s path and row upon row of homes sprung up to accommodate the growing population.

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The rail network soon arrived in the mid-1800s. First at Euston, then King’s Cross and finally St. Pancras, bringing a prosperous rail industry to this corner of London.

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With the arrival of industry and improved transport came a mass influx of the associated workforce. Labourers and rail workers flooded the suburb, transforming it from a relatively well-to-do residential area to a heady mix of all cultures and backgrounds.

Almost overnight, Camden’s fortunes had changed. Despite the improving infrastructure, the new population was made up of society’s poorest. Relative to its size, the small corner of London struggled to cope and many houses were left hugely overcrowded.

Despite all this, the area retained a steady mix of more middle-class areas. Large green spaces, well-kept streets and elegant Victorian-style homes were not uncommon in the area, in sharp contrast to the strife and struggle of the poorer slums that surrounded the district in the 19th century.

The most famous of these large spaces were Hampstead Heath and the Highgate Cemetery. The latter of which would become one of the most famous burial spots in the capital, with the likes of Karl Marx, Michael Faraday and George Eliot resting there.

Camden’s eclectic blend of cultures and distances from the centre of London made it a magnet for artists and authors, philosophers and thinkers: George Orwell, Charles Dickens, Marx and Engels, Dylan Thomas and Agatha Christie have all called this borough home over the years. The Camden Town Group of painters, one of Britain’s most important modern art movements, traces its roots back to the streets of Camden.

Theatre, music, food and drinking each held equal importance to the people of Camden. Any street was as likely to have a pub as a dance hall, while gin bars in the area showcased excellent locally distilled tipples.

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Camden remained as much until the canals closed in the early 1970s. The old warehouses and locks found a new lease of life as the Camden Markets.

Now arguably Camden’s top tourist attraction, the bustling market stalls and pavements lined with all kinds of trade attract thousands of visitors a year.

Camden has always been a suburb of evolution; from middle-class estate to rail hub, from bohemian bastion to London’s market capital. The borough has been a place of constant change throughout its history and will likely ever be so, as the face of London continues to evolve around it.

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