Walking the streets of Kentish Town and Camden Town, a theme begins to emerge: brick buildings with huge square windows. You might also spot the occasional ghost sign advertising an industry the area has lost. These particular neighbourhoods in north London were home to the world's piano making industry. We went to track down what remains.
We started at Kentish Town's northern tip, where we got our first sight of the geometrically rigid windows on Highgate Road. While we can't confirm quite what piano factory or warehouse was here, we highly suspect it.
Slightly less obvious to the naked eye — we might have obliviously wandered straight past it — is the old home to Piano Warehouse. They've moved to Willesden Green, but had been in Kentish Town since 1985 and just down the road in Camden before that.
We then sauntered over to the parallel Fortess Road, to find some obvious signs of pianos. First we spotted The Piano Works, which is now... drumroll please... luxury apartments. It used to be home to the piano makers T & G Payne who began there in 1891.
Just across the street, we saw another remnant of the piano universe. It's the photo atop the article and is now a jewellery store. The store was founded as Phelps Pianos in 1895 and it outlived so many of its compatriots, lasting over 100 years. It was the close proximity of so many piano related stores that had The Piano Journal describing Kentish Town in 1901 as:
that healthful suburb dear to the heart of the piano maker
We headed deeper into Kentish Town looking for further piano evidence (unfortunately sans piano-themed soundtrack). Eventually we came to Perren Street; there we found a little off-shoot from the cul-de-sac, which now houses trendy looking businesses. Some of the workers at said businesses looked a little bemused as we angled our camera at their windows. If only they'd understood it was their giveaway giant windows we were interested in.
This building used to be home to Imperial Works, who were known not only for their pianos but also organs. The alleyway in the photo was purpose built for the pianos to be lowered onto from the factory and transported away.
From there we went closer to Chalk Farm, where we spotted more telltale windows on Belmont Street. Another former piano factory, again living its days out as office space.
By this stage we'd entered Camden Town proper. Looking down among the food stalls buzzing with tourists along the canal, it's hard to imagine this was the beating heart of the piano industry. The canal is what made the area such a good fit for pianos; bulky creatures as they are, barge was often the best way to transport them. The other option was by rail — another facet that the area was privileged with: both Chalk Farm and Gospel Oak stations were well connected to the rest of the country.
We then found our favourite former factory of all. On Oval Road we found the past home of piano makers Collard & Collard, a building that dated back to 1852. In the middle of the building was a well, so that pianos could be hoisted to different floors. Now it's... offices (sorry if this is getting a little repetitive, we feel the pain too).
From there it was onto The World's End by Camden Station — we felt the need to specify as there's definitely a few of them out there — for a pint or eight. Ok, so that's a joke, but there is a good reason we stopped by this fine establishment on our journey. Back in the interwar period, the pub had a different name: Mother Redcap. It functioned as an informal labour exchange for piano workers; if you were looking for a job this was the place to be.
From there we traveled to one last piano themed spot. On Bayham Street, lies Hecksher & Company, the work of German immigrant, Siegmund Hecksher. He moved his business here at the start of the 20th Century and it lasted up until 2014, when the area's last connection to the industry was destroyed.
Bayham Street was a fitting spot for our journey to finish. Just off it is a churchyard where one Charles Dibden rests. Dibden was a famous musical performer and on 16 May 1767, he performed London's first ever demonstration of a piano. So it ended where it all began.