A History Of Camden Town In Five Buildings

Tom Bolton
By Tom Bolton Last edited 40 months ago
A History Of Camden Town In Five Buildings
Photo: Domenico Cirillo

Camden Town has a rich and fascinating past, a railway boom town which fell into a long decline, before being reborn as a cultural nexus. Five of its most famous buildings hold hidden histories.

The Roundhouse

Photo: oatsy40

Camden is the capital of alternative culture and the Roundhouse, a brick circus tent pitched beside the Chalk Farm Road, is its symbol. The Great Circular Engine House was a repair shed, abandoned when trains became too big to fit inside. After a century as a furniture and gin warehouse, it was reborn as an alternative Albert Hall, hosting definitive 1960s events including UFO club nights, the Beatles’ Carnival of Light and performances from the likes of Pink Floyd, The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, The Who and the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

Photo: Michael Reeve

After the latter someone stole Hendrix’s stratocaster, running away with it up Haverstock Hill. In the 1970s the Roundhouse moved into avant-garde theatre, notably Ken Campbell’s nine-hour Illuminatus!, an anarchic, junk-shop conspiracy epic. Punk arrived via the Roundhouse stage in 1976, where The Ramones played their first British gig. Dark and derelict for much of the 1980s and 1990s, the Roundhouse was miraculously reborn for the 21st century and is once more at the heart of Camden life.

The Job Centre

Camden Job Centre, on the tourist-free high street towards Mornington Crescent, looks insignificant. In fact, this was the site of the Bedford Theatre, home of music hall, demolished in the late 1960s. It was the favourite venue of ‘Queen of the Music Hall’ Marie Lloyd, who performed there for forty years, famed for comic songs such as My Old Man Said Follow the Van.

Walter Sickert, who lived round the corner, painted the heavy clothing, smoky atmosphere and alluring glow of the Bedford. In 1910, while singer Belle Elmore performed at the Bedford, her husband Dr. Harvey Crippen was spending his time with a typist from Diss, Ethel Le Neve, who had changed her name to sound more exotic. The Bedford makes a poignant final appearance in 1967 documentary The London Nobody Knows, with presenter James Mason picking his way through its derelict interior shortly before the theatre came down.

The Lyttelton Arms

Photo: Benjamin Willard

The pub opposite Mornington Crescent tube was renamed in tribute to Humphrey Lyttelton, presenter of subversive Radio Four comedy show I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, with its nonsensical game named after the station. It used to be The Southampton Arms, and in the 1920s was not a safe place to be.

The Racetrack Wars, featured in Peaky Blinders, involved Camden and Birmingham gangs joining forces to control racecourse gambling. They soon found themselves in a long-running violent battle with the Clerkenwell Sabini Brothers and their East End allies. Camden’s George Sage led brazen attacks on the Clerkenwell mob and, before long, there were razor attacks across London, shoot-outs in the Southampton Arms, and running battles on the trams. Amazingly, no-one was killed but the violence dogged Camden until the second world war, when horse racing was finally cleaned up.

Royal College Street

Photo: Peter Denton

In 1873, the innocuous terraced house at No. 8 Royal College Street became a symbol of Camden as a refuge for outsiders. Fleeing scandal in their home city of Paris, Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine came to London as lovers. Verlaine had left his wife and children for the teenage Rimbaud, a wild child poet prodigy whose behaviour was deliberately calculated to upset and offend. Having used up the goodwill of his friends by smashing up their houses or trying to poison them, he sought a hiding place in down-at-heel Camden. The pair spent just a few months at No. 8, cutting each other with knives in the evenings for added excitement, before an argument over a fish sent Verlaine storming off to Belgium. The affair ended when he eventually shot and wounded Rimbaud, who followed him over the Channel. Their liaison was brief, but the poets burned a trail through the Camden back streets.

Carreras Building

Photo: James Offer

The edifice now known as Greater London House dominates Mornington Crescent with its astonishing Egyptian Art Deco architecture and black cat-studded façade. It was built in 1927 in the wake, unsurprisingly, of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of Kings, and controversially occupied the Mornington Crescent gardens. The headquarters of the Carreras tobacco company, this was where Craven A cigarettes were made, with their debatable claim to be ‘Good for Your Throat.’

Photo: Matt Brown

Around 3,000 people worked at what was known as the Black Cat Factory, which was a self-contained world, providing food, healthcare and entertainment to its employees. After it closed in 1961, the Greater London Council moved in and the building became unloved. However, it was restored to its deranged glory in the 1990s, and the two black cats guarding the entrance were retrieved and restored to their proper place, looking out over Camden.

Tom Bolton’s book, Camden Town: Dreams of Another London, is out now from British Library Publications.

Last Updated 23 August 2019