Agar Town was a short-lived area, built in the 1840s, of St Pancras.
From 1789 the area was the private estate of William Agar of Elm Lodge. To contemporaries he was commonly called, “Councillor Agar,” and known as an eccentric and miserly lawyer. In the 1810s Agar fought a desperate battle to prevent the cutting of the Regent’s Canal through his property, although his underlying motive may simply have been to maximise the compensation he received.
William Agar died in 1838 and his widow soon began to grant building leases on part of the estate, while retaining Elm Lodge. The neighbourhood was started in 1841 with Agar’s widow leasing out small plots on the north side of the canal.
The 72 acre site was built of the lowest quality materials on 21 year leases. An area was a population of labourers living in houses they built for themselves, was generally considered a slum. Street names belied the type of area and included Canterbury Place, Durham Street, and Oxford Crescent.
The local vestry failed to provide “Ague Town”, as it became known, with street lighting or cleaning, there was no sewerage.
Charles Dickens described the area as ‘a suburban Connemara … wretched hovels, the doors blocked up with mud, heaps of ash, oyster shells and decayed vegetables, the stench on a rainy morning is enough to knock down a bullock’.
In 1851 one W M Thomas, a visitor to London, described his journey through the area: ‘The footpath, gradually narrowing, merged at length in the bog of the road. I hesitated; but to turn back was almost as dangerous as to go on. I thought, too, of the possibility of my wandering through the labyrinth of rows and crescents until I should be benighted; and the idea of a night in Agar Town, without a single lamp to guide my footsteps, emboldened me to proceed. Plunging at once into the mud, and hopping in the manner of a kangaroo — so as not to allow myself time to sink and disappear altogether — I found myself, at length, once more in the King’s Road.’
Ownership passed to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, who sold it to the Midland Railway “for a considerable sum”. The church of St Thomas, Agar Town, was built on Wrotham Road in 1864, at the very time that the old town was disappearing beneath the tracks and goods yards that accompanied the opening of the Midland Railway’s St Pancras station.
“For its passenger station alone, the Midland Railway swept away a church and seven streets of three thousand houses,” writes Mr. F. Williams, in his ‘History of the Midland Railway: a Narrative of Modern Enterprise.’
“Old St. Pancras churchyard was invaded, and Agar Town almost demolished. Yet those who knew this district at that time have no regret at the change. Time was when the wealthy owner of a large estate had lived here in his mansion; but after his departure the place became a very ‘abomination of desolation.’ In its centre was what was termed La Belle Isle, a dreary and unsavoury locality, abandoned to mountains of refuse from the metropolitan dust-bins, strewn with decaying vegetables and foul-smelling fragments of what once had been fish, or occupied by knackers’-yards and manure-making, bone-boiling, and soap-manufacturing works, and smoke-belching potteries and brick-kilns. At the broken doors of multilated houses canaries still sang, and dogs lay basking in the sun, as if to remind one of the vast colonies of bird-fanciers and dog-fanciers who formerly made Agar Town their abode; and from these dwellings came out wretched creatures in rags and dirt, and searched amid the far-extending refuse for the filthy treasure by the aid of which they eked out a miserable livelihood; whilst over the whole neighbourhood the gas-works poured forth their mephitic vapours, and the canal gave forth its rheumatic dampness, extracting in return some of the more poisonous ingredients in the atmosphere, and spreading them upon the surface of the water in a thick scum of various and ominous hues. Such was Agar Town before the Midland Railway came into the midst of it.”
The displaced Agar Town inhabitants mostly moved to neighbouring districts like Kentish Town.
The name of Agar Town is commemorated by Agar Grove, a road that runs along the edge of where Agar Town used to be, and which was originally called St Paul’s Road. The Agar Grove estate was built in the mid-1960s. It originally consisted mostly of four storey blocks, plus the 19-storey Lulworth House.
After the goods yards became redundant, part of the site was opened as Camley Street natural park in 1984, while Fairview Estates developed Elm Village, a mix of social and private housing.
Sources: Old and New London: Volume 5. Published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin (1878), Lost London by Richard Guard. Published by O’Mara Books (2012)