The first part of the name Kensal Green was recorded as Kingisholt, the king’s wood, in 1253, and the whole name in 1550. Kensal Green was for long a very remote area, straddling the Harrow Road.
The place was depicted in 1599 as a broad green at the junction of Harrow Road with Kilburn Lane, on the borders of the parishes of Willesden, Kensington, and until 1900, some 144 acres of it formed a detached portion of the parish of St. Luke’s, Chelsea. Its location marked the boundary between Willesden and the then Chelsea & Paddington. It formed part of one of ten (Willesden) manors, most likely Chamberlayne Wood Manor, named after Canon Richard de Camera.
In the 15th century the then Archbishop of Canterbury Henry Chichele (1414–1443), acquired lands in Willesden and Kingsbury. In 1443 he found All Souls’ College, Oxford and endowed it with the same lands in his will.
There was an inn called the ‘Plough’, in the 1780s a haunt of the artist George Morland.
The land north of the green lay in broad strips owned, from west to east, by All Souls College and the prebends of Chambers and Brondesbury. By the 1740s farmhouses of the prebendal estates had been built facing Kilburn Lane and the Plough inn at the road junction. South of Harrow Road a large house stood opposite the Plough and the Red House farther west. A cottage had been built on the All Souls estate by 1800 and another next to the Plough by 1823.
The isolation of this remote district had been greatly increased by the construction of the Paddington branch of the Grand Junction Canal, opened in 1801.
There were two dairy farms in Kensal Green by the early 1800s, which expanded greatly after the 1864 Act of Parliament which made it illegal to keep cattle within the City of London. Although by the late 1800s residential development had greatly reduced the farmland, still in the 1890s many sheep and pigs were raised in the district. One of the farms later became a United Dairies creamery, supplied by milk trains from Mitre Bridge Junction.
After 1814, the green was used as a shooting range by the Cumberland Sharpshooters, a local rifle club. When it was enclosed in 1823 the green was divided up into small plots which were sold as valuable sites at a junction on Harrow Road near the Paddington canal. Cottages, owned by local tradespeople and inhabited by the poor, had been built on all these plots by 1829. A terrace of houses (Kensal Place), had gone up by this year too.
At the turn of the 1830s, Kensal Green was a village with a baker, a grocer, a milliner, a carpenter, a bookmaker, and two general dealers. Barges laden with cargoes ranging from iron and coal to waste paper and gravel were towed through Kensal. This traffic led to the foundation of a brick works.
The General Cemetery Company in 1831 bought fifty-four acres of land for use as a burial ground, and in 1845 the Western Gas Company had opened a gasworks on land (previously the property of Sir George Talbot) with frontages to both the canal and the railway.
The opening of All Souls cemetery in 1832, effectively blocked further building in Kensington parish. The London and Birmingham railway was driven through the Willesden portion of Kensal Green in 1837, cutting off the farmhouses in Kilburn Lane from much of their land.
The two barriers of rain and canal, each for many years traversed from north to south by only one public bridge, extended in approximately parallel courses across the neighbourhood of Kensal Green, and effectively segregated the area between them.
Since 1838 W. K. Jenkins had been speculating in Paddington. West Row, Middle Row, East Row and part of Southern Row were laid out between 1841 and 1851 with small two-storey cottages, many with small front gardens. Laundry work provided the principal source of employment for the inhabitants, many of the men being comfortably supported by the labours of their wives, while others worked at the gasworks. Gipsies sometimes wintered here.
Kensal New Town was built in the Chelsea portion south of Harrow Road with a church (St. John, 1844) and a school (1850) north of it, east of Kilburn Lane. Between 1845 and 1855 building on the Willesden side of Kensal Green extended northward along Kilburn Lane and along the back of the existing houses in Harrow Road as All Souls College leased land to those who had already built on the former waste.
By 1851 Kensal Green was a mixed community, including tradesmen, agricultural labourers, and farmers, two schoolteachers, the curate of St. John’s, the author William Harrison Ainsworth at Kensal Manor House (built on the site of Red House, and demolished in 1939), and people employed at the cemetery.
The Hampstead Junction railway was built north of Kensal Green in 1860 with a station, Kensal Green and Harlesden (1861-73), at the junction of Harrow Road with Green Lane (later Wrottesley Road). The station was moved to Kensal Green (called Kensal Rise from 1890) in Chamberlayne Road in 1873. The population of the Willesden part of the parish of St. John, Kensal Green, rose from 675, housed in 125 houses, in 1861 to 2,138, housed in 264 houses, in 1871. By 1876 Kensal Green was ‘most thickly covered’ and many of the houses were small, consisting of only two or four rooms, drained into open ditches and taking their water supply from butts. Many people kept pigs.
In the 1860s, Kensal Green manor house, situated where Wakeman Road joins Harrow Road, was demolished. Rapid increase in residential development followed, firstly with land west of Kilburn High Road, followed by the sale of Banister’s Farm leading to the development of Bannister Road and Mortimer Road.
The gasworks premises were gradually expanded westward until they eventually occupied all of the land to the west of Ladbroke Grove between the railway and the canal.
With the establishment of schools, mission halls, chapels and churches (St. Andrew and St. Philip in 1870, Our Lady of the Holy Souls in 1882 and St. Thomas in 1889) Kensal Green gradually acquired the usual adjuncts of a Victorian suburb. In 1903, however, Charles Booth, evidently referring only to the area developed by Jenkins, could still state that Kensal New Town ‘retains yet something of the appearance of a village, trampled under foot by the advance of London, but still able to show cottages and gardens; and gateways between houses in its streets leading back to open spaces, suggestive of the paddock and pony of days gone by’. Over 55 per cent of the inhabitants were, nevertheless, classified as ‘in poverty’, and when Emslie J. Horniman presented an acre of ground between East Row and Bosworth Road to the London County Council in 1911 for recreational purposes he stated that there was then ‘no place within a mile or more where children could play, except in the streets, nor anywhere for the mothers and old people to rest’.