In the mid 1750s, the New Road (now Euston Road) had been built as an east-west toll road. Part of its function as a turnpike was to allow for the rapid transfer of troops, bypassing the congestion of London. The New Road was also partially designed to be a prototype green belt – containing urban growth on the London side of it.
In the area immediately to new road’s north, there was an inn called The Brill House, standing alone in fields. Not simply a rustic idyll, the pub and the area had been a location for dog fighting and bull-baiting.
Despite the good intentions of the theory of new wide roads limiting urban growth, by 1784, the first housing had jumped the bypass and was being built north of the New Road amid brick works and market gardens. It became known as Somers Town. Somers Town had been named after Charles Cocks (1725–1806), Baron Somers of Evesham. He inherited the land from John Somers (1651–1716), Lord Chancellor to King William III. Other land here was owned by the Brewers’ Company and Skinners’ Company, hence the names for future local streets.
The land of Somers Town was sold off in small lots for cheaper housing. By the time St Luke’s Church, near King’s Cross, was demolished to make way for the construction of St Pancras Station, there were some twelve thousand inhabitants of Somers Town. The area had become especially notable for poorer French Huguenot refugees – less poverty-stricken Huguenots were settling in Spitalfields.
The previously rural Brill House tavern found itself now surrounded by housing at the eastern end of the new road called Chapel Street, where Brill Row met Skinner Street. By 1795, the local streets were fully laid out and the area became a Sunday market called ’The Brill’. Henry Mayhew in the 1850s listed a 300 pitch market at the Brill and on Chapel Street. It was the second largest street market in London after Hampstead Road and Tottenham Court Road. Selling everything from vegetables and meat to clothes and shoes, it was especially noted for the loud cries of the stallholders.
After the late 1830s, the construction of the railway lines into Euston, St Pancras and King’s Cross changed the locality for the worse. Somers Town had never attracted wealthier residents and, squeezed into a smaller space by the 14 acres taken over by the Midland Railway, the area rather than simply being poor degenerated into a slum. The railway company did not offer replacement housing to the displaced – by then largely Irish immigrants. Remaining houses were simply further subdivided, with entire families having to live in one room.
Brill Row itself did not suffer this fate. It was swept away to make space for Midland Road which served the western side of the new St Pancras station. In 1867, about the same time, the Metropolitan Streets Act made market trading subject to regulation by the police. By 1887 the former site of The Brill had been demolished to make way for the Midland Railway Good Depot but by 1893, the market had simply moved slightly west and re-established itself with police approval – Chalton Street Market was described as “comprising 97 stalls on a Friday and 32 on a Saturday selling food as well as clothing and second-hand goods”.
The mark the passing of the name Brill, there is now a new Brill Place laid out at the northern side of the Francis Crick building. This covers the area of a number of former streets with the Brill name.