From Medieval times, Primrose Hill was open fields with small lanes running alongside. The land ownership of the area was irregular and largely defined by field boundaries and small streams. The area is primarily located on land owned by Lord Southampton, while land to the north and west was owned by Eton College and to the south by the Crown Estate.
From the 17th century, the Chalk Farm Tavern was located on the site of the current building at No.89 Regent’s Park Road. The tavern was famous for its shooting grounds and large pleasure gardens to the area now surrounded by Berkley Road, Sharpleshall Street and Regent’s Park Road.
It was not until the mid 19th century that extensive development of the area began, in response to the expansion of London as both a trade centre and fashionable place to live.
The first major development was the Regent’s Canal, which linked the Grand Canal Junction at Paddington and London Docks. The completion of the canal in 1820 was followed by proposals to develop Lord Southampton’s land for housing. As with Nash’s development surrounding Regent’s Park, the canal was not seen as a hindrance to development, and an estate was envisaged of large suburban villas with substantial gardens.
The estate was developed in the 1840s after the building of the London and Birmingham Railway in the 1830s. A map dated 1834, shows a railway terminus located at Chalk Farm. However, it soon became obvious that the railway needed to terminate closer to the heart of London, and Euston Square was chosen for the site of the new station.
The railway line extension to Euston had to negotiate a steep incline and consequently, a winch was used to haul trains as far as Chalk Farm. The straight track required for the winch meant the line had to run directly to Euston, necessitating the purchase of part of Lord Southampton’s land. This entailed the repositioning of the northern section of Gloucester Avenue, with a sharp bend west of the canal bridge and a steep curve to the junction with Regent’s Park Road.
In 1840, the Southampton Estate was sold in freehold portions for development. The sale map shows a grand estate consisting of large semi-detached and detached villas located in generous gardens. The
layout reflects the current street pattern of the area and incorporates the sweeping curves of the villa development with the addition of a formal intersection and garden at the centre and retention of the Chalk Farm Tavern gardens. Notably, a number of villas were even planned to address the railway line, which, with the use of winches to pull the trains from Euston to Chalk Farm, was then far less busy or noisy than it was eventually to become.
A number of well known purchasers of the Southampton Estate included entrepreneur builders, wealthy citizens and the Crown commissioners, who purchased between five and six lots in order to form part of the Primrose Hill, which was opened to the public in 1841.
Development of the buildings occurred sporadically throughout the 1840s. During this time, the last remaining strip of Crown land to the north of Nash’s Regent’s Park layout was developed as villas, involving the purchase of small lots of land from various owners of the Southampton freeholds.
A map dated 1849 shows the majority of development concentrated around Regent’s Park and towards Camden Town. Smaller developments had also been completed and included a pair of semi-detached villas
at the north end of Fitzroy Road and a villa terrace at the north end of Regent’s Park Road. The majority of these developments took the form of villa style properties set in their own grounds, or grand terrace compositions with formal landscaped areas. However, this development differed considerably from that shown in the original plans for the area. The houses were much less grand and the pattern of development much denser than had been envisaged.
Notably out of character with the original concept was the incorporation of the small terraces of railway workers cottages to the rear of Chalcot Road.
A map dated 1860 shows that the development of villa style properties had extended westwards along Regent’s Park Road, opposite Primrose Hill Park. Elsewhere, however, the large villas had been abandoned for more formal terrace compositions following a variety of styles. The new layout included symmetrical terraces, St George’s Terrace and Chamberlain Street, a formal square, Chalcot Square, and a sweeping crescent, Chalcot Crescent. The latter is particularly of note as the crescent sweeps gracefully to its east side at the expense of the quality of individual buildings, which are shallow in depth and have small rear garden spaces. Such variety of layout reflects the architectural fashions of the time, whilst the compromises to layout may indicate competitiveness between the architects and conflict between the new landowners.
The importance of the railway grew throughout the 19th century. The winch was abandoned as more powerful train engines were bought into use, large railway sheds were erected alongside Gloucester Avenue and the track area increased in size. A number of businesses were located within easy distance of the railway, with access also to Gloucester Avenue. A notable example is the former “Electric Telegraph Company” complex at No.44 Gloucester Avenue, which includes the house at No.44A Gloucester Avenue. As a consequence of the growth of the railway and associated activities, noise, vibration and smoke pollution increased, at the expense of the surrounding environment. It quickly became apparent that grand villas could not be placed near the railway line and instead, simple terraces were erected in Gloucester Avenue and adjoining streets. It was only in the 1970s, when the railway line was electrified, that the environmental quality of the estate began to improve.
By 1870, the Southampton Estate land had been largely developed. Whilst the wide roads of the villa layout were retained, the density of development, particularly in the later phases, was significantly higher than originally intended, particularly in locations close to the railway line. The Chalk Farm Tavern gardens had been built upon and the large circular garden space to the centre of the estate was lost. Further streets and mews buildings were introduced to the planned layout, such as Kingstown Street (then Fitzroy Place), Edis Street (then Eton Street) and Egbert Street. These later developments were of regular town-style residential terraces. At the rears of these properties, the long villa gardens were exchanged for small gardens backing onto industrial units or stables.
Manufacturing and the arts played a large part in the development of the area. Alongside Camden Town and Kentish Town, the Primrose Hill area became a centre for piano manufacturing. Notable manufacturers included J Spencer and Co, which were located at the end of Egbert Street, John and James Hopkinson, located in Fitzroy Road, and Collard and Collard, located on the corner of Gloucester Crescent and Oval Road.
The area became well known for its association with the arts, and in 1877 a group of 12 artists studios, the “Primrose Hill Studios”, were erected by Alfred Healey to the central block behind Fitzroy Road. The studios have housed a number of famous artists including Arthur Rackham, illustrator, and Henry Wood, conductor.
Other uses incorporated into the area in the 19th century included a boys home, located on the corner of Regent’s Park Road and Ainger Road, St. Marks Church in St. Mark’s Square, Primrose Hill Primary School in Princess Road and various shopping parades to Regent’s Park Road, Gloucester Avenue, Princess Road and Chalcot Road.
In the 20th century, the estate experienced a number of changes. World War II bomb damage required substantial repairs to a number of buildings, whilst others were completely destroyed.
Redevelopment of bomb sites occurred throughout the latter half of the 20th century and included 10 Regent’s Park Road, redeveloped in 1954-6 as a block of flats and studios; Auden Place, former railway workers cottages, redeveloped in 1970 as housing; and Waterside Place, off Princess Road, redeveloped as housing. Other sporadic developments occurred throughout the 20th century.
Source: Primrose Hill Conservation Area Guide, London Borough of Camden