St John’s Wood was once part of the Great Forest of Middlesex with the name deriving from its mediaeval owners, the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem (Knights Hospitallers), an Augustinian order. The order took over the land from the Knights Templar in 1323.
After the Reformation and the Dissolution of monastic orders, St John’s Wood became Crown land, and Henry VIII established Royal Hunting Grounds in what became known as Marylebone Park.
Until the end of the eighteenth century, the area was agricultural.
St John’s Wood represents the first example of suburban residential development in Inner London having been built up in the 1820s and 1830s largely on land owned by the Eyre family since the thirteenth century. The original pattern included individual villas as well as more traditional terraces and thereby reflected a departure from the dense urban development typical of London up to that time.
St John’s Wood was once a part of the ‘Great Forest of Middlesex’, a dense oak forest that extended north-west beyond London. Some street names in the present day St John’s Wood have origins in the early history of the area: Barrow Hill is mentioned in a Saxon charter of AD 986, a name which may derive from the old English word ‘baeruwe’ meaning a grove or wood; and a priory near what is now Abbey Road was attached to the Abbey of Westminster.
At the time of the Domesday Book in 1086, the area lay within the ancient Manor of Lilestone (now Lisson). In 1238 the Manor was given over to the Knights Templar and in 1323 bestowed on the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem – hence the present name of St John’s Wood.
The land around St John’s Wood remained forested throughout the medieval period. However, after the dissolution of monastic orders in 1539, the land reverted to the Crown. Henry VIII established hunting grounds nearby at Marylebone Park (now Regent’s Park) and the trees of St John’s Wood were felled to meet the demand for timber to build ships and royal palaces.
Apart from a strip of land along the Edgware Road that had been acquired by John Lyon in 1574, the land around St John’s Wood remained in Crown ownership until the late 17th century. By the mid 17th century most of the remaining trees had been felled, leaving acres of meadow and grassland to provide hay for the capital’s thousands of horses. St John’s Wood remained, as open fields dotted with a few mature trees, well into the 19th century.
Sale of land in St John’s Wood by the Crown began in the early 18th century. Henry Samuel Eyre acquired the largest portion in 1732 : a 500 acre estate that stretched roughly from what is now Rossmore Road to Swiss Cottage, bounded by Hamilton Terrace to the west and Avenue Road to the east.
The strip of land owned by John Lyon was bequeathed to his foundation at the Harrow School, on trust to maintain the roads between London and Harrow in good repair. The boundary between the Harrow and Eyre estates followed a medieval track that ran through Cunningham Place through Hamilton Close to Greville Road and Priory Road.
The Duke of Portland also owned a small pocket of land to the east between Townsend Road and Portland Road (now St John’s Wood High Street) which became known as Portland Town. The distribution of the land of St John’s Wood amongst these principal estates is shown on the map at Figure 3.
Despite being subdivided in the early 1700s, the land of St John’s Wood remained primarily as agricultural holdings until the end of the 18th century. John Roque’s Map of 1746 shows the land subdivided into small fields to the east of Edgware Road with no development other than a few smallholdings. St John’s Wood Farm lies roughly on the site of St John’s Wood Station, on the corner of the present-day Wellington Road. The route extending south-west from this, leading to Punkers Barn, appears to relate to the present Grove End Road.
It was not until the 19th century that the development of St John’s Wood as we know it today began. Larger institutions were built in the early 1800s, with the Clergy Orphan School being established in 1812, St John’s Wood Chapel in 1813, Lord’s Cricket Ground in 1814 and the Eyre Arms Tavern in 1820. The earliest developments were scattered over a wide area of the Eyre Estate and in more concentrated terraces in Portland Town. The construction of Abbey Road in 1824 and Wellington Road in 1826 were significant catalysts for the area’s development, which was at its height during the late 1840s.
Greenwood’s Map of 1830 shows the earliest development in St John’s Wood. Clusters of terraces appear in Portland Town, along Portland Town Road (now St John’s Wood High Street). Larger villas standing in substantial garden plots are located to the south of St John’s Wood Road and along the Grove End Road. The earliest phase of the Harrow School Estate is starting to appear at the south end of Hamilton Terrace. Lord’s Cricket Ground, the Clergy Orphan School and St John’s Chapel and Burial Ground have also appeared. Between these pockets of development remain substantial areas of agricultural land.
The development of St John’s Wood over the 19th century coincided with an upsurge of interest in gardening; large nurseries were nearby at Maida Vale and the generous gardens afforded scope for display and experimentation.
Development of the Eyre Estate
An initial survey of the Eyre’s land was made in 1794 and plans drawn up to lay out the estate. However, economic crisis and war with France meant the plan never materialized. In 1803 architect John Shaw envisaged a new plan for the estate: a circus of single or semi-detached houses, standing in their own gardens, and a central ‘pleasure ground’. Although war with France again prevented the full implementation of his plan, Shaw’s innovative scheme for pairs of houses or villas set the precedent for what emerged some years later.
In 1809, the first of the Eyre Estate’s villas were built in Alpha Road, Beta and Omega Place. Although sited just to the south of the current conservation area, these early streets were to provide a crucial model, setting the tone for subsequent development of the locality.
In 1811 John Nash was commissioned to devise a scheme for the nearby Marylebone Park (Regent’s Park) which, along with the construction of the Regent’s Canal between 1811 and 1829, provided the stimulus for developing the land of St John’s Wood. Henry Eyre sought to develop his estate as a modest reflection of Nash’s scheme – a rustic housing estate for the middle classes and an elegant suburban retreat that enjoyed close proximity to the capital.
Building was speculative; though the Eyre Estate set a standard by issuing building leases specifying properties must have gardens and be surrounded by walls at least 6 feet high. It was the construction of broad avenues of detached and semi-detached villas in substantial grounds which gave St John’s Wood its distinctive character and established a new model of suburban style.
Development of the Harrow School Estate
Inspired by the successes of the Eyre Estate, development of the Harrow School land began from 182323 onwards. Streets in this estate were named after the School’s governors: the Duke of Abercorn (Abercorn Place), the Earl of Aberdeen (Aberdeen Terrace), Lord John Northwick (Northwick Terrace), Charles Hamilton (Hamilton Terrace), and Revd. J W Cunningham (Cunningham Place). St Mark’s Church, Hamilton Terrace was built in 1845-46 by Thomas Cundy Jr.
The Harrow Estate also set high standards for building development, using the model of semi-detached villas in wide streets seen in the Eyre estate. However, the villa model was so successful that land prices increased so far that building after 1850 reverted to terraces, which are seen around the fringes of the conservation area.
Development of Portland Town
Unlike the Eyre and Harrow School Estates, the small pocket of land owned and developed by the Duke of Portland was not prescribed with such high standards. The lack of quality building speculations in this area led to the development of tightly-packed, low-quality terraces. Portland Town was known for its overcrowded and run-down houses, the antithesis of the leafy suburban character of the rest of St John’s Wood.
The Ordnance Survey Map of 1870 shows the rapid development of St John’s Wood that took place in the mid-19th century. Portland Town has become a dense urban development to the east. The Harrow School’s land has been completely developed, with Hamilton Terrace and Upper Hamilton Terrace extending north. To the north of Abbey Road are new streets with terraces along Carlton Hill and Clifton Hill. Despite this rapid urban development on the fringes of the conservation area, the Eyre estate at the centre has retained its character, with substantial villas and semi-detached houses standing in large garden plots.
The comparatively inexpensive villas, surrounded by large gardens and tree-lined avenues, attracted many who wanted rural calm whilst living close to the city. Many artists, authors, philosophers and scientists made their homes in St John’s Wood.
In 1804 a brigade of the Royal Artillery, originally stationed in St James’s Park, was billeted at St John’s Wood Farm due to lack of room. The whole brigade moved to St John’s Wood in 1810. The barracks site on Ordnance Hill contains buildings of various dates, including the riding school (1824-5) and Officers’ Mess (1921-2); the most recent additions to the barracks were completed in 1972.
J.H.Ahern’s map of c.1827 shows the area as “temporary cottages and gardens”. By c.1850 the land had been developed with terraced houses. The present Estate was built in 1924 under the 1923 Housing Act for the former Borough of St Marylebone as part of a nation-wide programme to build “Homes Fit for Heroes”. The design by H.V. Ashley and Winton Newman made provision of water from a central boiler, for the whole Estate.
Late 19th and early 20th century
The late 19th and early 20th century saw significant changes in the layout of St John’s Wood, largely due to transport schemes that were implemented towards the end of the Victorian period. In 1892 the Metropolitan Railway acquired land through the middle of St John’s Wood to pass a new line into Marylebone. Despite furious opposition, the tunnel was built which caused a scar in the centre of St John’s Wood and initiated the large-scale redevelopment of much of Wellington Road. As compensation for the disruption caused to Lord’s Cricket Ground, they were given the land of the Clergy Orphan’s School by the Railway; the St John’s Wood Burial Ground was also gifted to the public laid out as a garden.
By the turn of the 20th century many of the terraces around Portland Town had become slums and were redeveloped, resulting in the first apartment blocks in St John’s Wood along Avenue Road, Allitsen Road and the lower part of St John’s Wood High Street.
Substantial redevelopment of the Eyre Estate also occurred during the early 20th century, when many of the original 99-year land leases began to expire. Early 20th century redevelopment consisted of large detached neo-Georgian houses and mansion blocks along Wellington Road and parts of Abbey Road and Grove End Road. These did not all relate to the existing scale and changed the character in the centre of the conservation area. The new underground station built in 1939 further encouraged redevelopment of this area.
The 1930s Ordnance Survey Map of St John’s Wood clearly shows the changes that took place during the late 19th and early 20th centuries to leave the area much as it looks today. Large-scale redevelopment has taken place along the southern fringes as well as in the centre of the area, with mansion blocks replacing terraces and Victorian villas. The land is more densely occupied and in some areas, trees and large garden plots have disappeared.
The Second World War also had a significant impact on the area; bomb damage left gap sites which led to post-war development in areas around the Finchley Road where the American School complex stands today. During the War many residents left St John’s Wood to avoid air raids, leaving their properties empty. During and after the War the neglected houses gradually fell derelict. The properties reverted to the Eyre Estate and were subsequently been repaired, making St John’s Wood the desirable residential area that it is today.
Although many of the original houses and gardens disappeared during the 20th century, much of the suburban character remains. St John’s Wood was designated a conservation area in 1968.
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The Rolling Stones referenced St John’s Wood in their song Play With Fire. Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones lived on Carlton Hill, at the northern edge of St John’s Wood, in the 1960s.
St John’s Wood station was opened on 20 November 1939 on a new section of deep-level tunnel constructed between Baker Street and Finchley Road when the Metropolitan Line’s services on its Stanmore branch were transferred to the Bakerloo Line. It was transferred along with the rest of the Stanmore branch to the Jubilee Line when it opened in 1979. With the opening of St John’s Wood station, two nearby stations on the Metropolitan Line were closed. These were Lord’s (which had originally been opened in 1868 as St John’s Wood Road) and Marlborough Road.
The station building is located on the corner of Acacia Road and Finchley Road. The station is the nearest one to Lord’s Cricket Ground and Abbey Road Studios. For this reason Beatles memorabilia are sold at the station.
The platform design remains the same as when opened in 1939, and was designed by Harold Stabler.
The St John’s Wood Conservation Area from the City of Westminster
Gillian Bebbington: “London Street Names”