Somers Town, London
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Somers Town is a district in central London. It has been strongly influenced by the three mainline north London railway termini: Euston (1838), St. Pancras (1868) and Kings Cross (1852), together with the Midland Railway Somers Town Goods Depot (1887) next to St Pancras, where the British Library now stands.
Historically, the name Somers Town was used for the larger triangular area between the Pancras, Hampstead, and Euston Roads, but it is now taken to mean the rough rectangle bounded by Pancras Road, Euston Road, Eversholt Street, Crowndale Road, and the railway approaches to St Pancras Station; that is to say, the area about 200 metres east and west of Chalton Street. Somers Town to some extent overlaps with the parish and district of St Pancras.
St Pancras Old Church is believed by many to be one of the oldest Christian sites in England. The churchyard remains consecrated but is managed by Camden Council as a park. It holds many literary associations, from Charles Dickens to Thomas Hardy, as well as memorials to dignitaries, including the remarkable tomb of architect Sir John Soane.
18th and 19th centuries
In 1784, the first housing was built at the Polygon amid fields, brick works and market gardens on the northern fringes of London. Mary Wollstonecraft, writer, philosopher and feminist, lived there with her husband William Godwin, and died there in 1797 after giving birth to the future Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. The area appears to have appealed to middle-class people fleeing the French Revolution.
The site of the Polygon is now occupied by a block of council flats called Oakshott Court, which features a commemorative plaque for Wollstonecraft. The Polygon deteriorated socially as the surrounding land was subsequently sold off in smaller lots for cheaper housing, especially after the start of construction in the 1830s of the railway lines into Euston, St Pancras and King's Cross. In this period the area housed a large transient population of labourers and the population density of the area soared. By the late 19th century most of the houses were in multiple occupation, and overcrowding was severe with whole families sometimes living in one room, as confirmed by the social surveys of Charles Booth and Irene Barclay. Dickens lived in the Polygon briefly as a child.
When St Luke's Church, near King's Cross, was demolished to make way for the construction of the Midland Railway St Pancras Station and its Midland Grand Hotel, the estimated twelve thousand inhabitants of Somers Town at that time were deprived of that place of worship, as the church building was re-erected in Kentish Town. In 1868 the lace merchant and philanthropist George Moore funded a new church, known as Christ Church, and an associated school in Chalton Street with an entrance in Ossulston Street. The school accommodated about six hundred children. Christ Church and the adjacent school were destroyed in a World War II bombing raid and no trace remains today, the site being occupied by a children's play area and sports court. St Mary Eversholt Street is today the parish church.
Improvement of the slum housing conditions, amongst the worst in the capital, was first undertaken by St Pancras Council in 1906 at Goldington Buildings, at the junction of Pancras Road and Royal College Street, and continued on a larger scale by the St Pancras House Improvement Society (subsequently the St Pancras & Humanist Housing Association, the present owner of Goldington Buildings) which was established in 1924. Its founders were Church of England priest Father Basil Jellicoe and Irene Barclay, the first woman in Britain to qualify as a chartered surveyor. The Society's Sidney Street and Drummond Street estates incorporated sculpture panels of Doultonware designed by Gilbert Bayes and ornamental finials for the washing line posts designed by the same artist: these are now mostly destroyed or replaced with replicas. Further social housing was built by the London County Council, which began construction of the Ossulston Estate in 1927. There remains a small number of older Grade 2 listed properties, mostly Georgian terraced houses.
In the 1980s, some council tenants took advantage of the 'right to buy' scheme and bought their homes at a substantial discount. Later they moved away from the area. The consequence was an influx of young semi-professional people, resulting in a changing population.
Historically, Somers Town has contained a number of hospitals, such as Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (144 Euston Road), National Temperance (110-112 Hampstead Road) and the London Hospital for Tropical Diseases (5 St Pancras Way). All have closed since 1980, with the exception of St Pancras Hospital. Its site includes buildings that date from a former life as St Pancras Workhouse, adjacent to St Pancras Old Church. The large red brick building fronting the complex to the north of St Pancras Gardens is still residential, chiefly as a rehabilitation hospital for the elderly. Other buildings house the headquarters of Camden NHS Primary Care Trust. It also accommodates parts of Islington Primary Care Trust, the Huntley Centre (a mental health unit) and St Pancras Coroner's Court.
Major construction work along the eastern side of Somers Town was completed in 2008, to allow for the Eurostar trains to arrive at the refurbished St Pancras Station. This involved the removal of part of the St Pancras Old Churchyard, the human remains being re-interred elsewhere.
Land at Brill Place, previously earmarked for later phases of the British Library development, became available when the library expansion was cancelled and was used as site offices for the HS1 terminal development and partly to allow for excavation of a tunnel for the new Thameslink station. It has now been acquired as the site for the Francis Crick Institute (formerly the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation), a major medical research institute being established by a partnership of Cancer Research UK, Imperial College London, King's College London, the Medical Research Council, University College London (UCL) and the Wellcome Trust.
Charles Dickens knew the area well. The Polygon, where he once lived, appears in Chapter 52 of The Pickwick Papers (1836), when Mr Pickwick's solicitor's clerk, arriving at Gray's Inn just before ten o'clock, says he heard the clocks strike half past nine as he walked through Somers Town: "It went the half hour as I came through The Polygon." The building makes its appearance again in Bleak House (1852), when it served as the home of Harold Skimpole. In David Copperfield (1850), Johnson (now Cranleigh) Street was the thoroughfare near the Royal Veterinary College, Camden Town, where the Micawbers lived, when Traddles, David Copperfield's friend and schoolfellow, was their lodger. In A Tale of Two Cities (1859) Roger Cly, the Old Bailey informant, was buried in Old St Pancras Churchyard. The funeral over, later that night Jerry Cruncher and his companions went "fishing" (body snatching), trying unsuccessfully to 'resurrect' Cly . Robert Blincoe (1792–1860), on whose story Oliver Twist (1838) may be based, was a child inmate at the St Pancras Workhouse.
A number of significant films have been set in Somers Town: the 1955 Ealing comedy The Ladykillers with Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers; Neil Jordan's Mona Lisa of 1986, featuring Bob Hoskins; Mike Leigh's 1988 film High Hopes; Anthony Minghella's 2006 romantic drama Breaking and Entering starring Jude Law and Juliette Binoche; and in 2008 Shane Meadows's Somers Town, which was filmed almost entirely in and around Phoenix Court, a low-rise council property in Purchese Street.
Somers Town has a flourishing street market, held in Chalton Street every Friday. The START (Somers Town Art) Festival of Cultures is held on the second Saturday in July, on the site of the market. It is the biggest street festival in the Camden borough and attracts about 10,000 people, bringing together the area's diverse cultural communities.
The children's charity Scene & Heard is based in Somers Town. It offers a unique mentoring project that partners the inner-city children of Somers Town with volunteer theatre professionals, providing each child who participates with quality one-on-one adult attention and an experience of personal success through the process of writing and performing plays.
There are two secondary schools in the area, the Roman Catholic co-educational Maria Fidelis Convent School FCJ in Phoenix Road, and the state Regent High School in Charrington Street. Regent High School was established in 1877 and has gone through several name changes, more recently as Sir William Collins Secondary School, then as South Camden Community School. Somers Town Community Sports Centre was built on part of the school playground. The building is leased to a charitable trust that is jointly managed by the school and UCL (UCL is based a few hundred metres to the south of Euston Road and is a major employer of local residents). It is used for 17% of available hours by UCLU's sports teams for training and home matches and for recreational sport by UCL students. As part of Building Schools for the Future plans to expand the school, it is probable that the sports centre will be reintegrated back into the school campus.
There are also three primary schools: Edith Neville (state), St Aloysius (state-aided Catholic) and St Mary and St Pancras (state-aided Church of England). The latter has been built beneath Somerset Court, four floors of university student accommodation units.
- Camden Town to the north
- Euston to the west
- King's Cross to the east
- St Pancras to the south-east
- Bloomsbury to the south
Vehicular through traffic is not heavy, and is confined by traffic calming and other measures to a few north/south arterial throughways.
The nearest London Underground stations are Mornington Crescent, Euston and King's Cross St. Pancras. National Rail services operate from the nearby London King's Cross, London St. Pancras and London Euston stations. St. Pancras International is terminus for Eurostar services and was the London terminus for the Javelin fast train service to the London Olympic Park.
- John Arnott (1799–1868), Chartist leader and poet, lived at 8 Middlesex St, 11 Middlesex Place and 1 Equity Buildings (now Walker House, Phoenix St), died in St Pancras Workhouse
- Sir James Bacon (1798–1895), judge and privy councilor, born at 10 The Polygon
- Andrés Bello, (1781–1865), Venezuelan poet, lawmaker, philosopher, and educator lived at 39 Clarendon Square, later at 9 Egremont Place
- Natalie Bennett, Green Party of England and Wales leader.
- Maria Caterina Brignole (1737–1813), Dowager Princess of Monaco, Princess of Condé, fled the French Revolution, buried in St Aloysius
- Nell Campbell, actress and singer, lived in Charrington Street while appearing in The Rocky Horror Show
- Guy-Toussaint-Julien Carron (1760–1821), French priest who fled the French Revolution and established the chapel of St Aloysius and other institutions in the area, lived at 1 The Polygon
- Charlie Charles (1945–1990), drummer for The Blockheads, lived in Charrington Street
- Joe Cole, England footballer
- Louis Joseph de Bourbon (1736–1818), Prince of Condé, counter-revolutionary leader who fled France
- Jean François de La Marche, Bishop of St. Pol de Léon (1729–1806), priest who fled the French Revolution, buried in St Pancras churchyard
- Samuel De Wilde (1751–1832), portrait painter and etcher, lived in Clarendon Square
- Charles Dickens (1812–1870), lived at 29 Johnson (now Cranleigh) Street for four years, then moved in November 1828 to 17 The Polygon
- Francis Aidan Gasquet (1846–1929), Cardinal, Librarian of the Vatican, scholar, was born there
- Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Mary Shelley) (1797–1851), most famous for her novel Frankenstein, was born at 29 The Polygon
- William Godwin (1756–1836), Enlightenment philosopher, lived at 25 Chalton Street (from 1793), at 17 Evesham Buildings (in Chalton St, from 1797) and at 29 The Polygon (1797-1807)
- John Gale Jones (1769–1838), English radical orator, lived at 10 Brill Terrace (now Coopers Lane) and 32 Middlesex Street
- George Lance (1802–1864), painter, lived in Phoenix St
- Samuel Mitan (1786–1843), engraver, lived and died at 8 The Polygon
- Sidney Richard Percy (1821–1886), one of the most prolific and popular landscape painters of the Victorian era, lived at 11 Johnson Street in 1842
- Antonio Puigblanch (1773–1840), author of The Inquisition Unmasked, London, 1816, lived and died at 51 Johnson Street
- Mary Ann Sainsbury (1849–1927), businesswoman, wife of Sainsbury's supermarket chain founder John James Sainsbury. Born at 4 Little Charles Street (now St Joans House, Phoenix St); her family's shop was at 87 Chalton Street from 1863. In 1882 it became part of the Sainsbury chain.
- Edward Scriven (1775–1841), pre-eminent engraver of his generation, lived and died at 46 Clarendon Square
- Benjamin Smith (1754–1833), engraver, lived and worked first at 21 Judd Place‚ then at 65 Ossulston Street
- Fred Titmus (1932–2011), cricketer, lived at 13 Bridgeway St
- James Tibbits Willmore (1800–1863), engraver, lived at 23 The Polygon
- John Wolcot (1738–1819), as "Peter Pindar", the most prolific and successful burlesque poet of the late 18th century, lived and died in Latham Place (now part of Churchway)
- Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797), writer and philosopher, died at 29 The Polygon
- William Wordsworth (1770–1850), major Romantic poet, Poet Laureate, lived at 15 Chalton Street in 1795
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