Hidden London

Somers Town

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Camden

Sandwiched between Euston and St Pancras stations, Somers Town (pronounced ‘summerstown’) has been transformed several times in its 200-year existence. At the end of the seventeenth century John Somers, Lord Chancellor and later Baron Somers of Evesham, acquired the local freehold. The arrival of the New Road (now Euston Road) improved access to the area and in 1793 Frenchman Jacob Leroux leased land from the Somers family for building. His scheme was not as profitable as he had hoped because war and recession forced down the value of property, and the neighbourhood soon acquired ‘shabby genteel’ status. Refugees from the French Revolution bought some of the houses. 29 Johnson Street, now Cranleigh Street, was the home of the young Charles Dickens when it was newly built in 1824.

The construction of the great railway termini in the mid-nineteenth century brought thousands of labourers, while many residents were displaced by the clearance of four acres for St Pancras station and the subsequent establishment of a goods depot in 1875. Some were resettled in homes built for them by the Midland Railway. The depot’s site is now occupied by the British Library. The massive red brick building, designed by Colin St John Wilson, opened in 1998 after years of controversial delays, replacing the historic reading rooms of the British Museum. Inside it is more inspiring than one might guess from the rather brutal exterior. In front of the library is a large piazza, with a bronze statue of Isaac Newton and an amphitheatre that is occasionally used for outdoor events. Most of the streets behind the library are now filled with late twentieth century council housing. The residential mix is multi-ethnic, with an especially strong Bangladeshi presence.

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The forecourt of the British Library

In 1830 Somers Town saw the first ever Metropolitan Police fatality when PC Joseph Grantham was kicked to death while trying to break up a street fight. In 2004 Somers Town became London’s first ‘good behaviour zone’ in a scheme introduced by Camden council, using powers under the newly introduced Anti-Social Behaviour Act.

Postal district: NW1
Population: 12,490 (St Pancras and Somers Town ward)
Further reading: Malcolm J Holmes, Somers Town: A Record of Change, London Borough of Camden, 1985

The British Library

Brewer's London Phrase & Fable

 
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