From Elysian Fields to Trains and Villas

Posted on 16/8/2023

Averil Nottage gives us a flavour of her guided walk this autumn which will look at the history of the Eton College estate: 

In the first half of the 19th century the Belsize estate, which had good views of the City, was divided up to provide country residences for wealthy Londoners.  The Eton College estate, to the south of England’s Lane and Lancaster Grove, was lower lying and continued to be farmed as hay meadows.

Apart from two former farmhouses on a track known as England’s Lane, the only properties on the Eton College estate were those in the hamlet of Haverstock Hill on the Hampstead Road.  These are shown in the foreground of John Constable’s “View of the City of London from Sir Richard Steele’s Cottage”, which he painted in around 1832.  The simple white cottage, standing on a bank to the right, was set back from the Hampstead Road and shielded by trees.  It was named after Dick Steele, the Anglo-Irish essayist and playwright who temporarily sought solitude there in 1712.  He was knighted three years later.

Opposite the cottage on the painting is the rustic Load of Hay tavern (which was rebuilt and is now the Haverstock Tavern).  Here, gentlemen of the road drew bridle beside the horse block to refresh themselves with a tankard of ripe ale before setting out across country.  Drovers on their way to market left their cattle drinking at the water trough while quenching their own thirst at the inn.  Coachmen heading for Hampstead stopped to refresh themselves, and their horses, before the final ascent. Londoners enjoying a country walk rested in the tea garden.  During haymaking, labourers gathered to tipple and laugh, quarrel and fight, and sing drowsy songs far into the night. 

The substantial brick houses below the inn replaced wooden structures built for Moll King in the 1730s, as David S. Percy explains in his fascinating book about “The Harlots of Haverstock Hill: ‘Moll’ King and her Belsize Houses.”  We don’t know whether these services were still available in Constable’s time.

Below the hamlet of Haverstock Hill are yellow hayfields.  The American writer Washington Irving, who stayed in Steele’s Cottage in the early 1820s, spent many delicious hours lying on the new mown hay and inhaling the fragrance amongst buzzing summer flies and leaping grasshoppers.  Almost all the meadows, as far as the eye could see, grew hay, with overloaded wooden carts rumbling down the road to London to feed the Capital’s horses.  They would return full of horse manure to enrich the soil.  Londoners came to these isolated meadows to fight duels, hold protest meetings and enjoy country walks.

Beyond the hayfields we see the smoky metropolis.  This was largely beyond the New Road, now known as Euston Road.  Constable would probably have seen the buildings of Camden Town creeping northwards, but he was taking artistic licence in showing St Paul’s from this vantage point.

When the Regents Park canal was completed in 1820, farming on the estate became less profitable as hay could be transported cheaply from further afield.  But the Provost and Fellows of Eton College had little incentive to develop the land as they personally profited when farm leases were renewed.  It was only when they saw the benefits of neighbouring housing developments, such as St John’s Wood, that they started to reconsider.

A plan to build Adelaide Road across the estate in the early 1830s was disrupted by the arrival of the London Birmingham railway.  George Stephenson, the engineer who oversaw the project, used pioneering methods to build an iron bridge at Chalk Farm and a tunnel under Primrose Hill with a grand ornamental entrance.  Large crowds came to visit these novel sights.

Gradually houses started to be built near the Hampstead Road.  Samuel Cuming was the main developer and in the late 1840s built villas in the triangular corner of the estate at Chalk Farm between Provost Road and Eton Road.  It took many more decades to build over the whole estate and in the meantime dairies, market gardens and nurseries, as well as an exotic poultry farm and a cricket ground, appeared.  After proposals were made to develop Primrose Hill as botanical gardens or a cemetery, an agreement was reached with Eton College for it to be preserved as a public open space. 

I will cover all these stories, and more, in a guided walk for the Belsize Society on the development of the Eton College estate in the first half of the 19th century. Please do sign up for this walk on EventBrite.