The area began developing on the banks of a stream called Kilburn Brook. Back in the 12th century, there was a nunnery, called Cuneburna (earliest recording of its name was in 1134), which is believed to be a reference to either the priory or the stream.
The nunnery is long gone. The same, however, cannot be said for one of Kilburn’s other key links to its past – Kilburn High Road. It may have begun life as an ancient track but it had a pivotal role as a route linking the important centres of Canterbury and St Albans. In Anglo-Saxon times it became known as Watling Street. The priory’s location where the river met Watling Street meant it became a popular resting point for pilgrims.
The major route also encouraged pubs to spring up – notably the Red Lion, the Cock and The Bell Inn. They enjoyed varying reputations, not always good ones, and The Bell was demolished and re-built in 1863.
The Kilburn stretch of Watling Street gradually developed with inns and farm houses. Several houses – mainly on the Hampstead side – were built in the 17th century. Houses were eventually also built on the Kilburn Priory estate and at Kilburn Square. But road conditions were poor, and faced the scourge of highwaymen, and this is one reason why the area remained largely rural until the mid-19th century.
Things improved. By the mid-Victorian period, the built up area of London had reached the southern boundary of South Kilburn and circumstances appeared to be set for for its transformation into a middle-class suburb. Mainly as one of the most important pre-conditions – regular transport services – was already present. A flurry of train stations opened but it was mainly the rapidly improving bus services from the Edgware Road that encouraged development – towards the end of the 19th century South Kilburn was served by over 45 buses an hour!
In the second half of the 19th century, house building expanded northwards. Between 1857 and 1867 local builder James Bailey developed an area around Cambridge Gardens and, later, estates east of Edgware Road emerged. Churches, schools and modern amenities such as street lighting followed. And the area became a thriving commercial centre. By 1909 there were already around 300 shops.
South Kilburn is currently undergoing massive redevelopment. But this is by no means the first time this happened. Over time some of the buildings that went up during the building boom of the 19th century fell into dis-repair. Sites around Alpha Place North and West, and Alpha Mews, were obtained under a Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO) in the 1930s. Later sites in Chichester Road and Canterbury Terrace that suffered war damage were cleared and new blocks of flats built.
By the 1950s the area was formally proposed for comprehensive redevelopment. This was due to be a phased process with buildings that lie within what is now the South Kilburn Conservation Area scheduled for later stages. However, the scheme was not fully implemented leaving many streets in that area preserved as you see them today – Italian influenced and ornate in design and rhythmical in layout with low walls and tall entrance pillars.
But the wider area began to witness major change in what was known as the ‘Greater London Plan’ which called for a reduction of Kilburn’s historic but declining industries – tile making, coach-building, and a railway signal manufacturing among them – and proposals that the factories they occupied be replaced by residential flats.
Development work continued to transform areas of Kilburn throughout the 1960s and 1970s. The South Kilburn Estate was given planning consent in 1959, extended in 1963 and further developed in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Eleven tower blocks that characterise the area were consented and built over that period.
Today’s regeneration process is the latest manifestation of this constant process of change.
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