Alma Street is enjoying its moment in the sun, after another baskingly-hot summer fair (heck, we’re nostalgic already). But what tales lurk behind its well-tended facade?
The street dates from 1856, its name commemorating the Battle Of The River Alma, the first indecisive victory for the Allies in the Crimean War. (History buffs will know that Crimea was considered the first modern war, with daily reports appearing in newspapers, tactical use of railways, and pioneering old Florence Nightingale in the thick of it.)
Gillian Tindall, in her excellent bible of Kentish Town, ‘The Fields Beneath’, talks in detail about Alma Street. Together with the other roads in what is now the rather lovely Inkerman Conservation Area (est 2001), it ‘soon filled up with pianoforte makers, wood engravers, dressmakers and railway workers, all helping to swell Kentish Town’s industrial proletariat, which was now threatening to swamp the middle-class inhabitants.’
Thus the Census for 1861 made bleak reading. What, Tindall wonders, can we conclude from the ‘failed life’ of a retired grocer living with wife (both only 49), unmarried grown-up governess daughter and another daughter aged 10? Did the governess’s wage support the household? In other houses the Census reveals families of 7 squashed in the houses’ limited accommodation. These were the people, Tindall argues, who had fallen through the ‘inadequate security nets’ whilst all around there were relentless attempts to make Kentish Town go upmarket.
So Alma Street symbolized the ongoing struggle between, on the one hand, the poorer and more industrial west, and on the other, what was in Victorian times called New Kentish Town (now Caversham, Gaisford, Patshull Roads et al) and their insistence on creating upper middle class housing to ‘counterbalance’ the less desirable elements elsewhere in the neighbourhood. It’s fascinating that this essential standpoint still thrives today, not just in our manor but throughout London and beyond.
Yet current residents will be pleased to see that by 1898 Charles Booth’s poverty map show the street ‘very decent indeed; two families to a house generally.’
And in the 20th century notable residents abound. In the 1940s composer Phyllis Tate (who wrote The Lodger, based on Jack The Ripper) lived in No.7, and there were biographers, printers and publishers aplenty – even, at No.30, one James MacGibbon, a former communist who during the Second World War passed secret information to Russia that he felt the Churchill government should have shared. (He later joined the Labour Party, becoming a Camden Alderman, and lived on the street until 1971).
And a river runs through it. Several years ago the owners of No.8 dug out their cellar – only to discover the long-submerged Fleet right beneath their house. After all, neighbouring Anglers Lane was once a bucolic fishing spot. Hard to imagine as we stood in the packed festival the other day, queuing in the sun for a local brew.
Words & pics: Stephen Emms
Sources: Streets Of Kentish Town (Camden History Society), The Fields Beneath by Gillian Tindall (Eland). Both available from Owl Bookshop.
Know anything more about Alma Street? Pray tell.