Holmes Road has got to be one of the strangest side streets in our area. Architecturally it’s all over the shop, from its classic 1890s Police Station (designed by Richard Norman Shaw, the man behind the original Scotland Yard) to brutal 1970s council buildings, via a Grade II listed school and a clutch of questionable modern penthouses.
This patchwork planning is the legacy of the area’s strongly industrial roots combined with a feel of perennial neglect, something that the carve-up of the railways and some WWII damage only heightened. But the riot of histories the road has witnessed is, of course, made all the more interesting for it.
It was originally known as Mansfield Place and was one of the first proper rights of way to lead off the main high street back in the 1790s. The reason for cutting out across the sludgy fields was to connect with the cluster of industrial business taking advantage of waters rising to meet the River Fleet at Spring Place.
These included a brewery and a tanners (both subsequently owned by the influential local farming family Holmes), and a rope manufacturer to serve them. The Holmes family also owned the brickworks opposite.
They later sold the land to the Midland Railway who built a series of landmark arches for the local coal depot, something that also brought stables, horses and carts to the area as its industries mushroomed.
Today possibly the most hideous building in the borough (let us know of any personal contenders), Camden’s Holmes Road Depot occupies that spot and cuts off public access to the rest of the old railway land that once saw cattle arrive from the countryside to be driven through the streets to slaughterhouses and livestock market across the manor at York Way.
The Victorian era saw plenty of manufacturing infrastructure arrive that still stands too, from Windsor & Newton’s first Colour Works (at the impressive Spring House) to coachworks and the inevitable presence of piano factories. Opposite Camden’s carbuncle today sits the restored school building that has seen many incarnations and now houses the popular new Lycee Francais de Londres. Vocational education has taken place in the area for decades including laundry lessons for underprivileged girls at the original school right down to rock-breaking in return for a bed at the St Pancras Hostel (main pic).
The hostel featured on the workhouse trail that George Orwell wrote about in ‘Down & Out In London & Paris’. It’s difficult to imagine the squalor of traveling around London to industrial areas like this back then just to get somewhere to sleep, yet modern day Holmes Road still retains plenty of hints towards that gritty lineage.
The hostel building still operates as homeless accommodation today but with thoroughly swish facilities and certainly no rock breaking. Its 1895 frontage sits, in typical Holmes Road style, just next to a more recent steel and glass addition, its place in the checkered history is yet to make any sense at all.
And, with more student accommodation proposed for the current site of the Magnet showroom and its gratuitously large, always-empty car park, wouldn’t it be nice to open up some access to Regis Road once more, and link to the rest of Kentish Town without the 20 minute round trip? Then perhaps Holmes Road would finally lose its curving backwater feel. Although, of course, the buildings will always hint towards their colourful past.
Words & Pictures: Tom Kihl