‘Barefoot, hungry children, clad in rags, were a common sight as they raked over the refuse heaps of Queen’s Crescent market in seach of half-rotten fruit to eat. Drunken women were frequently to be met with at any hour of the day, sometimes with children in their arms…’
No, that wasn’t the front page of last week’s Camden New Journal. Instead it’s a quote by Alfred Grosch, born in 1888, the son of a shopkeeper on Malden Road, from his 1947 autobiography, St Pancras Pavements*.
And since the annual community festival in Queen’s Crescent takes place this Saturday (rather belatedly due to the Olympics), we thought it high time we pondered the roots of a street that divides opinion like no other in NW5.
If you’re a glass half full kinda person, it’s crammed with unexpected delights, from Bangladeshi haberdashers and long-established dry-cleaners to a bargainous bakery and quirky S&S Gift Shop. Stalls heave daily with bowls of exotic gourds, aubergines, papaya, £1 a pop (not to mention avocados). Then there’s Jack and his brood at the daily fruit ‘n’ veg stall (above), Donna’s flowers adding a rainbow of colour by the big green arch. And the smell of Jamaican fried chicken wafts in the air on Saturdays, fish ‘n’ chips from Blue Sea nightly.
But some NW5-dwellers are less positive; it’s a deprived area, with all that that entails. And what’s fascinating is that West Kentishtowners like Alfred Grosch above, according to historian Gillian Tindall, have always mythologised their manor as being ‘rough’. ‘One also senses,’ she warns, in her brilliant book The Fields Beneath, ‘the almost paranoid fear of the respectable tradesman for the class beneath him, and the wish to regard this class as another form of life.’*
At least Queen’s Crescent’s rich history means it can never be forgotten, or ignored. The market street was laid out in 1862, though not developed until a little later. By the 1870s it was in full swing, making it one of London’s oldest street markets (you can even buy a shopper with that on it, NW5-bag fans).
So frantic were its golden years that shops would take additional stalls on the street to increase selling space, and a whistle was blown to mark the start of trading. It would be packed at 8pm on Friday nights, and even at midnight on Saturdays eager folk, with fresh pay packets, would tumble out of pubs to press against stalls selling meat cheaply, or even giving it away, in the days before refrigeration. You can picture the scene: the flicker of an oil lamp, a heavy smell in the air, the riot of the auction…and, most famously, an elderly women perched in the corner with a bucket of live eels, decapitating them in front of customers.
Some more recent history? Enter through the iconic green arch, by the handsome Sir Robert Peel pub, which dates back to 1850, and on your left is a Nisa store that was Woolworths until the 1970s (so comprehensive was the array of shops that there was once even a ladies’ outfitter). To the right is Frank’s Superstore (pictured below, with their Saturday stall outside). Now a brilliant, sprawling indoor bazaar where you can pick up some of the cheapest cash-only goods in NW5, in 1872 it was a bookshop taken over by one Bertram Dobell, who became a literary scholar with, eventually, a couple of further outlets on the Charing Cross Road.
Further down is Studio Prints (right), its original facade still intact (although its logo has now been painted over): founded in 1969, it was run by a trio of artists and reproduced the great masters. Not only that but it was also where Sainsbury’s had set up shop in NW5 much earlier. And it’s about to reopen as a knitting workshop. Its soul seems safe – for now.
In fact, Queen’s Crescent’s history is artier than you might imagine, a fact which lives on in the Parlour Gallery, next door to Bikram Yoga (which also originated on the Crescent) and the stylish New Space Gallery, housed in the architect-designed doctor’s surgery.
One of the more famous shops was Cole Butcher’s, which survived until 2005 but is now, predictably, about to redeveloped into flats. Back in 1914 there were eight butchers on Queen’s Crescent and, according to a Mr G Evans, they sold ‘hot baked sheep’s heads, sets of brains, cowheel, hot faggots…[and] pigs trotters 3d a feast’^.
Now the two main butchers, Abdallah and Al-Kheyrat, are both halal, reflective of the multi-cultural neighbourhood it’s become (we recommend the lamb chops at Abdallah, since you ask). There’s a great Turkish ocakbasi on this stretch (now renamed Merve) and even a thriving mosque (Baitul Aman) just into Weedington Road. And Queen’s Crescent was, of course, where legendary UK brand Patak’s curry first set up shop.
Further along is the recently revamped Queen’s Crescent Library, opened by author Gillian Tindall in 1978 and which is still battling cuts ‘disproportionate to the 20 per cent cuts in opening hours preferred’ by the respondents to Camden’s consultation on libraries last year. But on a lighter note, it’s also where Barry Bowes, an ex-librarian, famously set a raunchy novel in the late 1970s, ‘Between The Stacks’. Yikes.
I’ve lived off Queen’s Crescent for nine years and it’s never really changed. Is it resistant to gentrification? Perhaps. And maybe that’s a good thing; the increase in multicultural shops over the years definitely is.
But the forthcoming revamp of its still reasonably popular twice-weekly (Thursday & Saturday) markets means it’s time to be inspired by its past when casting an eye to its future. Yes, QCCA is looking for a new market manager ‘passionate about food.’ But will improvements finally start to happen? And we don’t just mean artisan bread and cupcake stalls (although they would be nice), but a more thriving, upbeat, entrepreneurial spirit, as befits its history and as there is in Chapel Street (Islington), or Chatsworth Road (Clapton).
So enjoy the festival this Saturday, with its promised art, live music and world food, and here’s to the ongoing revival of NW5’s most underrated corner.