Wednesday Picture: The Lost Rotunda of Kentish Town

This area’s post-industrial legacy is the cornerstone for much of its unique vibe today. Whether it be a piano warehouse …

This area’s post-industrial legacy is the cornerstone for much of its unique vibe today. Whether it be a piano warehouse turned architect’s office, stable-cum-fashion market or railway arch workshop reborn as hip brewery bar, the bricks and mortar are always there to remind us of what went before.

Yet however sturdy such physical links with the past feel, plenty has been erased too. Staring at the 1905-built former Richard of Chichester Roman Catholic School on Royal College Street, it’s surely the kind of structure that may have flattened a few farm dwellings when it went up, but that imposing frontage, well, it’s the epitome of a solid link to original urbanisation, isn’t it?

Not so. For here once stood a rotunda building of considerable size. A K-Town landmark for the best part of a century, no less. And one with its own story of conversion and reuse too.

Before 1824 there were indeed fields here, but a nice round building was required to house a panoramic painting based around Thomas Horner’s wildly popular sketches of London, which he’d drawn while suspended, battling the elements, atop St Paul’s Cathedral.


The Penny Magazine of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge from 1833 gives a flavour of how fantastic an experience it was to behold not only a rare bird’s eye view of the great city, but a smog-free one.

Mr Horner, a meritorious and indefatigable artist… undertook, at the time of the repair of the ball and cross of St Paul’s, to make a series of panoramic sketches of London, from that giddy elevation. That he might overcome the difficulties which the smoke of the vast city ordinarily presented, he invariably commenced his labours immediately after sun-rise, before the lighting of innumerable fires which pour out their dark and sullen clouds during the day, and spread mantle over this wide congregation of the dwellings of men, which only midnight can remove.

Horner lived for a time in Kentish Town and oversaw the creation of another local rotunda, Regent’s Park’s gigantic Colosseum, in which to display his great work. The project was so ambitious it required the invention of the world’s first passenger lift to take visitors up to a suitable viewing height, but ended in financial ruin and the ultimate demolition of the grand building.

Meanwhile back in K-Town, the local rotunda went on to be used by Camden-based artist Robert Burford as a space in which to paint his own vast panoramas, before public display in Leicester Square.

By 1865 such circular art projects had seen their day, and the Willis Organ Factory took over the rotunda. Right here they built some of the finest organs ever made. Masterpieces of Victorian musical engineering, a celebrated example of which can be found at St Dominic’s Priory on Malden Road.

The rotunda remained all about organs up until 1905, when the existing Richard of Chichester school was expanded, razing all trace of this interesting local landmark to the ground. The school itself was controversially shut down in the late 90s after poor Ofsted reports. The latest incarnation of the site is, somewhat inevitably, private flats.

However, other local rotunda have survived. The one-time piano factory of Gloucester Crescent (left) retains its musical heritage as current home to SSR music production school, while the engine-turning shed turned gin store turned radical arts venue, the Roundhouse, continues to celebrate the many potential uses and advantages of a round building.

There’s even a brand new one, over at King’s Place, home to some great canal-side dining and a thoroughly modern spot from which to enjoy the sensitively preserved links to the past all around King’s Cross. Shame the KT rotunda didn’t make it.

This is box title
Streets of Kentish Town – Camden History Society
Penny Magazine reprint – Google Books
St Dominic’s Priory website

Words: Tom Kihl

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  • John Nicholson

    Such an interesting article about the lost Rotunda. ‘Father’ Henry Willis the celebrated organ builder, now commemorated by an English Heritage blue plaque at 9 Rochester Terrace, NW5, also built the organ at the recently restored St Luke’s Church in Oseney Crescent (itself a magnificent Victorian masterpiece from the early career of Basil Champneys). Lucky that we have 2 examples of the work of such an important Kentish Towner close by to see and hear.

    • Kentishtowner

      Thanks for the additional info John. There’s clearly another Wednesday Picture feature (or more) to be had from the organ-making history of the area alone…