Like the Kentishtowner, the Canteen is also celebrating its second birthday this autumn; furthermore, it was the subject of my first ever Kentishtowner post – mainly because, the night before, I’d had a really good meal there and wanted to write something.
So it makes sense in the week that we celebrate our birthday to return to a restaurant that, in the light of so many hit recent openings in NW5, now seems quite pioneering. Today, however, we’re not talking about the food. Instead, we want to know: what’s the history behind the impressive building that dominates this upper stretch of Kentish Town Road? And what’s all this about Jack the Ripper?
It was built in 1862 as a police station to house Y (or Highgate) Division, conveniently located next to the Assembly House, a notorious Kentish Town drinking haunt dating back to around 1721. I imagine the pub’s patrons would have inevitably, from time to time, ended up in one of four police cells under the street (now the Shebeen bar). But more interesting is that, according to current owner Wendy, there’s a rumour that ‘the inspector who was chasing Jack the Ripper in the late 1880’s was located upstairs.’
Curious? So were we. But first, let’s rewind further. The police station replaced a row of cottages which in the 18th century was called Hayman’s Row (after the name of the field that lay beneath). Hayman’s was part of a bequest to the poor of St Pancras by a merchant adventurer John Morant way back in 1547, an early example of the duality of wealth/poverty that still exists in the manor today.
The current building took the north side of a large cobbled yard which can still be seen in nearby Leverton Place. Also worth a mention is that on the tip, behind the green glass front currently occupied by an estate agent, is one of the few remaining 18th Century properties in NW5: quite impressive, if you stop to admire it properly, and recorded in James Frederick King’s Kentish Town Panorama as ‘very pleasantly situate [sic], with a commanding view to and fro.’
Fast forward to the mid 1860s. A little research reveals there is a Ripper connection, although the Y Branch wasn’t, in fact, involved in the murders itself. Yet Chief Inspector Frederick Abberline, who was a key figure in the investigation, had been based in Kentish Town for a decade after the Y Division opened, after being promoted to Sergeant in 1865. Eight years later, he was transferred to Whitechapel, and it was his knowledge of that area that led to him being drafted back from Scotland Yard in the late 1880s to oversee the investigation.
And as for our police station? It moved out to Holmes Road in 1896, and then we’re not sure what happened until the 1950s when it became residential and the cells were used as coal depots. By the 1970’s it had been converted into two shops – which later became Ace Sports and, in the 1990s, a small Spanish restaurant Trinanes, owner of a very rock ‘n’ roll 4am licence. Can anyone enlighten us on those years? Local food writer Richard Ehrlich says: ‘It was a peculiar tapas place. I only went there once in all the years.’
Harry from Harry’s Fine Foods fame took over in 2005 with poorly named but critically acclaimed R.E.D (Really Excellent Dining). But when he got ill, and sublet it to a family of Greek Cypriots, the restaurant suffered. ‘It sure went downhill when Harry licensed it,’ remembers Richard. ‘The basement bar was used and abused, very unpopular with the local police and residents,’ adds Wendy. ‘When we bought it, it had not had any maintenance or TLC for several years.’
Which, of course, brings us full circle to the happy present. So from a Jack The Ripper copper to debauched dealings in the mid-noughties, it’s worth pondering such rich history over a mighty libation in one of the three former police cells (the fourth is now used as a kitchen store) – and imagine the interrogations, on both sides of the law, that must have once gone on.
Words and main pic: Stephen Emms
Kentish Canteen is at 300 Kentish Town Road, open all day till 1130 Sun-Thurs, with Shebeen open till 2am Friday & Saturday.