I got to know Primrose Hill in the 1970s when I shared a flat for four years on nearby Haverstock Hill. During that time I had a temporary job as a van driver for theatrical costumiers Cosprop who occupied the former boys’ home on the corner of Regent’s Park Road and King Henry’s Road. A couple of minutes away was Chalcot Square which was as appealing then as it is today.
Setting the scene
The square sits between the railway line, out of Euston, and Primrose Hill, with the Regent’s Canal to the south. Together with Adelaide Road they contain the residential district of Primrose Hill. Today it’s a sought-after neighbourhood and known for a sprinkling of celebrity residents but in Victorian times and through until the 1970s this was a working-class neighbourhood. Passing steam trains, train sheds and the nearby goods yard meant residents had to combat the dirt. “It was so dirty from the trains that took an hour or more to get up steam.”
Before the 1830s this was an area of open fields and country lanes, with Primrose Hill a popular visitor attraction for a trip out from London. One of the only buildings in the area was the Chalk Farm Tavern. Today you will find the Greek restaurant Lemonia on the site it occupied in Regent’s Park Road.
Much of the hill and land to the west and north was part of the Chalcots Estate owned by Eton College. Land to the east of Primrose Hill was owned by Charles Fitzroy, 3rd Lord Southampton, and formed part of his London estate that stretched from Fitzroy Square to Highgate.
Everything changed as a consequence of the building of the Regent’s Canal between 1812 and 1820, followed in the 1830’s by the arrival of the London and Birmingham Railway. The rail company needed a corridor of land to lay the tracks that connected Birmingham with Euston. Lord Southampton sold them a corridor of land at the southern section connecting Chalk Farm with Euston.
Once the railway had arrived, Lord Southampton took what Martin Sheppard describes as an “unusual and radical step”. He sold off most of his London estate, which included 200 acres of freehold building land, with the sale taking place over three days in August 1840.
The sale attracted huge attention and it was on the third day that the land between Primrose Hill and the railway was sold off in freehold lots. The land was bought at an average cost of £300 per acre which today is equivalent to £2,400. As buyers already knew of plans for Primrose Hill to become a public park, the plots nearest the park were more expensive and it was in 1842 that an Act of Parliament preserved the hill as a public park.
There had been ideas that this would be an area of villas sitting in their own plots, but the larger houses were located on the more sought-after plots near the hill and Regent’s Park. The arrival of the railway meant railway workers and their families needed homes and, with an ever-increasing population, other streets were lined with terraces of Victorian houses.
Chalcot Square is a pretty residential square, in the heart of Primrose Hill. In the centre of the square is a public garden, with a children’s play area. Surrounding the garden on all sides are Victorian houses, painted in shades of white, pink, green, blue and grey. It’s a charming and colourful place to sit for a while on a sunny day.
The houses in the square were built between the late 1840s and 1860s, and the oldest of them are numbers 8 to 11 on the south side of the square. The square was named St George’s Square and it kept that name until 1937 when London County Council decided to cut out duplicate names in London. St George’s Square in Pimlico kept its name and the square in Primrose Hill was renamed Chalcot Square. Chalcot was a well-known name in the area because of the Eton College Chalcots estate and a farm of the same name.
Consisting of four or five storeys, the houses are designed in the Italianate style characterised by:
- Overhanging eaves
- Hipped roofs
- Pediments above first floor windows [triangular or semi-circular]
Who designed and built the houses? I can’t find any information about the architects and builders and with the libraries closed because of Covid further research is on a pause button. If you know, please contact me.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s Osborne House on the Isle of Wight is an example of Italianate style and was built at the same time as Chalcot Square.
Not long after the square was built its new residents made their presence known when they appealed to the licensing authorities not to renew the entertainment licence granted to the nearby Chalk Farm Tavern. The noisy entertainment included music, fireworks and acrobats and the residents objected both to the noise and to the bad characters who were attracted to the Tavern.
Today, homes in Chalcot Square and the surrounding area are expensive. It’s a sought-after area but in Victorian times and through until the 1970s this was a very mixed community with houses split into flats and providing homes to several families or being used as lodging houses. One resident, whose account of living in the area is recorded in Primrose Hill Remembered, describes the mix of residents in the 1950 as “labourers, writers, railwaymen, lorry drivers, actors, tradesmen, builders, skilled craftsmen and technicians”.
Houses in the square, like houses in neighbouring streets, were often houses of multiple occupation. At number 36, before and after WW2, there was Turner House which was a Church Army hostel for blind women. When nearby St Mark’s Church was bombed, members of church used the chapel in Turner House.
During WW2, an air raid shelter was built in the centre of the square and the railings surrounding the square were removed to help the war effort and were replaced by chicken wire. Today, the garden in the square is owned and managed by Camden Council.
In recent decades Primrose Hill has attracted attention for its celebrity residents and Chalcot Square has been home to several well-known people, including the poets Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. They rented a three-room flat at the top of 3 Chalcot Square between January 1960 and August 1961 and it was in the flat that their daughter Frieda was born. From there they moved to Devon. Sylvia was to return to Primrose Hill, to 23 Fitzroy Road, in 1962 where a year later she took her own life. An English Heritage plaque on 3 Chalcot Square was unveiled in 2000 by Plath’s children. When asked why it did not mark 23 Fitzroy Road, her daughter Frieda replied: “My mother died there but she had lived here.”
Broadcaster Joan Bakewell was a long-term resident of the square until recently and lived at number 20. She sold the house a couple of years ago but remains in Primrose Hill. The Times columnist India Knight was another resident of the square, leaving in 2015 to move to Suffolk.
Playwright and author Alan Bennett once lived in the square where he rented a top floor flat in the late 1960s. It was from here that he moved to 23 Gloucester Crescent, the house which featured in the film The Lady in The Van’. He and his partner are now living, not in the square, but nearby.
Brothers David and Ed Milliband are former residents of the square, having been brought up in nearby Edis Street. They owned a house in Chalcot Square.
I’ve sat in Chalcot Square many times, and last time I had a walk around the benches in the garden to look at the plaques in memory of someone well loved. Take a look; maybe they once lived in the square or in one of the neighbouring streets or maybe like me they visited often. You’ll find a musicologist, a documentary film maker, a lover of books, poetry and Primrose Hill and a kind brother and friend.
- Primrose Hill: A History by Martin Sheppard
- From Primrose Hill to Euston Road, Camden History Society
- Primrose Hill Remembered by Caroline Amy Read, Friends of Chalk Farm Library
- LGA – Primrose Hill London (lyndongoode.com)
- The Story of Primrose Hill | The Shops and Pubs of Primrose Hill (primrosehillhistory.org)
- Plan of the estate in the vicinity of the Regent’s Park &c, being a portion of the freehold ground – rents of the Lord Southampton (bl.uk)
Featured image at top of the page is of NE corner of Chalcot Square, (c) Geoff Boyd, 2021