Queen’s Crescent, Kentish Town, was laid out in 1862. It is named after Queen Victoria and was on the route in her carriage to take the air at West End Lane, West Hampstead. Its western side, near Chalk Farm, is residential while the eastern side is lined with businesses.
The second Sainsbury’s, and more
Queen’s Crescent (QC) witnessed early developments in what was to be a major chain of supermarkets. In 1872 John James Sainsbury (1844-1928) opened his second shop, at no. 159. The first shop, selling butter, milk and eggs, opened in 1869 at 173 Drury Lane (its site is now in Camden) and was an immediate success. Sainsbury, a dairyman, had recently married his wife Mary Ann. They moved to QC in 1872 upon the birth of their second son; the area was far less central than now and noted for its fresh air. Given these advantages, they moved into the flat above no. 159 in 1873. Sainsbury is said to have started his business with £100 of savings and capital, estimated at £14,067.65 in today’s money. In the same period a shop assistant might have earned £15 p.a., roughly £2,100.
John James Sainsbury, Andysmith248, CC BY-SA 4.0
By the end of the 1880s the Sainsburys had no fewer than three shops on QC. No. 159 sold butter, milk, eggs and cheese, a shop at 151 opened in 1875, specialising in bacon and ham, and the third branch opened in 1884 at 98. Another property, at 94, was recorded in the 1881 census as hostel accommodation for six youths, aged fourteen to eighteen. They worked as “shop men” in the three stores and “egg lads” were employed to “bark” about the shops’ wares. The three shop managers competed with each other for stock and working hours were very long, possibly over twelve per day.
The business expanded rapidly and, with the development of bulk buying, a large warehouse and wholesale depot were needed by the 1880s; John Sainsbury built these in Allcroft Passage, situated at 90 Allcroft Road almost opposite 159 QC.
The depot remained when the company headquarters moved to Stamford Street, Blackfriars, in 1891. They moved again, to Holborn (also in Camden), in 2001. Although Sainsbury’s had left QC by 1962, the doorstep of 159 was inscribed ‘J. Sainsbury’ until replaced in the early 2000s (see photo in the Camden History Society publication in Sources).
When no. 159 was closed, a slot machine, known as a “mechanical cow”, is said to have dispensed milk for customers inside the doorway.
Going to market
A small street market started in 1867 on Malden Road, very near QC, but in 1876 existing traders were moved to QC when electrification works, replacing horse-drawn trams, were undertaken on the market’s site. In 1893 there were 44 food stalls and 19 non-food stalls; 13 of the stalls were kept by shopkeepers while the rest belonged to independent traders.
Queen's Crescent is Camden’s only existing street market to have started during the era of police regulation, 1867 to 1927. Apart from the police’s role, licensing and regulation only covered the size and spacing of pitches.
Many of the stalls have been passed from generation to generation; this is not the case with other Camden markets, which attract tourists far more. With capacity up to 90 stalls, QC Market is noted for its sense of community, a place where locals can meet and chat. Reviews call it “a great place to buy”, among other items, fresh fruit and veg and fresh bread. The goods available represent the area’s vibrant multicultural variety, including treats such as “Chinese tea eggs and dim sum, freshly baked focaccia bread and authentic jerk chicken straight out of the drum” (Tripadvisor).
Historically, there was stiff competition for pitches and shop owners increased their selling space by taking stalls. Sainsbury did so himself: a whistle was blown to mark the start of each day’s trading, and he employed a man to be there very early in the morning so as to secure a place in the market for him. Unsold meat would be sold off cheaply and noisily after the market closed at midnight on Saturdays before WWII; otherwise, before universal refrigeration, it would not keep. An elderly woman, selling live eels, used to decapitate them in front of customers; she was still remembered by locals as recently as 2006.
Fruit and veg display, QC, Paul Guest 2022
Where’s the beef (and the pork)?
Kentish Town was once a major centre of the butchery trade. In 1914 there were eight butchers alone on QC, selling for instance “hot baked sheep’s heads, sets of brains, cowheel, hot faggots and pigs’ trotters 3d [threepence] a feast”. Over a period there were no fewer than 33 such shops. Three of them were owned by companies: the North-Western Meat Company (no. 58), until 1940, the International Meat Co. (66) and the Metropolitan Meat Co. (90), both attested in 1912. No. 66 was shared with the World Tea Co., while 74 belonged to Rayner and King, well-known pork butchers (later, Rayner Ltd), who had a formidable array of pigs’ heads in their window (see photo in the Camden History Society publication in Sources). The last specialist butcher’s shop, D Cole (at no. 74 later), only closed in 2005. Meat is sold at five general food stores on QC.
Apart from butchers, there were once two grocer’s shops – Walton, Hassell and Port (no. 100), part of a chain, and Lipton’s (161) – and two baker’s, owned by A B Hemmings (163, 167). There are two supermarkets on QC now. One of them, very large, stocks a wealth of unusual South Asian products as well as fresh fruit and veg. Its stock includes a range of products from Patak Foods Ltd.
From a Queen’s Crescent kitchen…
Patak’s was founded in 1957 by Gujarati Brahmin Laxmishankar G. Pathak (spelling changed to match pronunciation), who lived on QC with his wife Santagaury, four sons and two daughters. They had come to London from Kenya with a mere £5 (roughly £107 today). Unable to find Indian food locally, he and his wife started making authentic Indian sweets and snacks from their own kitchen, for sale to the local Indian immigrant community; the business soon spread across London. They had to leave, however, in 1962 following complaints about noise and cooking smells. The company is now based in Leigh, Greater Manchester. The Pataks’ far-reaching influence has been both culinary and cultural.
The places to eat and drink
Cafés on QC nowadays offer West Indian, Middle Eastern, Italian and Spanish cuisine, and there’s a Chinese take-away (opening at 5pm). A very spacious café mainly serves traditional English fare. One shop advertises “English & American snacks”. The Sir Robert Peel pub (attested in the 1861 census) stands at the junction of Malden Road with QC. Refurbished in recent years, it is regarded as a community pub. Another pub, The Dreghorn Castle, stood at 157 QC. Its former premises house a restaurant and tapas bar, with a cosmopolitan menu.
The Sir Robert Peel, 108 Malden Road NW5, Ewan-M, CC BY-SA 2.0
Sad signs of times past and present
Alfred Grosch, a native of west Kentish Town, recalled in 1947: “Barefoot, hungry children, clad in rags, were a common sight as they raked over the refuse heaps of Queen’s Crescent, … in search of half-rotten fruit to eat.” While QC is now more civilised, hunger still makes an impact: Queen’s Crescent Community Association (QCCA) has operated a food bank since lockdown began on 23 March 2020. Initially responding to members concerned about shopping, the food bank now faces the challenge of the cost-of-living crisis. Run entirely by volunteers, it is “able to support 60 households, with a waiting list.” Food is donated by two charities, supplemented by individual donations.
QC Community Centre on a Saturday afternoon, Paul Guest 2022
Between early October and early November 2022 food bank use at QCCA increased by 150%; food price inflation rose to 16.2% by October. 57 people visited on 3 November, feeding 150 family members, and some people are visiting more frequently than before. There has also been “a worrying drop in supermarket donations”. An emergency food bank opened at a nearby GP practice in April 2022. These situations are perhaps as sad a sign of the times as those around 1900, which Grosch recalled.
Conclusion: a community continues
Queen’s Crescent is less colourful than in the past. Even so, it still generates a marked sense of community through QCCA, the market, the traditional-style café and the one remaining pub, and offers much attractively cosmopolitan food and drink.
- Sainsbury’s – theundergroundmap.com, sainsburyarchive.org.uk
- The “mechanical cow” – http://sainsburys.lgfl.org.uk/1873.htm
- Streets of Gospel Oak and West Kentish Town (2006), Camden History Society
- QC Market – Wikipedia, https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk, John Richardson, A History of Camden: Hampstead, Holborn, St Pancras (1999)
- History of Patak’s – www.pataks.co.uk
- Alfred Grosch, St Pancras Pavements – Gillian Tindall, The Fields Beneath (2011)
- QCCA and food banks – https://www.qcca.org.uk; “Food bank users go up just as donations go down”, Camden New Journal 10 November 2022; https://www.hamhigh.co.uk/news/21324057.a-lot-people-need-help-kentish-towns-emergency-foodbank/; https://tradingeconomics.com/united-kingdom/food-inflation
I would be happy to offer two walks featuring Queen’s Crescent: “Follow the Fleet!”, 10 stops from South End Road NW3 to QC, and “Kentish Town’s West Side Stories”, 10 stops from QC to Kentish Town Road. For further information please email firstname.lastname@example.org.