Chris Wilkins Molloy
An industrial monument
Standing on Regent’s Park Road, on the bridge approach, looking north-east towards Chalk Farm, you will see an industrial conical roof rising above the surrounding buildings. This is the Roundhouse, a cast-iron cathedral of Victorian railway engineering which subsequently became an icon of 1960s and 70s counter-culture. Then in the 1980s it became a white elephant crumbling into decay, before its restoration in the 21st century as a multi-cultural arts and performance centre.
Chalk Farm was originally Chalcot, a manor and farm in the rural hinterland of London. In the 1700s this was a place of fairs, tea-gardens, wrestling contests and pistol-fought duels. However, by the 1830s the metropolis was fast encroaching, and in the 1840s the railway arrived. The area was transformed into one of coal-sheds and warehouse depots.
The London and Birmingham Railway was initially formed to bring goods into London. The Regent’s Canal Company identified this (probably correctly) as a threat to their business interests and blocked the railway company from coming any further into London than the edge of the canal. Thus, a goods station was developed at Camden Town, adjacent to the Hampstead Road and alongside the Regent’s Canal. This became an important depot for the interchange of goods between rail, road and canal. After the London and Birmingham Railway merged with two other companies to form the London and North Western Railway in 1846, Camden Goods Station had to be reconstructed to cope with the huge growth in goods traffic and the new locomotives being introduced. These engines were longer and more powerful than previously, and could not be accommodated in the original locomotive sheds. So two engine houses were now built on either side of the line, a rectangular one for passenger locomotives and a circular one for stabling and servicing the goods engines – the Roundhouse, or as it was then known, the Great Circular Engine House.
The structural form of the Roundhouse was influenced by the limited space on the north side of the railway yard. It was 160ft in diameter and its architect may have been Francis Thompson, who was responsible for the first roundhouse built in Britain, at Derby in 1840 for the North Midland Railway. The Chalk Farm, or Camden, Roundhouse was the second to be constructed in this style. (The Historic England listing nonetheless credits the design to Robert Dockray, who was resident engineer to the London and Birmingham Railway at this time.) The building was constructed of yellow brick, with a slate roof which originally had a central smoke louvre. The roof, rising to a domed apex 67 feet high, was supported on 24 cast-iron Doric columns separating the engine bays, which were raised to the level of the railway by brick vaults.
The Roundhouse could hold 23 engines with tenders, with a great 41ft turntable in the centre, on to which the engines were run to be turned into their bays. There were 24 tracks altogether, the 24th being for entry and exit from the building. Inspection and cleaning pits were located under the bays, all connected by tunnels beneath the goods yard.
However, the further evolution of railway technology had made the Roundhouse obsolete by the end of the 1850s. Locomotive engines became longer again, and just as with the original sheds of the Camden Goods station, the Roundhouse and its turntable could not accommodate their turning and storage.
Roundhouse to warehouse
The building soon became a warehouse for various goods. Eventually, Gilbey’s, the wine and liquor merchants and distillers, which developed a huge presence in Camden Town in the late 1800s, moved in to use it as a storehouse for whisky and other spirits. They added a wooden gallery to the building to create more storage space.
In 1954 the building was given Grade II listing for being of architectural and historic interest. It continued to be used as a warehouse until the early 1960s, when it was left empty until the lease was purchased in 1964 and handed to an arts group founded by the playwright Arnold Wesker, author of ‘Chips with Everything’ and other plays of English working-class life.
Warehouse to playhouse
Wesker’s dream was to create an open access arts centre for all, called Centre 42, with a theatre, concert hall, cinema, art gallery, library, dance hall and restaurant under one roof. Centre 42 was named for Resolution Number 42 of the Trades Union Congress conference of 1960, which called for greater participation of the trades union movement in the arts. Wesker, as founder-director, had “the aim of finding a popular audience for the arts, not an audience for popular art, as was its frequently mistaken description”. Obviously, the Roundhouse as an ex-engine shed cum warehouse was going to require a huge amount of money to convert to arts usage. The building was plastered with posters advertising the public appeal for funds – at least £590,000 was required towards refurbishment and initial running costs. Only part of this amount was raised so the Roundhouse began to be rented out for different events to raise more – for example, 1966 an ‘All Night Rave’ was advertised to launch a new underground paper, the International Times. The event saw the debut of at least one now world-famous band – Pink Floyd – and promised ‘Strip – Trip – Happening’.
The next few years saw the Roundhouse become well-known as a venue for the counterculture of the day – performances by bands such as the Doors, the Jimi Hendrix Experience; deconstructed Shakespeare productions by Peter Brook’s company; conferences such as the Dialectics of Liberation attended by figures such as beat poet Allen Ginsberg, anti-psychiatrist RD Laing, Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael – and a then 16-year-old student who now sits on the CTGA Board of Directors. My lips are sealed!
It was even the venue for the opening run of the infamous revue ‘Oh Calcutta!’ with its integral scenes of male and female nudity. Wesker became very disillusioned with this type of commercial use and withdrew from the project.
The 1970s saw the Roundhouse host hippie, metal, glam rock and punk acts, such as David Bowie, the Ramones and The Stranglers – it became part of the musical education of the youth of the day.
But by 1983 the money had run out and the Roundhouse closed as an event space. Over the next 13 years it became almost derelict despite its listing building status – many different plans were put forward for its future, but all collapsed under either the issue of funding or the difficulties of adapting a listed building. Over the years it now provided an atmospheric location for video shoots and a British-made horror film. Over the New Year of 1991-2 it was also the venue for a week-long illegal rave, with electricity sourced from the nearby railway lines!
Dereliction to resurrection
It was eventually bought by Torquil Norman, a local entrepreneur and founder of Bluebird Toys, in 1996. He set up the Roundhouse Trust to raise funds to create an arts venue. With funding from English Heritage, and grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Arts Council England, refurbishment of the building and the creation of a new annexe took place over the next 10 years, led by John McAslan and Partners, who also designed the new western concourse at King’s Cross Station, with its impressive glass and metal canopy. The undercroft, once used to store ash and cinders from the steam trains, became Roundhouse Studios, a suite of creative facilities such as television studios, recording studios, edit suites and rehearsal spaces, exclusively for the use of 13- to 25-year-olds. The central hub beneath the turntable was recreated as a meeting space and cafe. Above, in the performance area, the ironwork and brickwork were retained but with new glazing in the roof and original lantern to bring in light. It reopened in 2006, and was awarded a National Transport Trust Red Wheel in 2010 to recognise its status as a rare surviving example of an early engine shed.
The Roundhouse is now an art, theatre and music venue with a programme of support for young creatives – finally beginning to realise Wesker’s vision of an arts centre for all.
The London Encyclopaedia – Weinreb, Hibbert et al
A History of Camden – John Richardson
The Buildings of England London 4: North – Pevsner
Featured image at top of the page is the Roundhouse in 2010, (c) R Sones, CC BY-SA 2.0