Somers Town has a rich and extraordinary history. It has been home to reformers, rebels, world historical figures who cultivated here world-impacting ideas, such as Anarchism and Feminism. It is a place of significant housing schemes, such as the Polygon, the St Pancras House Improvement Society housing, and the two estates, Ossulston and Oakshott Court, both of which adopt a European idiom. Somers Town has been a spirited place – once bustling with markets and pubs. It has also, throughout its whole history, from the 1780s, been a place of migration, drawing in people from across the country, the European continent and the world.
What is lost
Much of what was here in the past is lost: street patterns have changed, churches come and gone, pubs closed, buildings pulled down and new ones flung up. Over the years much has been demolished, sometimes in the name of progress. Old houses, sometimes slums, were cleared away to build better homes. Markets were displaced to extend railway goods yards.
Now change seems accelerated, with the siting here of the British Library, the Francis Crick Institute, the Eurostar Terminal, and soon the British Library Extension, Crossrail 2 and HS2 at Euston, it feels as if Somers Town is to be buried under a layer of construction.
Has less been preserved here than in other parts of our city?
And not through a lack of interest, but because the histories embodied in the fabric here are those of poorer people, migrants and the working classes, those often rendered voiceless.
Somers Town has the misfortune to be situated on what can be called a golden belt, a ring surrounding central London. On this belt, London planning once encouraged a populace of mixed communities, housing catering to all classes. Now, in some eyes, the land appears too valuable, the location too desirable – the belt must have its gold mined. Into Somers Town move venture capitalists with dreams of a new Palo Alto. Global firms eye up high rise investment opportunities. Hotels are built. Institutions grab what they can of land that appears to them underused, underperforming in terms of potential revenue. Somers Town sinks under a dense layer of planning applications that aim at total transformation. But people cling on – and they dream of future neighbourhoods and what changes they might like to steer, not just those that happen to them.
This exhibition delves into past, present and future, looking at how a place changes over time, is made and remade. It assembles some fragments, things found in the streets, in the basements of demolished buildings, in people’s personal treasure troves. Where such locations failed to deliver, we turned to second-hand book dealers, junk shops and online auction sites. Our aim was to find enough lost items to tell the history of Somers Town, from its first settlement as a speculative development to the present transformations. We bring to light the years of markets, trades and transport in the nineteenth century, the descent into slums and their clearance, the provision of high-quality social housing, under the watchword Housing is Not Enough and with a concern for art in everyday life, and the post-war years of decline and dereliction, out of which emerge cultural and social initiatives.
Radicals, reformers and uncommon people
Our themes include radicalism, as we explore the centuries long presence of anarchism, feminism, trade unionism and community activism within these narrow streets; social reform from the Church to public health officials: and rebellion of all kinds, from names that are well known to the uncommon people who still live in our midst.
By Esther Leslie