Highgate Newtown: A distinctive community with a hidden history
- Credit: Archant
Highgate Newtown is hard to pin down. Modernist utopia or architectural aberration?
Walking through the distinctive streets, though. recently featured in hit TV show The Bodyguard, it’s impossible to confuse it with anywhere else.
It’s also clear that the people who live there are big fans of its unique vibe, and a history that’s both present and lost in the mist of regeneration.
The 1960s and ’70s council housing is famous now, and it draws architecture fans from around the world, almost 40 years after it was widely derided.
But the story of Highgate Newtown really begins in the 1850s.
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That was when traditional terraces were built to house the working classes while England’s richest woman lived just up the road.
Catharine Wells, secretary of the Chester Balmore Leaseholders and Tenants Association, wanted to highlight that diverse history.
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Bored of walking past an empty shop unit on the corner of Raydon Street, she troubled the council with the idea of putting up a few old photos, and was delighted when Camden agreed.
Catharine said: “I have been here and part of the Highgate Newtown community for 30 years. The area has seen such a huge amount of change, particularly with the building of social housing [whose architecture] attracts people from all over the world.
“What it means is that some people remember what it was like before, but other people don’t know. Whole streets have been demolished and built upon, and people can live here and not know what was here before.”
To remedy this, the display of archival and family photos spanning Highgate Newtown’s last century was put together, with help from Camden’s Local Studies and Archives Centre.
Fabian Watkinson – who’s lived in the area for 25 years, served on the committee of the Friends of Highgate Library, and also led tours for the 20th Century Society – helped curate a number of display boards that show off a yet more old photographs, which illustrate how people have lived in Highgate Newtown.
He told the Ham&High: “Large swaths of the area were developed between the 1850s and 1870s with two- to three-storey housing designed for the working classes.
“By the ’60s those houses were what’s termed ‘at the end of their useful lives’. They didn’t have indoor toilets or damp courses, for example.”
This, of course, is when Camden’s pioneering architect Sydney Cook came in.
Cook assembled a team of boundary and taste-pushing architects, and their work can still be seen throughout the borough. Houses in Winscombe Street became the prototype for the celebrated Neave Brown’s later work across Camden, too.
Fabian explained: “It was some of the most innovative council housing in the world.
“What Cook was determined to do was show you could build enough houses without doing high-rises. And he was also building to a very high standard.”
Catharine said the images were a fascinating insight into how life has evolved in the area.
She said: “There are people still living here who lived here before the new housing. And then the one photo I love is the one of Brookfield Stud. It belonged to Baroness Burdett-Coutts, ‘the richest heiress in England’.”
The philanthropic Baroness lived just beyond the northern edge of what is now Highgate Newtown.
Catharine continued: “She provided money which helped support building the school which was on the site of the modern community centre.
“The Brookfield Stud was her husband’s joy, and it’s a lovely photo of what was here before.”
Asked what defines Highgate Newtown, Fabian explained: “There’s always been such a sense of community. We’re surrounded by Highgate, and then Dartmouth Park, both probably some of the most sought after areas in London.
“Highgate Newtown has, because of the social housing, retained a diverse social mix, and everyone comes together at places like the community centre or the library.
“Marking this was a good way of recognising what’s special about the area.
“It’s so distinctive, but where it is – between the main roads – can make it easy to miss.”
The exhibition will continue at the empty shop unit on Raydon Street until it is fitted out, which will not be before the end of January.