Dusty Springfield to Doris Lessing: A dive into West Hampstead history

Authors Marianne Colloms and Dick Weindling

Authors Marianne Colloms and Dick Weindling - Credit: Dick Weindling

A new book chronicles West Hampstead’s development and profiles its motley residents, from Dusty Springfield to Doris Lessing, filling yawning gaps in local history.

Its co-authors, historians Dick Weindling and Dr Marianne Colloms, are themselves longtime locals whose 30-year collaboration has produced a corpus of nine books and several blogs.

For their latest book, Streets and Characters of West Hampstead and Cricklewood, the writing duo conducted five years of research, scouring the British Library’s digitised newspaper collections.

The records in the database date back to 1800, which enabled a level of historical detail that was difficult to obtain when the last street-by-street history of West Hampstead was compiled 29 years ago. 

Dick, 78, has described the new book as “a complete rewrite, from the beginning” – not an updated edition of its forerunner – and said that the character-driven accounts are what sets it apart. “We were very interested in the people that lived here as well as the streets,” he said.

The various biographical sketches in the book stitch together lesser-known facts about well-known people. For instance, soul singer Dusty Springfield, who is commonly associated with West Hampstead, is revealed to have moved to Maida Vale shortly after being born.

“By the time her father registered her birth, the family had already left the street they were living in,” Dick said. “She was here only for a short period of time, unfortunately.”

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Other high-profile residents to have briefly inhabited West Hampstead include Cherie Blair, who bemoaned the decrepit bedsit she occupied while studying for the bar, and Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, who was evicted due to his crying infant son. Both lived in Weech Road. 

Some notables came from afar, ensconced themselves in West Hampstead and never left. Among them are two Nobel laureates: Polish-born nuclear physicist Sir Joseph Rotblat and Iranian-born British-Zimbabwean novelist Doris Lessing.  

The roll call doesn’t skip over the more eccentric figures, like the Irish-born courtesan Laura Bell, who was feted by a string of wealthy lovers until a religious awakening led her to pursue a devout and charitable life. In her later years, she donated generously to charities with ties to Emmanuel Church. 

For local history buffs, these vignettes come as a rare treat. Kim Morris, manager of West End Lane Books, said: “We often get people coming in looking for history books of West Hampstead, of which there are very few.”

Streets and Characters of West Hampstead and Cricklewood at West End Lane Books

Streets and Characters of West Hampstead and Cricklewood at West End Lane Books - Credit: Soobin Kim

A stack of freshly printed copies arrived recently at West End Lane Books and was placed by the till. All but two had been snapped up by Friday evening, with orders shipped to Scotland, Austria and the United States. 

Dick anticipated the book’s widespread appeal. “It’s definitely not restricted to just people who live locally,” he said. “We think it’s open to quite a massive audience, anybody who’s interested in London history.” 

Though its pages somewhat resemble a phone directory, the book is slim and portable enough that curious readers can carry it in their hands as they amble from street to street and time-travel to meet West Hampstead’s bygone residents.  

The book is the first of a two-part set by the authors and covers the area north of the Jubilee line. A second volume covering the area south of the Jubilee line will be released in 2022.  

The Camden History Society will host a book talk with the two authors via Zoom on Thursday, November 18.